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The Beauty of the Shadow (2013) – film review

The Beauty of the Shadow/Review
from The Ambivalent Body: On The Short Films Of Monika K. Adler, 2013 written by Rob Smart

In Adler’s first film The Beauty of the Shadow, produced in 2011, the influence of Warhol and Madonna are perhaps most evident. Featuring Adler herself as the protagonist (with her narration voiced by Sofia-Karla Axelsson), The twelve minute Shadow is ostensibly an Anias Nin-style “memoir” about the “unbearable lightness of life” of her Bohemian escapades in Paris, “a desert for the heart,” that provokes in our comely heroine a desperate need to love. Adler vamps with self-conscious sexiness, her highly eroticized movements as her vocal double introduces us to the “loser” man who was to become the partner of Adler’s dead-end romance. The loser man is always presented in close up, his gestures and wet-lipped facial expressions suggesting vast universes of creepiness. His first appearance features him applying lipstick, an element of sexual ambiguity that will figure significantly as the film proceeds. Adler’s character apparently becomes enamored of him after he ejaculates on her expensive gold dress, immediately conveying the idea of devaluation and degradation that will characterize much of the images that follow.

We are told that once this amour fou is underway, the couple travels to Seville Spain to “sanctify our untrue love in front of God through B’s close friend Father Antonio.” Here the narration ends and we descend into a maelstrom of grainy or partially obscured images of religious processions, explicit sex, implied violence, transgression, squalor and religious mania occasionally punctuated with cynical and profane text that apparently stands in for the dialogue of the lovers and Father Antonio.

The title sequence prefigures many of the images that will appear and reappear in Shadow’s central section as well as offering a foretaste of the droning, distressing electronic score that will amplify the sense of malaise throughout this fragmentary and ambiguously presented downward spiral of Monika’s “great” romance.

The first image, a hissing snake, is never repeated, though given the films Biblical and religious references is probably a foreshadowing of a thematic concern with flesh versus spirit, temptation, compromise and fall from grace. This is followed in rapid succession by shots of a noose, a skinned animal (Most likely a dog) and large erect penis (a still photograph from Adler’s You Are my Cocaine Photo sequence, implying an irrationally self-destructive and addictive relationship with a man. Cocaine is referred to explicitly during the opening voice over and another still photograph with the word “Cocaina” appears late in the film’s central section. If there is any difference between Eve and the protagonist of Shadow it consists in the likelihood that the latter actively seeks out her serpents.

What is most surprising about the central maelstrom of Adler’s doomed love story is how minimalist it is. The images are almost exclusively an alternation of still photographs, text, repeated shots usually taken from a relatively fixed camera position, deliberately diffused, fragmented or obscured and repeated with variations. And yet it does manage to convey one or more relatively coherent narrative trajectories.

This second act commences with a dialogue is portrayed in text against a black screen ostensibly between Father Antonio and one of the two lovers. When asked, “What is the most important thing in life,” Antonio apparently replies: Sex and Money. His implied interlocutor then asks, “Where is the love?” “In my ASS!” is the reply. This exchange inaugurates what will be Shadow’s obsessive focus on anal sex.

Following this textual dialogue exchange we are presented with grainy but explicit sequence of sexual intercourse between what appears to be a man and woman. In text the woman asks, “Why do you fuck me anally?” To which the man replies, “Ha! Have you ever heard of contraception?” “Too late, I’m pregnant!” The woman retorts. “I will kill you little slut!” The man exclaims. You get the strong sense that these people are not playing it straight with each other. Their relationship a kind of combat; It is deception, manic eroticism, manipulation and potentially explosive hostility.

In such a crucible violence is inevitable and here Adler deployst of one of her still photographs, Every Thought is a Prayer,which depicts a woman lying face down in a room strewn with debris, her upper body lost in shadow, her white dressed hiked up over one hip and a religious icon of Mary beyond and above her, continuing the film’s linkage of religious imagery and rhetoric with perverse sexuality and the specter of murderous rage. The picture fades to black and a text legend runs across the bottom off the screen: “Good Girls Are not Supposed to Like Anal Sex.” insinuating a possible motive for the brutality depicted in the photograph.

