“Elle s’appelle Sabine” (2007)
Ideally the documentary form should present an objective point of view. How then to judge a film which by the very nature of the film maker’s intimate relationship with the subject guarantees the intrusion of emotional subjectivity that might very well alter the foundation of, not only the conclusions of the film, but the very techniques employed by which such predetermined ends are reached? In such a case, are facts sufficiently colored by such a prejudicial perspective on the part of the film maker, that it might render the film’s deductions capable of question?
French actress Sandrine Bonnaire has chosen as the subject of her directorial debut a portrait of her younger autistic sister Sabine, who despite demonstrating remarkable proficiency in music and an enthusiasm for literature, athletic activity and travel (she loves America), is spirited away to a hospital at the age of 28, where in the five year period comprising her institutionalization, she undergoes a monstrous transformation rendering her barely able to function and in a semiconscious state. The tragedy blatantly illustrated in the film is in the stark counterpoint between the pre and post institutionalized Sabine in manner, behavior and appearance. To say that the contrasts are shocking does not do the crimes of negligence against this young woman justice; a point that is made repeatedly over and again with an unerring sense of shock value by the clearly rankled film maker.
However, in her methodology and the kneejerk sympathetic response these horrid juxtapositions are designed to elicit, certain questions arise which extend beyond the scope of this frustratingly narrow blame game. “Elle s’appelle Sabine” unfolds with an unmistakable radical self-interest built into every frame, which while leaving the central scandal of the piece unaffected, avoids relevant details of Sabine’s immediate pre-hospital background, information which is curiously glossed over but is entirely relevant in providing the fullest understanding of the conditions by which her administered violation was allowed to take place. The extreme emotional pitch at which the director unashamedly manipulates the material is designed to command outrage, and rightly so. But, in cultivating such powerful empathetic demands on the audience, Bonnaire has an obligation to give clarity to the context in which her editorial assertions find their basis.
The failure of the film to do so makes it something of a wasted opportunity and while it strongly suggests a tragedy extending beyond that of the unfortunate Sabine– the additional sense of victimization felt by exasperated family members to whom the ultimate responsibility lays for institutionalizing a daughter or sister -this aspect of familial liability is only fleetingly addressed in an interview between director Bonnaire and a mother of one of Sabine’s fellow home residents Oliver, who is repeatedly questioned about “guilt”; perhaps the most revealing portion of the film, laying bare one of the primary reasons for its own existence. If indeed, the film is partially intended as an act of catharsis, then the absence of the critical material regarding the decision to initially place Sabine in the destructive institution is doubly dishonest, exposing a continued stubbornness on the part of a sister, whose own efforts at seeking a path to absolution obscure any honest investigation of a system which would allow such inattention to the wellbeing of its charges to occur, and presumably continue to occur unabated. (In moments such as this, one can’t help but wonder just which Bonnaire sister this film is truly about?) However, investigation is not the issue, for if the hospital is to be placed as the sole bearer of accusation, it is in the abstract since no specific names or places are given. This causes the film to emerge, despite its capacity to move, as a rather toothless tool of indictment, especially when the problems encountered are systemic to their medical system. And even if such a dangerous level of laxity exists in French health care (and there’s no doubt that diagnostic and medical incompetence were rampant in this case), then why did it take five years to withdraw her from such obvious abuses? Just what were the circumstances? And why did no one seem to notice? Or care until it was too late?
Unfortunately, the film is mute on these imperative points, and thus never demonstrates the courage to acknowledge what the film is really about: the warehousing of inconvenient people. Clearly in Sabine’s case, this course was entirely unnecessary and preventable, until the intervention of her own family. A film committed to absolute transparency in the exploration of its themes, regardless of the personal discomfort, would prominently address the question of what to do with a chronically problem family member when they intrude upon your own life? There is no doubt there is an anger behind the camera, but is it outwardly or inwardly directed? One suspects the story cannot be fully told without sister Sandrine’s own self-reproaching testimony, which is never forthcoming. To differing degrees, the film reveals a permanent damage done to both sisters. In the concluding narration, Bonnaire speculates as to whether, “one day, will I ever be able to take another trip with my little sister?” These are the last spoken words in a film whose narration has, up to this point, been delivered with a remoteness more attuned to the clinical study of a medical exhibit rather than a beloved sibling; in the final moments, finally quietly expressing the inconsolable pain of loss.
