An international coproduction shot in the Netherlands with a combination of American and European actors, this sci-fi mystery includes a provocative central concept and a surprising dose of edgy sexual content. The piece doesn’t work, partly because it seems as if all of wooden leading man Hiram Keller’s dialogue was looped by another actor during post-production, and partly because the story crumbles beneath the weight of too many bewildering plot complications. Nonetheless, Lifespan is beautifully photographed, enlivened by some interesting notions, and filled with arresting images of leading lady Tina Aumont trussed up on bondage gear. So, even though Lifespan is a mess, it’s never boring. When the story begins, American doctor Ben Land (Keller) arrives in Holland to work with a European colleague, Dr. Linden (Eric Schneider)—but Linden kills himself before the two can start their experiments. Undaunted, Ben picks up where Linden left off, while simultaneously investigating the circumstances of Linden’s death. It seems Linden was working on a cure for aging, and that he had advanced to the stage of testing serums on lab rats. Predictably, Linden was something of a laughingstock among his peers, so Ben finds little encouragement among Dutch medical professionals. Instead, he finds Anna (Aumont), the late doctor’s sexy young lover.
In one of the strangest seduction scenes in cinema history, Ben and Anna attend a party where the host walks to the roof of an apartment building and blows an African horn designed to replicate the wail of an elephant, thus triggering vocal responses from pachyderms in a nearby zoo. “That mating call was intended for the elephants, but I got the message,” Ben says in voiceover. “Anna wanted to be alone with me.” After Ben sleeps with Anna, he discovers photos depicting her S&M love life, and then begins using bondage gear with her. (What any of this has to do with the main idea of scientifically eradicating aging is a bigger mystery than the question of why Linden killed himself.) Amid the lab scenes and sexual shenanigans, Ben discovers that Anna is somehow connected to the enigmatic Nicholas Ulrich (Klaus Kinski), who was, in turn, involved with Linden’s experiments. The introduction of this character occasions another truly weird scene, during which Kinski wears a devil mask while going down on a lady friend—until the phone rings, at which point Kinski whines, “Now I’ve lost my concentration.”
Lifespan is a very strange sort of conspiracy movie, meandering into carnal extremes and obfuscating central truths so completely that the actual narrative becomes opaque. Still, the picture has an abundance of skin and a certain amount of style—it’s a bit like the ’70s sci-fi equivalent of some ’90s erotic thriller. Better still, the crisp photography presents European locations well, and the electronic score by Terry Riley has an eerie quality reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s music.