After a Close Up of a man starting to speak and abruptly cut off the film’s religious motif is introduced with no small degree of irony as the viewer is confronted with yet another still photograph, this time presenting a fetid wall, its paint peeling, scrawled with graffiti bearing the less-then-reassuring (given the setting) homily, “God is alive and loves you!” A message that is undercut by a corresponding message written below, “God is dog spelled backward.” The transcendent notion of an omnipotent spiritual being caring for you individually brought to earth and incarnated in the flesh of a domestic animal. (There is an interesting connection here between this image and Adler’s short video art piece, In the Name of the Father, wherein a large black dog gnaws on two large, fleshy bones while on the soundtrack a priest intones the Pater Noster. The dogma of a mythological ideology, one that informs every human institution in those regions where it predominates, that informs humanity’s idea of itself and dictates both behavior and emotions–set in opposition to the most crudely base aspect of physical existence, the predation and consumption of one animal’s flesh by another in grotesque parody of communion).

The loser lover appears again after several seconds of black screen, slowing moving his tongue around his teeth and grimacing followed by another fade to black. A male voice on the soundtrack asks, “Were your parent’s religious people?” A question followed by fleeting, indistinct flashes of a person crossing herself, which is followed in turn by a voluptuous female mouth, its tongue slowly licking its bottom lip. Once again Adler cuts to one of her still photographs, Bed of Sorrow, a stark white bed in a dimly lit room, conveying a mood of futility and inevitable loneliness, perhaps the bed that one will die in. Indeed the specter of death haunts the film’s entire erotic meditation.

At this point the film takes a left turn. One hears a male voice exhorting Antonio to keep going, keep going over the sounds of two males breathing hard. The suggestion that they are engaged in some kind of sexual encounter is inescapable and that a love triangle is underway wherein the female protagonist is being betrayed by her lover with his friend Antonio. It is difficult to know quite what to make of the next shot of the lower half of a woman’s face, partially veiled, sticking her tongue out in insouciant mockery: Does she know? Is she amused? Is this a manifestation of a kind of cheeky resignation?

Over more heavy male breathing the male voice continues: “If I give not all I have, if I give my body to be burned but have not love, I have nothing!” There is once again the merging of religious rhetoric and sentiment with the implication of sexual congress, in this case homosexual relations between two men.

The film cuts quickly to the image of a blackboard which reads: “The Soul is the need of the Spirit.” Does the individual soul seek to reach out, to lose itself, in the ineffable, the infinite? But does it ultimately seek that communion entangled in the body of another human being?

A rapid Close Up of a grimacing male (the lover?) is followed by a shot of an erect penis being stroked and yet another Close Up of the male, his expression intense, followed by the female sticking out her tongue, this time with a hint of lascivious provocation.

As the male breathing continues Adler now utilizes dialogue that seems to have been appropriated from a Hollywood movie with a male character, quoting First Corinthians, extolling the virtues of true love (Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful…), which continues over multiple shots of male masturbation, a photograph of a handwritten sign that reads Cocaina, perhaps implying the addictive nature of the activity portrayed (maybe someone else has become the lover’s “cocaine?”). As the recitation of true love’s attributes continues accompanied by male breathing Adler cuts to a first shot of heart outlined in gravel and then to a very graphic sequence containing two nude figures, one bent over with its backside presented to the other who masturbates his cock to orgasm and deposits semen on his partner’s ass. The heart delineated in base material, ejaculation at the culmination of possible sodomy played out under the soaring Biblical rhetoric of ideal love pushes the collision between elevated spiritual rhetoric and idealized love with crass and luridly embodied and pornographic images to its extreme.

(The imagery and tone of the film is reminiscent of the 1980’s and 90’s New York Cinema of Transgression movement that produced an impressive array of mostly short films primarily shot in gritty black and white that were relentlessly focused on marginal characters, perverse sexuality, violence and death).