The film ends with Sabine watching films of her former self, to which she initially erupts into a sorrowful wail of remembrance; a moment which mimics the earlier initial shock the audience experiences in seeing her transformation. In this moment, Sabine becomes the witness to her own horrific decline. It is a heartbreaking spectacle, unforgettable in its implications, and demanding of some very hard answers.
The collision of artistically celebrated photographic sensibilities and the illusion of the pornographic fantasy image is intended to be explored in what is meant to be a sympathetic exposure of the “real” women behind the painted masquerade of the virtually anonymous physionomic cloning of the modern female sexual fantasy girl in Deborah Anderson’s “Aroused”, a film which purportedly intends to strip away the rancid veneer of the intentionally crafted falsification of the adult female porn performer as an indistinguishable living sex doll in which the assortment of working orifices is of paramount commercial consideration. That this denial and limitation of the adult actress’ identity as anything but an object leading to masturbatory release would appear- in any rational discussion -to automatically lead to a sincere attempt at the humanization in its subject portraitures- the sixteen adult film actresses chosen for Anderson’s photographic reinvention -might also lead to some stark and important revelations concerning a number of questions which Anderson herself poses near the beginning of the film: Why are porn stars looked down upon by the very society which uses their “debasement” for its own sexual pleasure, and- perhaps even more importantly -why and how has sex become (in media and culture-at-large) the ultimate power tool, determining both desirability and commercial worth? Naturally such questions ask more about the society outside the realm of the sex worker than directly of the pornographic ethic, but any substantive discussion of the subject must include an unflinching exploration of the hypocritical symbiotic relationship between public sex worker and the silent consumer class..
This film strains dexperately to be taken seriously and regarded as profound, if not eye-opening, yet- despite the quotations peppered throughout the film by likes of Anaïs Nin, Marlene Dietrich and Erica Jong, all of whom say more in the briefest phrase than Anderson manages in her entire film -one cannot help but think this is an attempt at a thesis paper by someone doodling at the primer level. It begins with a meaningless, extended sequence of several of the women being driven through palm lined streets of mansions and privilege, casting longing glances at what?…. a world in which they will never belong? Is this a symbolic editorial condemnation of the facade of decency behind which the consumers of the sex trade anonymously hide as the secret objects of their fantasies pass by unnoticed and rootless? Or is this simply a stylish affectation without any more substance than a randomly inserted musical video? One thing is for certain: at a paltry running time of 69 minutes (an ironically magical number which seems to characterize so many of these documentaries on porn), there is little time to waste on such wasteful stylistic affectations to which the film will again and again descend into; continuously substituting banal graphic design as one gets the uneasy sensation of the film becoming a public exhibition of Anderson exposing her own empty narcissistic celebrity-fed aesthetic, reveling in the thought of getting down and dirty with purveyors of a “taboo” world to which it is evident she feels will automatically imbue her most ordinary of photographic visions (her resultant photo session, what one can gather of it amid the truly incompetent, obscuring montages, resembles nothing more artistically insightful than a session with a mall boudoir photographer) with the grit and truth of a genuine artist.
