By Monica Delgado
I grouped these two films together, one from the Encounters section and the other from the official competition of the 72nd edition of the Berlinale, since they address the topic of sexuality from different perspectives and modalities (one is a documentary, the other is fiction), and both they question or problematize -consciously or not- the director’s gaze on this object of study. In Mutzenbacher (2022) by the Austrian documentary filmmaker Ruth Beckermann, a casting is held where a group of men, between 16 and 90 years old, are interviewed around a novel written in 1906 and censored for decades, which examines (in the manner of Eleven thousand cocks by Apollinaire) the carnal universe of a sex worker. Meanwhile, Un été comme ça (2022), the fiction by Canadian Denis Côté explores the meeting of three hypersexualized women on a country stay for investigative purposes.
In Mutzenbacher, a group of men sitting on a pink sofa are questioned by readings and comments on a classic German-language pornographic work, Josephine Mutzenbacher – The Life Story of a Viennese Prostitute, written by Felix Salten, the author of Bambi. Throughout the footage, the applicants for the audition appear, summoned with the simple notice of participating in the film adaptation of this narration. Some recognize the filmmaker, others let themselves be carried away by mechanics to opt for a new job: read some fragments, give their opinion about what they read, or in other cases, recreate some moments of erotic verbality.
Following the pattern of films like Jogo de cena, by Eduardo Coutinho, Beckermann asks or cross-examines and tries to confront the characters -or even get them to empathize with what they read- to talk about the point of view, the woman/girl/ pubertal/adolescent from a supposed place of enunciation in the narrative, and about their own sexual experiences. Along the way, reflections arise on child sexual abuse (the character in the novel becomes a prostitute at the age of thirteen), false female empowerment, sexual freedom, child sexual desire, sexual awakening, but also, although very few, comments on the nature of fiction and on the fantasy of the author, Salten, by constructing this story from a female protagonist (unlike other controversial works of the time made with the same popular serial and erotic purpose and from a male).
On the one hand, without prejudice and with the intention of breaking taboos, Beckermann’s film explores the power of narration from what is indicated in the novel and read aloud, and on the other hand, from the fascination with the unlimited ability to generate sexual fantasies. Mutzenbacher’s character is understood from her expressions of satisfaction from sexual encounters with adult priests, her own father, brother, neighbors, friends, and where the justification of consent seems to delight readers (not all, of course). Some call the novel lewd, grotesque, poor in its literary quality, while others will delight in its eroticizing and stimulating texts. What is interesting about the film is also the generational approach, the empathy for this type of character from the older adults, and the little interest from the younger ones. Thus, the contexts of the sexual fantasies outlined in this type of erotic fables can also be analyzed from this social and cultural aspect, not only from private and particular experiences.
Although Mutzenbacher extends himself in some repetitive passages, it is precisely in this dilation that Beckermann ensures that all possible nuances appear from this masculine vision (or in some cases from the non-heteronormative) of jouissance. And where she appears as the only woman who listens attentively to readings and disquisitions, of all kinds, and the one who guides and controls this set of readings and positions around sexuality.
At an opposite pole appears Un été comme ça by Denis Côté, a more “conventional” fiction if we look at it within the author’s filmography, among works that are full of various expressive tones and experimentation, but never so full of commonplaces about hypersexuality as it happens here. If Beckermann’s film shows a diverse universe of interpretations of pleasure, jouissance and sexual desire, in this feature film by Côté a whole sexual imaginary is sketched out, although it does not seek to escape the cliché of nymphomania, despite all enunciative attempt not to. Although in Un été comme ça the hypersexual term is used to designate the problem of three young women, there is a moral judgment that appears at various times about this condition, which is seen as slavery, or as one of the characters said, “ women who live only to please the desire of men”. Or in any case, when an echo of liberation is perceived, the filmmaker has no other idea than to show this agency in an unrewarding way.
Un été comme ça describes a season in a research center, financed by a university, of three women volunteers. They spend 26 days in conversation with a social worker and a therapist, although the film focuses on their outings on their days off and what they do to satisfy their desires with men of all kinds in parks, trucks or fields. Although it is also mentioned in several passages of the film that hypersexuality is not a disease, what we see seems to contradict that intention, especially due to the point of view that is assumed when these situations of sexual exploration are described. It is as if listening to the hypersexuality of these women (some of these very stereotyped characters as well, some bordering on caricature) passed through the eye of a voyeuristic spectator/filmmaker: as in scenes of masturbation or sadomasochism.
In the Panorama section, the documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022) by Nina Menkes about the male gaze in the history of cinema premiered. I would easily fit this film by Côté there.