One of my more vivid memories of adolescence is flipping through the pages of the TV Guide just minutes before I had to go to bed. The cold sweat would slither down from my brow in that clammy, snakelike manner we often associate with sick minds and wayward hearts. I was about to commit a sin, or so I believed at the time, and the very idea of relishing in badness scintillated even more than the badness. It is not the act, really, but all the cultural and religious baggage we identify with that act that excites or grotesques us. I sensed that even then, as I turned the pages to the late night listings, and glanced at my grandmother to make sure she did not realize what I was about to do.
I would give a cursory look at the HBO and Showtime listings, but I paid most attention to what Cinemax might be broadcasting between 1:00AM and 5:00AM. The adolescent boys of my generation snickered about “Skinimax” in the same way boys a few decades earlier had fantasized about the torrid exploits of a Playboy Bunny. It was never really about the women, nor even about our immature sex fantasies, but about the sense that we were doing something “naughty.” In my case, and I suspect in the case of many other adolescent boys just before the Berlin Wall crumbled and eighties’ bubble gum pop gave way to nineties’ grunge, the thrill was in getting up after hours, sneaking back into the TV room, and watching with the volume down for a coquettish girl to expose a breast or show a little leg. Since my grandmother’s bedroom had been located directly down the hall from the TV room, I had had the added thrill of listening and looking for any indication that she might awaken, while waiting for Lady Chatterley or Emmanuelle to smile knowingly at her rapt suitor.
Justin Anderson’s “The Idyll” (2016) on the surface is a much more adult expression of fetishist sexuality on film. It is consciously sophisticated in its tone and message, while minimalist in cinematic techniques; the kind of Cinema Verite meant to win awards and to inspire intellectually obtuse critiques. That is all fine and good, but this twelve minute short about a Man and a Woman sharing a carnal moment together on a moving train speaks more to the adolescent than its surreal sophistication wants to admit.
The Man is older, wealthier, established, the kind of drab realist who breaks into a grin when he thinks about the superstitions that prevail still among common folk. He sits by the window of a train moving through a desolate landscape. His head rests heavily against the cushion behind him, because he is too accomplished in his career to be anything but pleasantly bored. He is on his way to the grand opening of a bridge. The sponsors are going to place an elephant upon the bridge. For most, this will be proof positive that the bridge is structurally sound, for elephants supposedly know better than to stand on unstable surfaces. The Man grins. He knows that that is bunk. In fact, he knows a lot of things, because he is a “modern man,” and the mark of a “modern man” is what he knows, who he looks down upon, and how much he can insulate himself from the untamed wild just outside. He remarks several times that the train window will not open. He seems to be perfectly at ease with that fact.
Enter the Woman: Younger, poorer, a mother with a loser husband and too many babies back home. She believes that elephants are wise, that fishermen make for great husbands, and that going to the “big city” will be a magical experience for her. Like women in literature since time immemorial, the Woman remains a child with a pair of big eyes, a soulful heart, and a body characterized first and foremost by its glands. Her drama is that she needs to nurse her babies every few hours, or her breasts literally explode with milk. Sure enough, she bursts, so to speak, while engaged in mildly flirtatious conversation with the Man. Do her breasts burst as a result of sexual arousal or maternal instinct? The film suggests both, because after all a woman’s sexuality and maternal instinct are one and the same. In crude terms, women fuck whom they want to nurse, and even the self-conscious “modern man” will slide back into his infanthood if given the chance to suckle a wet nipple or two.
Ah, the charms of women! First, they civilize men, and then they seduce them back into infantilism. At once, she is the Siren, and then she is the Gorgon. What are we men to do when these menstrual moon creatures set their eyes on us? Although the lactation sequence at the end is portrayed as poignantly beautiful, the old, crude archetypes of the Siren/Gorgon Woman and the Modern/Infantile Man slapped me silly. My mind wandered back to those awkward nights long ago when I pursued the teenaged version of the “one night stand” with a “Skinimax” movie. I saw what was supposed to be a poignantly beautiful scene, but I experienced “naughtiness.” Is this an indictment of the film? Or am I simply taking my first nimble steps into dirty old manhood? Where do we separate the intent of the film from the baggage of the film viewer? Or is that even desirable?
Every story is self-conscious. This is what we mean when we say that a story takes on a life of its own. Nothing can be said to have “a life of its own,” if it does not have some level of self-reference, attachment to its own preservation, and integrity. We despise the deus ex machina not just because it is a cheap way to resolve a plot crisis. More so, we despise it because we sense that it undermines the integrity of the story world itself. Unless the story world happens to be a place of unrestrained magic, we demand that the natural laws intrinsic to the story world be upheld. We shall invest in a story, because the story is real in itself.
