Saturday, April 20, 2013

Things Are Tough All Over

The last film on the schedule for last weekend's Italian Film Festival was Escort in Love (Nessuno mi può giudicare, 2011, directed by Massimiliano Bruno), a broad comedy of manners that's a bundle of social contradictions. On the one hand, its critique of affluence and consumerist culture places it in direct opposition to Berlusconi's version of Italy. On the other, its sexual mores are manifestly retrograde. When it comes to sex, this reminds me a bit of the tradition of England's Hammer studios: ladling on the moral disapprobation while using sex as the plot's hook and raison d'être. I'm uncomfortable with the slut-shaming nature of its plot, but I have to admit that I did laugh at this film often enough that I'm willing to think harder about what's on the screen than I might have.

The story: Alice has an ideal life: rich husband, showy house, servants, a private school for her son. All of that comes crashing down when her husband, an executive whose toilet company is circling the bowl, is killed in a car accident. This leaves Alice with his debts, which are considerable, and the very real possibility that she'll be sent to prison for her husband's financial indiscretions should she be unable to pay up. The collateral from this would be surrendering her son into the arms of strangers. After discovering just how useless her skill set is in the job market, and after moving herself and her son into the cheapest lodgings she can find, she seeks out Eva, a woman she met at one of her parties. Eve is an escort, and Alice needs the income that an escort can make. Meanwhile, she begins to make friends with the people who used to work for her, has to deal with her son's entry into public schools, and begins to fall in love with the hunky guy who runs an internet cafe downstairs from her crappy new apartment. She has to juggle this new affair with the shame she feels for her new profession. Will love conquer all?

The thing that strikes me hardest about this film is how much it looks like an Almodovar film that has had all the queerness drained out of it. This is SUCH a heteronormative film, almost to the point of squareness. Nowhere is this more evident in the scenes in which Alice has to play the part of a dominatrix. She just doesn't have it in her until she begins to channel her own frustrations into her work. There's no sense of sexual identity here. She's playing a part, but she can't divorce her own sex-negativity from it. She's uptight and shamed by what she does. I can't imagine that she's very good at her job. There is a hint that by the end of the film, her sexuality has loosened up, that she no longer has a stick up her ass, but the way the film manifests this is peculiar: it does this through the lens of class privilege rather than sexuality. This is as asexual a film about sexuality that I've ever seen.

It's on firmer ground when it comes to examining class and privilege. This is very much a multicultural film, Italy being a crossroads for immigrants from all around the Mediterranean and beyond. Alice's relationship to her mostly immigrant staff at the beginning of the film colors her in a very negative light. We don't really like her at the outset, a reaction intensified by the outfits the film puts her into. Not only is she a snob, she's a snob with really bad taste. The thrust of the movies riches to rags story is to strip her of both her privilege and her bad taste such that at the end, she's stylish and accepting. This culminates at a big boat party she and Eve are working in which she dresses down one of the attendees for behaving like a beast to the help. This would have been unimaginable to the character with whom we begin the movie. I'd be a lot more sanguine about this theme if the film wasn't so hellbent on casting its minority and lower class characters as types and stereotypes. The racist who falls in love with an African woman is particularly risible. This is, as I say at the outset, a broad comedy, and stereotypes are an unfortunate cost of doing business.

Class and sexuality intersect, of course. The limits on Alice's horizons at the outset of the film are institutional as well as personal. That prostitution is the only viable career path available to her speaks poorly of the economic structure of the world. I wish that this film could take a lesson from it's Italian title, which translates literally as "Nobody Can Judge Me," because nobody SHOULD judge Alice for doing what she needs to do. But this film has absorbed its cultural, Catholic-tinged demonization of sex work and it just can't help itself. Still, it manages to liberate its thinking a little bit, when it has Giulio come around to Alice in the end, after a nasty confrontation with Eva. Eva's embrace of her profession runs counter to the film's native discomfort with prostitution. Eva has been disowned by her family, but during the course of the film finds a rapprochement. She seems to enjoy her work, too, which is something the film never permits for Alice (the coding of the madonna and the whore is perverse here, given that they are both sex workers--go figure). I wish this had taken the Private Benjamin route, in which our heroine finds herself in an unusual profession and comes into her own, without the need for a man to validate her life. That's potentially the theme of this film, but it wimps out in the end. It wants the happily ever after of a conventional family unit with a man at the head, and that's kind of disappointing. It's a liberal movie, just so long as liberalism doesn't upset the natural order of the universe. Feh.

Still, this is funny enough, and I don't place any more demands on a comedy than making me laugh. This is no small thing, either, because comedies are just about the hardest films in the world to pull off. This isn't a great comedy, but it's serviceable. There are laughs. That makes the incoherence of its politics easier to forgive.


Anonymous said...
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Eratostene di Baskerville said...

I agree with much of what you say. Still I want to point out that comedies are *built on stereotypes and contradiction*. That is the essence of humor. Also, I find it silly to label as disappointing the fact that Alice eventually falls in love with a man and recreates a family. Should she have fallen in love with a girl at all costs?