If Hollywood is a Dream Factory, the San Fernando Valley- in which the majority of the adult industry finds its nest -is the land of a harsher, more severe illusionary taskmaster; one to whom the submission of personal identity to the cosmetically transformative whims of generic sex partner; the removal of identity in favor of a manufactured persona which subsumes the personality of the porn performer. In a film which purports to reveal the “real woman” inside the porn star, there are despairingly few statements made by any of the “actresses” which include personal ambitions, dreams or relationships which are not directly tethered to the process of paid sexual performance. The only genuine insights of the industry and the women engaged in it come from adult industry agent Fran Amidor, whose sensible observations and apparently sincere nurturing nature makes her a positively reinforcing Fagin to a world of girls to whom promiscuity and exhibitionism trumps far-sightedness or common sense. For the most part, although Anderson extracts from the women the complete laundry list of overly familiar “usual suspect” excuses for entering the sex trade- distant or absent fathers, childhood disorientation from excessive military moves, broken homes, feelings of excessive domestic discipline -though none of the subjects actually cites any of these as a reason for a barely legal dive into the pornographic wading pool (quick cash for sex seems to be the most agreed upon rallying point of motivation, which leads, in a direction never once questioned by the surprisingly intuitively timid director, as a career choice inadvisedly ill-considered as indistinguishable from the field of prostitution by many of the sixteen), instead of Ms. Amidor’s learned assessment that the industry is continuously fortified by an endless stream of disposable, promiscuous, immature girls who sadly, but insatiably, crave attention.
Interestingly, the more the subjects speak, the more defensive and bitter the tone, with non-porn individuals angrily referred to as “civilians” (Misty Stone is particularly heated in her chastisement and ultimately anti-social posture), as if non-participation in the field were a badge of dishonor. This defensive posture, which obviously masks much deeper and (possibly) truer feelings- the “reality” of the women that is supposedly Anderson’s subject -as well as anxieties and reversible effects of such a provocative early career choice, is ungraciously glossed over and unexplored, amid a bizarre series of shots during which the actresses (by this time, not only heavily lacquered to the industry standards which seem intent on transforming women into indistinguishable sex mannequins; a truly voluntary form of objectification) are fractured into random piecemeal images of anatomical curves, buttocks, breasts and pieces of cosmetically enhanced facial features;the disassembling of the actresses into separated feminine parts, Anderson’s approach to penetrate the “real” woman within seems entirely confounded by traveling the surface of the female form; a barrier which inhibits further psychological probing (any, actually), revealing the alarmingly trite limitations of her artistic imagination. In essence, Anderson’s path to reversing her perception of porn’s objectification of these women (despite the fact that their own testimony refutes such personally disparaging classification) is to simply sexually objectify them with her own signatory style.
The colossal failure of “Aroused”, as anything more than a mercenary commercial for Deborah Anderson’s photo book, is evident once it reveals its actual lack of editorial ambition. Simply by an opportunity for normal discourse, the porn actresses express thoughts which cry for illumination, yet the novice director seems contented with the simple act of assembling her models for her own pinup photographic session. Just how this addresses the more provocative issues she teases with in the film’s opening, nor how this bridges the perception gap between the porn image and reality is certainly beyond anything which the film gives a second’s attention. Even more of a lost oppostunity is any discussion given to the bridging of the pornographic and the artistically erotic, a subject one might imagine would spark the interest of this self-professed celebrity photographer. (Only a fleeting quote by former porn star and publisher Gloria Leonard witttily addresses this very subject.)
For the performers to act socially abused by a shaming “civilian” public is rather disingenuous for members of a cultural industry whose efforts to conceal their true identities rivals that of the Witness Protection Program. If, as is generally asserted by the sixteen, that their chosen careers are merely an extension of their own sex lives recorded for their own profitability (presuming there is a vast audience willing to pay for such purely exhibitionist product without a hint of further artistic intention, though shadows of economically crushing piracy issues are briefly raised), why the added pretense of personal obscurity? If there is no shame in what they do, why the concealment? Porn seems to be a truly schizophrenic universe of self-denial: an industry of arrogant exhibitionism which craves the security of obscurity; an insoluble cultural contradiction. (In many way, the porn industry’s parroting of the “legitimate” film world seems an extension of the mocking mimickry which characterized the Superstar rostering of the Warhol Factory. Could it be that porn is the gaudy apothesis of Warhol’s prophetic comment on short-lived fame?)
Deborah Anderon’s “Aroused” is a strangely timid, unsatisfying film; a self-congratulatory exercise in grandstanding that pretends to champion a segment of publically pilloried womanhood, but merely celebrates, with stunningly inflated conceit (considering the available lack of artistic evidence), the director’s actual favored subject (as made bracingly clear in the final moments of the film): herself.