A honest essay about eros, aging and loss. Leth travels to several countries (the locations include Haiti, the Philippines, Senegal, Brazil, Argentina, Panama) to cast one particular scene: a woman, usually naked, is sitting in a hotel room, lamenting the loss of her lover who has returned to Europe. But, with each new reenactment of the scene, one begins to questions its veracity. It’s a forlorn fantasy – a man’s need to re-experience a scene he could only ever have imagined, at best.
Godard famously said that “the cinema is truth 24 frames per second,” and Jørgen Leth has taken those words as gospel in his new and highly contentious feature documentary. Erotic Man is the kind of confessional work that can ruin an artist but Leth doesn’t seem to care. In the current politically charged climate where power relationships between sexual partners is under constant interrogation, Leth has dared to make a film about a 70-something wealthy white European male’s intimate encounters with young women of colour from what we used to call “the third world.” You’ve got to wonder: what did Leth think would happen?
The reviews in North America have been overwhelmingly unkind. Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York suggested the film could be retitled “I like Big Butts and I Cannot Lie,” and added that Erotic Man “feels ridiculously exploitative, vaguely racist and dunderheaded about its own objectification.” Robert Koehler in Variety called the film “embarrassing,” and went on to state that it “verges on being most suitable as a Playboy cable item.” Even bloggers at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), where the film premiered, felt compelled to cut down Leth for taking on such a highly charged subject.Luke Gorhan in The Playlist called it “Leth’s personal, visual, for-his-eyes-only catharsis, more appropriately titled Erotic Jørgen.”
The reception to the film in Europe, I hope, will be more nuanced. After all, Leth’s short film The Perfect Man is still considered to be one of the stylistic masterpieces of the Sixties. It took him another 35 years to achieve recognition in North America through collaborating with Lars von Trier on The Five Obstructions, which was itself a fascinating remake of The Perfect Man. The film, as most Europeans will recall, was almost a calling card for Leth. Von Trier created obstructions – no sound, strange locations, etc – and then asked Leth to remake The Perfect Man again and again. Of course, Leth rose to the challenge, always coming up with ingenious solutions to von Trier’s “problems;” in fact, he managed to make the “same film” in better ways each time.
With Erotic Man, “creatively produced” by von Trier, Leth has to confront the biggest obstruction of all: himself. If remaking The Perfect Man was a challenge, imagine Leth’s dilemma when he decided to film “eroticism.” The problem is, in a way, quite delicious: the filmmaker has decided to confront himself on screen – but finds it difficult to define who he is and what he’s done. Leth is quite notorious, even in sexually liberated Denmark, for his many passionate affairs, often with women from South America, the Caribbean or South Asia. He seems to have found multitudes of gorgeous exotic women and had affairs with them. But Leth thinks of himself as an aesthete, not a philanderer. His pursuit and conquests of women must be “erotic,” he thinks, not “pornographic.”
My Oxford dictionary defines eroticism as “arousing sexual desire,” which makes sense, but Leth – despite being a much-published poet and non-fiction writer – assumes that it means something else. The same dictionary defines pornography as “the explicit description or exhibition of sexual activity in literature, film, etc. intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.”
Leth hates the idea of being a pornographer; he’s an artist, not a vulgar, commercial
exploiter of women. But as the audience follows the filmmaker from Haiti to Brazil to other foreign climates, it’s possible to sense Leth’s own frustration with the project. “How do you film eroticism?,” he keeps on asking himself. His answers don’t work. The director offers endless shots of beautiful women undressing in hotel rooms. The camera lingers over their thighs, their bottoms, their breasts, their – what did the Victorians call it? – “sex.”
Leth’s intentions with Erotic Man are clear. In his directorial statement, he writes in part, “The anthropologist (Leth) searches and gathers material that can lead to a study of the essence and meaning of eroticism … He wants to find it and describe it. He wants to try to survey it coolly.” Cleverly, Leth sets up the film so that it’s impossible to tell for a long time how much of what we’re viewing are real encounters with lovers and how much is made up or reconstructed. Eventually, he has scenes where beautiful young actresses audition to play parts in the film. Leth asks the women to read a monologue about losing a lover, who is returning to Europe. On occasion, the women also talk about their families and themselves,
either before or after the audition. Throughout this process, only one woman comes alive, Marie Marthe Dorothie Laguerre, who was Leth’s companion for five years. The beautiful Haitian wanted to be “Mrs. Leth” but Jørgen never agreed. They still declare undying love for each other but it’s telling that the two don’t make any effort – on camera anyway – to get back together again.
There is much to admire in Leth’s approach in Erotic Man. He comes from a time when the writings of Henry Miller, Terry Southern’s Candy and reprints of de Sade were in vogue. Truth-telling meant embracing the erotic, even the pornographic. The old ways were too conservative and hypocritical. Everything was possible. It was a period when Dylan could sing, “Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” Now, 45 years later, Jørgen Leth writes, “Eroticism is a matter that exists and yet doesn’t exist. It’s like finding God.”
In Erotic Man, Leth doesn’t find God, but at least he has the courage to try.