Satire, anti-satire, critique, auto-critique, exploitation, put-on: Sion Sono's Love Exposure accommodates all of these positions equally and without prejudice. The film is a 237-minute melodrama concerning the wavering faith of a formerly devout Catholic priest and his family besieged by recruiters for a burgeoning cult, but what on paper reads like an export-friendly prestige film is in practice quite the opposite. It's an oddly nimble sojourn through the thoroughly fucked-up exploits of aspiring perverts and petty thieves. (Meanwhile, Sono's real prestige picture, the tenebrous and tedious family drama The Land of Hope, premiered earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival to the polite applause and tempered praise one reserves for a Weinstein production.)
As befits a nearly four-hour film about vulgarity and perversion, Love Exposure is a mess of often combating themes, ideas, and narrative threads, the central one of which involves the rapid ascension of an ineffectual Catholic sinner to an up-skirt photographer par excellence. Yu Honda (Takahiro Nishijima), an almost preternaturally good-natured high school student, enters the world of surreptitious snapshots in order to (counter-intuitively) appease his father, a megalomaniacal priest who demands that Yu commit sins in order to confess to and atone for them later. But when Yu loses a bet which requires that he dress as a woman and kiss a girl as a penalty, he decides to ditch his panty shots and devote himself to winning over the girl of his dreams, who now believes she loves Yu's drag alter ego.
All of this occurs within the first of the film's four hours. Many complications and turnabouts are still to unfold, including the tale of Aya Koike, leader of a cult known as the Zero Church and mastermind of a plot to convert Yu's family to her cause. There's no doubt that Love Exposure's converging narratives—including substantial backstories for each of the principal characters, told in standalone flashback montages—could have been drastically reduced or, in some cases, excised entirely. There's surely a cogent two-hour film lurking somewhere within its nebulous sweep, but the sprawl is central to Love Exposure's appeal. Getting swept up in its torrents of swordfights and montages of sin and graphic castrations is what makes it such a dizzying, unforgettable experience. This isn't Lawrence of Arabia; Sono hasn't mounted a vast, unified vision of a serious, earthly expanse. His range is different: Love Exposure crams in everything, but never amounts to one major, perceptible Thing. In short, it's a decidedly amorphous epic.
Looseness of this kind, of course, often results in meandering, and over four hours a lack of aim (and concision) may drag. But Love Exposure, for all its sheer girth, is rarely languid, marching ever-ahead with the fervor and frenzy of a film a fraction of its size. It opens in the same fleet, hurried manner of the narrated montage which introduces The Magnificent Ambersons (a welcoming, rapid-fire rhythm later employed by The Royal Tenenbaums, Amélie, and even Wedding Crashers), and somehow manages to sustain the manic verve of that style and speed for more than half the film's running time, moving forward so briskly and with so little apparent effort that, like a swimmer gliding in front crawl, it never needs to stop to take a breath. That the film's opening title card doesn't appear until 58 minutes in, during an exquisitely composed action sequence, is telling: Here, structural conventions take a permanent backseat to what feels right in the moment, to the movement of the music playing in Sono's head. Which is to say that Love Exposure is paced perfectly precisely because it's paced improperly, or at least in a manner at odds with cinematic convention. It isn't so difficult to imagine this brand of long-form esprit forming the basis of, say, a particularly buoyant anime or graphic novel, which may also account for some of the film's recurring iconography (school uniforms, samurai swords, Yu's dance-like method of photography) as well as its fascination with all things adolescent.
Not that Love Exposure's interests are entirely jejune or superficial: Like Thomas Pynchon, whose Gravity's Rainbow may be at least an unconscious reference point for this film, Sono feels no compunction in allowing the serious and the slapstick to mingle, and the juxtaposition of the patently outrageous with the plainly horrifying produces something more complicated as a result. The humor is often broad (an inflated erection is twice used as both a sight gag and a revelation), but the subjects brought into play, from the deterioration of the family unit to the function of chastity in institutionalized religion, are confronted with a surprising degree of nuance and care. Which makes this, in the end, a pretty bizarre sort of film, a lowbrow work of trash art with aspirations to something high-minded. This overflowing ebullience is in aid of something.
Olive Films's AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is for the most part quite stunning, with excellent detail and clarity throughout. Outdoor scenes, in particular, look extraordinarily crisp, and the overall brightness of the image keeps even darkness and shadows visible and balanced. The most notable change from the film's previous Region 1 DVD release, besides increased definition, is the presentation's pervading, unnatural softness, which appears to be quite deliberate and is in keeping with the film's thematic interests and general aesthetic. This washed-out look sometimes comes at the expense of the kind of eye-catching color saturation typically brandished with pride by modern transfers, but fidelity to Sion Sono's intentions is always preferable to overzealous adjustment and "correction," In any case, the film looks great.
The disc's soundtrack, presented here in a 2.0 Dolby TrueHD mix, seems at first blush like a disappointment. The British Blu-ray includes a more common DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, and moving from a full surround mix to a mere two channels sounds like a compromise. But despite its action-film dalliances, Love Exposure doesn't actually boast an especially robust soundtrack, and in fact this 2.0 transfer handles the dialogue and Tomohide Harada's winning score so capably that extra channels may well have been superfluous.
An aspiring cult classic (with emphasis on the "cult"), Sion Sono's Love Exposure is the most exhilarating four-hour melodrama you're ever likely to see.