In both Mutzenbacher and Man Cave — both documentary films — women directors interview a slew of men about their thoughts on sex and love.
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In Mutzenbacher, which won the Berlinale Encounters Award and is screening at Visions du Réel, director Ruth Beckermann interviewed men ages 18-99 about ther feelings and responses to reading a 1900s porn novel, which featured childhood sexual abuse as erotic fantasy. Beckermann’s device was to give the men enough rope to hang themselves with, and for most of them, it took very little. One man described a scene in which a father rapes his twelve-year-old daughter as “hot”, “nice”, and “natural”. Another, a propos of nothing, brought up the time he had sex with a woman he photographed — and her sixteen-year-old daughter. Many men saw this as an opportunity to share their most ill-thought-out, ill-advised opinions, and Beckermann generally offered little pushback; the video is the evidence.
Very few men in the film Mutzenbacher came off well. Only a few competently identified the abuse in the book and why it was problematic, and talked about their sexuality without claiming that men have been silenced in the age of #MeToo. I’m not sure that the film isn’t ethically dubious, but there is something worthwhile about seeing men openly discussing a taboo subject because of how it inevitably brings out fervent (and problematic) views that they wouldn’t normally feel comfortable sharing. It does, to a degree, effectively take the pulse of contemporary masculinity, with this random sample of men — well, men who wanted to be in a movie.
Man Caves (Garçonnières) is the second documentary to premiere this year that tries to take the pulse of “Men today: What do they think?”, and it’s a less effective one. Director Céline Pernet comes into the film with a warmer perspective, not looking to take down these men for how backwards they are, but instead, trying to understand them better, as a heterosexual woman looking for love. Instead of bringing a collection of men to a studio for an interview, as in Mutzenbacher, Pernet visits men in their homes (or “man caves”) and poses a series of questions about sex and romance to each of them. She asks them about their experiences with casual sex, the first time they had sex, what they look for in a sexual partner, what it’s like to have kids (or want them or not), and what they think it means to be a man today. There’s a lot of posturing, and sometimes, by the two gay mean she talks to, some thoughtful acknowledgement of the tropes of toxic masculinity.
Where Mutzenbacher felt illuminating by dealing with taboo subjects, Man Caves is almost too exploratory: a survey of a couple dozen men and their not-very-well-thought-out views about sex and romance. Increasingly, I’m not convinced you can make a thoughtful film about people’s views on sex and romance without asking them difficult and confronting questions because there’s so much internalised bullshit to get past. Even still, you still may not get past people’s defenses without repeated interviews… and even still you might need a psychiatric professional. Instead, the film ends up being an opportunity to repeat toxic ideas about sex, masculinity, and relationships. While this was the point of Mutzenbacher, which actively critiques what the men say through the film’s construction, Man Caves lacks the same level of reflection. Our ideas about romantic love and sex are so patriarchal and ingrained, and it can take years to dismantle your own toxic relationship to them.
Although Pernet talks about reading feminist texts and having a feminist awakening, I don’t see much evidence in the film that she’s really taken this theory on board. She never makes her subjects squirm, never gets to know them well enough to confront them with their own hypocrisy. Most of her subjects have stories about how their first experience with sex wasn’t groundbreaking — itself a pretty banal observation. No shit, virginity is a patriarchal construct (Pernet offers no theory through which to understand their experiences)! Pernet acknowledges her own hypocrisy — she keeps no genital hair for fear of being rejected by a potential romantic partner — without exploring why this is or is not problematic. She talks about loving casual sex but discloses that she is now potentially looking for a partner. Yet the film isn’t about how to have a healthy relationship and the challenges of that.
That said, Pernet does get some lovely moments of vulnerability with her subjects and a few moments of genuine insight. One man talks about how, even after years of being with the same woman, he still gets clammed up and stiff during sex, no matter how many times she tells him to relax. Another man talks about how the excitement over sex with a woman for the first time was more about the excitement of skin contact and affection — his family weren’t physically affectionate — rather than about physical pleasure. In the end Garçonnières is a moderately interesting curio, but if you’re really interested in the current dating scene and how we use dating apps, Pacho Velez’s Searchers (which also screened at Visions du Réel last year!) is much more thoughtful, fun, and direct.
You could be missing out on opportunities to watch films like Mutzenbacher and Man Caves at virtual cinemas, VOD, and festivals.
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