Germany,USA,Austria ,1h 36min,2018
Georg Friedrich Haas is one of the world’s most acclaimed contemporary composers. His microtonal magnum opus In Vain (2000), written as a reaction to the progress of right wing forces in his birth nation Austria, is considered one of this century’s first true masterpieces.
In December 2013, Haas sent a message to a woman through the online dating site OK Cupid describing his wish to «tame» her. Her name was Mollena Williams – an American writer and so-called «kink educator», who was open about her submissive preference. They met and hit it off, both sexually and otherwise. Less than two years later, they were married.
Through their sadomasochistic relationship, the now over 60-year-old and three-time divorcee Haas gradually came out of the closet as sexually dominant. Not least, the article «A Composer and His Wife: Creativity Through Kink» published in The New York Times in February 2016, gives the Williams-Haases quite a lot of attention.
A Different Portrait
With this background it may come as no surprise that The Artist & The Pervert is a somewhat atypical portrait of an artist. The documentary gives some insight into Haas’ merits as a composer, but mainly focuses on their love life – and it seems clear that it is first and foremost based on love – and how liberating this has been to him, both personally and artistically.
«The Artist & The Pervert discusses different aspects of our times’ trend for openness and acceptance.»
A marriage consisting of a 15-years-younger woman, who is her husband’s subordinate slave 24-7, is in itself remarkable enough. But there are more factors that make this potentially problematic – not least the fact that he is white and she is black, she even being a descendent of African slaves. Moreover, Haas regards himself to be a feminist, and explains that he had problems for a long time accepting his sexual preference. It can be tempting to draw some psychological conclusions based on the fact that both his parents and grandparents were Nazis, and that he went through quite a lot of physical punishment in his upbringing. (Haas’ mother is interviewed in the film, and does not dispute this.) But, as Mollena Williams-Haas states in the film: If everybody who was beaten in their childhood were to develop a dominant sexuality, so-called «vanilla sex» – «normal» sexual behaviour – would be the exception.
A Culture of Acceptance
The film itself is not particularly unconventional, although the filmmakers Beatrice Behn and René Gebhardt – who filmed the New York-based couple over a year – loosen up the traditional talking heads with animations and other playful formal choices.
The Artist & The Pervert discusses different aspects of our times’ trend for openness and acceptance, also in ways that aren’t necessarily intended by the filmmakers. In essence, this is a film about daring to speak out about taboo subject matters, which is obviously still much needed – not least regarding both sexuality and mental disorders. (The latter not being particularly relevant in this case, even if Mollena is a recovered alcoholic.)
When the film had its world premiere at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival this spring, with both filmmakers and the two main characters present, Haas said that the reactions he has gotten from the academic musical scene he is a part of have been purely positive. Furthermore, he pointed out that the only way to end rumours is to actually come forward with the truth – and that he therefore considered this to be a smart, rather than brave, move by himself. The filmmakers also told the festival audience that the couple were given the opportunity to exclude scenes from the finished film, an offer they declined.
Too much information?
However, the film highlights both positive and negative comments posted under the previously mentioned newspaper article, among these statements like «50 shades of NO!!» and «I’m interested in microtonality, not bondage». And even if the documentary keeps – at least considering the subject matter – a respectful distance from the couple’s intimate sphere, one can have the feeling that we are getting a little more information than strictly needed about composer Haas. But then again, it might be healthy to get in touch with one’s own prudishness and conservatism every once in a while.
«According to Haas, the happiness he has found in his life has also improved the quality of his work.»
I do think people should do as they please, however kinky, as long as they don’t hurt others – without consent, that is. And being open about it is undoubtedly for the positive. But there are also some disturbing sides to the current wave of openness, such as popular musicians speaking «openheartedly» about difficult times they have been through, usually at the same time that they release a new album. (Which does not seem to be the case with this film.) It isn’t always easy to separate between acceptance-building openness, click-bait journalism and covert marketing. Perhaps it is symptomatic for our day and age that we don’t hear so much talk about the difference between the «personal» and the «private», like we used to some years ago.
Free of prejudice
The Artist & The Pervert is nonetheless a refreshingly unprejudiced portrait of an artist and his wife, with a positive message about a kind of openness that seems to have been genuinely vitalising to Haas himself. His choice to come forward has also influenced his music, which is no longer so concerned with what his spouse humorously describes as «white men whining about death». In his piece Hyena from 2016, he has even collaborated with Mollena – whom he refers to as his muse – as a writer and performer of the libretto.
If some find it problematic to separate Haas’ life and work after this rather detailed peek into his «perverted» sex life, they should at least note that his music is now composed by a much happier man. According to himself, the happiness he has found in his life has also improved the quality of his work – quite contrary to the popular idea that the greatest art is born out of pain and suffering. Not meaning in a BDSM sense, of course.