How can a film shock today’s jaded audiences, for whom blood spurts and flying body parts prompt laughter instead of gasps? How can a filmmaker transgress when nearly everything is allowed? Taken far enough, this line of inquiry can lead to the attention of the police. It can also be the starting point of interesting films, but Sion Sono is one of the few diligently (as opposed to opportunistically) pursuing it in Japanese films today.
His answers can be blackly comic, as in his 237-minute 2008 epic “Ai no Mukidashi (Love Exposure),” whose teenage pervert hero finds the love of his life while shooting up-skirt photos.
Screened in the Directors’ Fortnight section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Sono’s “Koi no Tsumi (Guilty of Romance),” takes a more serious tone, perhaps because its subject is female sexuality in its more extreme forms. Sono, as he has confessed in interviews, both adores and fears the opposite sex, which makes him typically male. At the same time, he is unusually eager to plunge to the sexual and psychological depths, while trying to elevate his story beyond the temporality of its late 1990s period.
Thus a soundtrack featuring Mahler rather than J-pop. Thus female characters who are more archetypes than real women walking (or working) in Shibuya’s love-hotel district.
In this, Sono’s evocatively but misleadingly titled “Guilty of Romance” resembles Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” which also treated sexual desire as dark, mysterious and dangerous, in a setting placeless and timeless.
The film begins, though, as a “Silence of the Lambs” take-off. Called from an assignation with her lover, Detective Yoshida (Miki Mizuno) investigates a bizarre murder in a tumbledown Shibuya apartment in which the victim’s body parts have been joined to pieces from two mannequins. She then goes home to her cute daughter and overly trusting husband.
Next we meet Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), the sweet, submissive, stay-at-home wife of a bestselling novelist (Kanji Tsuda) who spends most of his waking hours away from their luxuriously appointed, if empty, house. Bored to distraction, Izumi finds a part-time job at a local supermarket handing out sausage samples. Then one of her customers offers her more lucrative work as a porn model/actress. Izumi decides to accept.
Finally there is Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), a charismatic university teacher of literature by day and a hard-nosed Shibuya prostitute by night. She becomes Izumi’s mentor in the business of whoring, with her first lesson being that women deserve pay for loveless sex. What she is really seeking, though, is the freedom of degradation, the peace of oblivion. Izumi proves to be a devoted pupil to the end.
Sono leavens his dark story with clever comic touches, most centering around the blossoming of the shy, modest Izumi into a ravenous sex kitten. (As a symbol of this progression, the sausages she hawks become ever bigger.)
But he also stirs in references to Franz Kafka’s enigmatic novel “The Castle,” with its nightmarishly frustrated hero, and Ryuichi Tamura’s knotty poem “On My Way Home,” with its observations on the limits of language (“A world without words/How good it would be”). Unlike the many recent Japanese films that revel in the superficiality of their sex and violence, “Guilty of Romance” invites deeper analysis, while resisting easy interpretation.
At the same time, you don’t need a study guide to get the dark, crazed intensity of the passions unleashed in the film’s fourth and final chapter. Unlike Sono’s other films, no obvious Christian symbols are on display, but the devil gets his due, as Eros (sex) gives way to Thanatos (death).
This has little to do with how the sex industry here actually conducts business, with polite bows and smilingly proffered name cards. It has everything to do with Sono’s personal vision of the inner, often-hidden truths about marriage, sex and love. Call it perverse and he’d probably agree with you. Call it antiwoman and he’d probably argue with you. What I couldn’t call it, though, was boring, even as I watched the more extreme scenes of violence with my eyes half shielded, if not wide shut.