Festival du Nouveau Cinéma: ‘Guilty of Romance’ beautifully depraved

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Guilty of Romance

Directed by Sion Sono

Japan, 2011

In Guilty of Romance, Sion Sono’s female protagonist, Izumi, is established as submissive. This quality permeates throughout the film and especially in the early scenes, she is presented as a docile and obedient housewife compliant to all of her husband’s desires. Sion Sono exaggerates and extrapolates on this quality, building his narrative around submission, masochism and sadism and one woman’s descent into depravity.

Every morning Izumi wakes up, makes sure her husband’s slippers are in the perfect position for him to slip into without a thought and she prepares a lavish breakfast for him. Before he leaves for his long day of work, he hands him a shoe-horn and kisses him goodbye. He leaves the home and she arranges his slippers once again so that as he merely walks into them at the end of the day when he returns to the comfort of his perfect home.

The film subverts expectations of the neglected and unhappy housewife and the source of anxiety in our female protagonist comes less from her oppression than from her husband’s failure to fulfill the needs of her masochistic and submissive personality. He controls and humiliates, but his inability to dominate her sexually leaves her wanting. It is here that her submissive nature leads her down an interesting path, her docility shows no loyalty and she will fulfil her desires to be dominated at any cost. Though hardly an empowering feminist tale, the film takes a refreshing stance on submission. Submission is a quality often associated with femininity but it is not inherently oppressive. A submissive protagonist can actually inverse traditional identification and the audience becomes compliant in a more egalitarian representation. In the case of Izumi, her submissiveness may be destructive but it is also liberating.

This is Sono’s first film in a few years (at least among the ones shown in North America) to use celluloid. As liberating as digital can be, especially with budget and time constraints, the richness of the textures of colour and light here harken to a strong sense of romance. Sono is using this in an ironic way, of course, as his films purposefully negate such straightforward visual relationships. On one hand, we are reminded of the films of Wong Kar-Wai, his visual scheme inspiring romantic longing and desire. On the other, Guilty Romance evokes the excessive visual style of the Italian giallo. Sono similarly blends literary, cultural and social motifs to create a uniquely post-modern vision of the contemporary world.

The film is also interesting for its unique foray into the macabre, a talent that Sono has exhibited over the course of his career. He seems to have an instinctive understanding of the power of the violent image. In another Sono feature, Suicide Club, the opening scene has a row of high school girls line up and jump in front of a train. The mystery as to why so many youth so promising and hopeful would implode haunts the rest of the film. In this case, the death is far less public. In the red light district, in an abandoned apartment complex detectives investigate the mysterious and gruesome death of a sex worker. Her body split into pieces and attached to a mannequin: her head is missing entirely. The public nature of one group of deaths and the private one of the other being ultimately significant in Sono’s absurd and critical reflection of modern world.

Guilty of Romance may not be Sono’s strongest effort, but it is a significant step up from his previous film, the hateful and dull Cold Fish. It is a compelling journey into a depraved and misunderstood world, and in true Sono form, he subverts just about every aesthetic and moral expectation we may have from his scenario and characters. The film probably has the most interesting female characters in any Sono film (except maybe Exte:Hair Extensions), each fulfilling different aspects of a wider female form and suggesting an ultimate division in our psychology and physiological make-up.

Justine Smith

The Festival Du Nouveau Cinéma – October 12 – 23 – Visit the official website

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