Sion Sono’s films have never really been aimed at a wide audience, but few directors are as capable as he is of making the ugliest things beautiful. Case in point is his latest film, Guilty of Romance.
Izumi is the docile wife of a successful romance novelist who saves all of his energy and emotion for his books and readers. Her entire life is in service to him as her daily duties include making sure his shoes are ready for him at the door and his meals are ready for him at dinnertime. She’s also expected to compliment his naked body even though he’s never interested in sharing it with her in any meaningful way.
Seriously, the scene where he shows her his penis, fishing for reassuring words, and then tells her she can touch it if she wants is just awkward and painful to watch.
But when she steps out of her normal life to get a job and find her own worth she discovers a deviance she never expected… both outside her home and inside herself. She meets Mitsuko, a professor by day who moonlights as a prostitute, and the two of them descend into a very dark hole together.
And that’s not a euphemism.
Okay, maybe it is.
The third rail of Sono’s film in addition to the housewife and the prostitute is a grisly murder discovered at the beginning of the film. A woman has been dismembered and her identifying features have been removed. Even more distressing though is that the remaining parts have been incorporated into two grisly mannequin-themed tableaus (like the one seen above). The identity of the dead woman as well as of her killer is a mystery teased throughout the film, but the focus is on Izumi and (to a lesser degree) Mitsuko.
Izumi starts and ends her new life as a sausage girl, a description that goes from precise to tawdry fairly quickly. A woman approaches her and offers her a modeling job that starts legitimate but soon turns hardcore pornographic. But while Izumi should be horrified, and admittedly she looks the victim at first, she instead finds liberation and satisfaction in the attention and sexual shenanigans. She celebrates in her ability to receive and give orgasmic joy, and returning each night to the role of subservient housewife becomes more and more difficult.
Her nocturnal adventures become equally arduous as she follows Mitsuko’s lead into some dark and disturbing places. She’s essentially on a quest to find her own happiness, her true self, but it may be a destination destined to elude her. The film references Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle, on multiple occasions, which seems to allude that Izumi’s pursuit of an identity may be a fruitless one. It’s a grim observation for an incredibly bleak film.
Guilty of Romance has a few hurdles that average movie-goers will probably be unable or unwilling to cross, but fans of Sono’s previous films will once again find much to love here. He captures the darkness within us all (and the pitch blackness within some) and forces it into the light to reveal twisted layers beneath the most ordinary of surfaces, and he does so through images both horrific and grotesquely beautiful. He also creates a visually stimulating world of light, dark and myriad colors between, all presented in a very visible sense. There are some beautiful shots to be found here even as the contents of the frame disturb and disgust.
The film is fairly unrelenting though in the sense that barely a single character is presented without major dysfunction or negative underpinning. The female detective is the closest to being someone the viewers can identify with, but she exists as little more than a pair of eyes to show us the grisly crime scenes. It’s worth noting that this is the international cut which clocks in twenty minutes shorter than the Japanese one, and that the missing footage is reportedly focused more on the detective’s character. Sono has officially signed off on both versions, so make of that what you will.
Cold Fish, for all of its peccadilloes, remains one of Sono’s most accessible films thanks in large part to its pacing and somewhat traditional plot structure (relatively speaking). Guilty of Romance is more of a return to form in that it’s a slow burn that gets progressively darker as the minutes tick by, and unfortunately it’s not nearly as satisfying for it. Still, if you’re in the mood for something bleak but beautiful you’d be hard pressed finding a more suitable film than this.