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.”
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