The ecstatic and ejaculatory climax is punctuated by another borrowed male voice proclaiming: “Enough of this farce!” This is followed by a reiteration of the hands frenetically crossing themselves, as if in hysterical defense against the carnality with which it is confronted. The male dialogue continues, informing someone that “You know when I fart it means I’m not in love. Come on! Start hating me and just leave!” (The diaphanous hands cross again, as if compulsively summoning this superstitious gesture to ward off the unacceptable).

The sounds of the two male voices on the soundtrack modulate into grunts and sounds of impact: Is it combat or more intense, more abandoned sex? After a long fade to black another text crawl crosses the bottom of the screen: “Goodbye my dolly with love from Father Antonio.” To whom is the addressed precisely? Is he dismissing his lover or his lover’s vanquished lover? The sounds of male grunting and striking returns; now more audible. After yet another black void Adler reprises the disturbing image of the skinned dog, ZOOMING IN on the face od death.

After another black fade a still photograph of a shirtless man in jeans lying face up in a bed, his face covered with a pillow, appears. Murdered? Smothered? Or is he overcome with shame and desperate to conceal himself? Like so many of Adler’s photographs and films the face is concealed or obscured, the specific features, the individual identity obliterated, the expressively manipulative, dishonestly expressive face suppressed. Only the body, the universal condition we all share, is legible.

This is followed by a rapid fire alternation of crossing hands, the noose and the woman sticking her tongue out. A brief recollection of sex, a figure in a cloak or raincoat, another Close Up of the lover’s face, female lips being licked, the male body on the bed culminating in a shot of a woman’s lower legs dangling from above, alluding, it appears, to one of Adler’s earlier still photographs Crucifixion.

Suddenly a quotation from The Gnostic Gospel of Saint Thomasappears: “Whoever knows the father and the mother, will be called the child of a whore.” The exact interpretation of this quote is in dispute. Some scholars insists it means that since the soul is subject to the body it is “raped” by what happens to the body and is thus reduced to the level of a prostitute. Other interpretations have to do with an accusation that Jesus was the illegitimate offspring of Mary and a Roman Centurion or to a Samarian calumny against the Hebrews claiming they were the products of fornication. During the text-porn scene the protagonist informs her lover that she is already pregnant, possibly re-enacting the dubious parentage of the Messiah. One can just as easily infer that “Monika’s” spirit is martyred to the degradations visited on her body in her quest for love. In yet another reading of Saint Thomas it is postulated that the Hebrew’s God, the father, was a sky god, whereas the rival tribes worshipped a goddess affiliated with the earth. It is possible that this divided heritage also afflicts Adler’s characters, torn between the terrestrial and the celestial, the high and low, adulterating the purity of the spirit with the squalor of the carnal–behaving like prostitutes.

Following rapidly after The Saint Thomas quotation the narrator returns quoting Dorothy Parker: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” It is boredom and curiosity that leads to the kind of adventures undertaken by our erstwhile heroine and exposing her to the depravities and mortifications to which her body and by extension her soul are subjected?

After the return of the narrative voice and the reappearances of Monika in the same Medium Close shot vamping, this time perhaps even more suggestively than in the opening sequence, the final stage of the film commences. This third act is essentially a recapitulation the beginning. Our Heroine has come full circle, back to where she started. It is difficult to ascertain what exactly she has gained from her experiences, her attempt at love just another example of the same pointless lightness of living. The narrator asks gravely, “Were those orgasms worth all that? Love is sometimes difficult but death even more.” Who or what exactly has died? Or is it simply the pervasive anxiety of the flesh: The body, the vehicle for pleasure and experience perpetually haunted by the proximity and inevitability of death?

At the end of the credits a title card appears in large pink letters reading: “Don’t Fuck with Losers,” thus appearing to reduce the preceding to a kind of cautionary tale for restless and amorously desperate young women

© Rob Smart 2013