Some stories are pompously self-consciously. They not only maintain their mythic, archetypal, and symbolic structures. They relish in those structures. They hit the audience over the head with their sublime “artistic meaning” or “aesthetic sensibility.” “The Idyll” falls into this category. Man and Woman, for example, are seated across from each other beside a train window. Until the Man leans forward and suckles on the Woman’s breasts, they remain apart, like two cliffs facing each other without a bridge connecting them. The moving landscape seen through the train window is the “river” between them.
Man and Woman are separated. Man and Woman are mirror images of one another. Man and Woman face the moving landscape from different perspectives – Man seeing the landscape recede (because, of course, he is moving away from the wild into modernity), and Woman seeing the landscape arrive (because, of course, she is a pretty child open to the wild, the menstrual, and the sexual). The archetypal symbolism is about as subtle as a mallet to the skull. Indeed, once we get beyond the realization that this is supposed to be a “sophisticated film,” we see the archetypal symbolism as altogether cartoonish – a naughty adolescent fantasy playing itself out through soft porn fetishism. Watching “The Idyll” is like sneaking “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” off the shelf and skipping to the “good parts.” We get “undulating waves of flesh” in the form of several close up shots of necks swallowing and lips puckering, ostensibly in reaction to the heat on the train, but actually as a foreshadow of the lactation sequence. We get “breast groping,” first when the Woman massages her own breasts to try to prevent them from bursting, and then when the Man suckles them. We get a close up of the Man “tapping his fingers,” while the hapless Woman “squirms in her own sweat.” We even get the same class-consciousness, though in reverse, for in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” the Woman has the higher estate, and the Man is poor, muscled, and sweaty.
“The Idyll” evokes “Emmanuelle” as well. There is the old fashioned train rattling passed a surreal landscape. There is the Woman escaping the drabness of her life, the Stranger giving her sexual release, and the “Little People” (unseen in “The Idyll,” but referenced in conversation) who believe in magic, fairy tales, and elephants with big, wet, phallic trunks. Again, “The Idyll” reverses the class, for in “Emmanuelle” the Woman has the higher estate, and the Man is poor, muscled, and indigenous (and, sometimes, sweaty too, depending upon the sequence).
The fact that the filmmaker here reverses the class identity of the Man and the Woman is no accident. “The Idyll” is based upon a surreal fetish story written by Guy de Maupassant. In that story, the Woman is a fat and unattractive peasant; the Man consists of several Men who are starving and poor; and the lactation sequence predates a similar sequence at the end of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (except in “The Grapes of Wrath” both the Woman and the Men are starving, and so it is less clear who is feeding off of whom). Here, like in de Maupassant’s story, the Woman is a modernized version of a simple peasant, but like Lady Chatterley and Emmanuelle she is also a repressed, sexual beauty just waiting to burst. She is the mother peasant feeding the babies (Madonna), and she is the seductress groping for the wild (Whore). Because “The Idyll” reverses the class consciousness we saw in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Emmanuelle,” we are meant to see something new here; but the underlying conceit is the same: Madonna/Whore opens up the dam, literally, to feed life into the Spiritually Poor Modern Man.
This is a story we have seen since the first Cave Woman danced naked before a bonfire, in order to cast hot and heavy shadows upon a cave wall. The story is the same, because the archetypes are garish, obvious, and unchanging. We can reverse the class-consciousness. We can turn a fat peasant into a pretty mother. We can get rid of the handsome handyman, and replace him with his handsome businessman counterpart. None of that matters except on the surface, for the archetypes remain the same. Perhaps, the filmmaker senses this, which is why his symbolic references are so obvious. Perhaps, he understands that a story along these lines cannot but be pompously self-conscious Cinema Verite. Or, perhaps, the filmmaker is so naïve that he really thinks he has done something novel here with his surface level deviations from prior stories. How much does the filmmaker really understand his material? The film does not tell us, because a contemptuous or a naïve filmmaker could each devise the same movie. The former would know that he is peddling an old yarn in new clothing. The latter would think the new clothing “really matters.” Regardless, the garish, obvious symbolism, the fact that the Woman and the Man are unnamed (thus archetypal, not flesh and blood people), and the fact that the lactation sequence is preposterous on its face, beg us to view this as a fantasy, or even a dream, more so than as a real life encounter between two strangers on a train. On that level, we conjure up an old and overdone Madonna/Whore dream, albeit a dream expressed with the kind of artsy sophistication that wins awards and inspires cocktail conversations. For me, though, the film was less a dream than it was a door to a memory – a memory of adolescent sexual awakening playing itself out through a late night “Skinimax” movie. The old, archetypal, Madonna/Whore has a role to play in teenaged fuck fantasies, but that archetype is (or should be) out of place in the real life interactions of adult men and women. One would hope that as adults we could move beyond the archetypes into an appreciation of flesh and blood women and men – women and men with names who do not fit neatly into mythic or symbolic structures. For all of its sophistication, “The Idyll” does not venture far from the mindset of a teenaged boy. Spice up the sex a bit, and it can be a “Skinimax” movie title listed in the late night pages of TV Guide.