Kees Van Oostrum’s A Perfect Man opens with a devilishly handsome man strolling through a crowded restaurant in slow motion, studiously scoping out the female patrons for a potential hookup before finally homing in on a mysterious woman who sits alone at the bar nursing a stiff drink and sporting a sleeveless dress. They engage in platitudinous banter (“I’m flying out tomorrow,” she says, to which he responds, “And here I just flew in”), and after little coaxing, the two wind up in bed, their naked bodies bathed in sultry light, gyrating to the sound of a Dido-esque jam whose forthright lyrics seem to have been written as if in anticipation of this very moment.
You may feel like you’ve witnessed this scene a thousand times before, in romantic dramas of every stripe, except you haven’t, as it turns out that James (Liev Schreiber) and Nina (Jeanne Tripplehorn) are husband and wife indulging in long-form sexual role-play. The next morning, the two are engaged in routine yet noticeably cutesy discussion, with Nina on her way to meet her friends for a jog and James on his way to work, their bouncy dog milling in between them and the film’s peppy score signifying that we’ve transitioned from a sordid, Adrian Lyne-esque erotic drama to a candied Nancy Meyers romcom. This abrupt switch in tone has all the grace of a two-ton semi-trailer truck, yet that’s precisely what makes it so mesmerizing. Within the first five minutes, and multiple times afterward, Van Oostrum pronounces his film as an erratic meditation on sex, monogamy, romance, and identity, so unencumbered by the tenets of genre that it actively switches between a myriad of them without batting an eyelash.
Not long after finishing her jog, Nina finds James cheating on her with a mutual friend, Martha (Renée Soutendijk). It turns out that James has a penchant for extramarital affairs, and that this most recent tryst his fifth transgression in nine years of marriage. It’s also his last, as Nina, who’d previously forgiven his clandestine hookups while also indulging him in elaborate role-playing that feeds his desire for bedding unfamiliar women, ceremoniously announces her intention to divorce him. The rest of the film is devoted to their respective self-reflection, with James wondering why he couldn’t keep it in his pants, and Nina wondering why she tolerated his indiscretions. To find some answers and seek some closure, she calls him up under the guise of a Dutch woman and makes his acquaintance; James, feeling reflective in the wake of being dumped, indulges her. And so the role-playing continues.
A Perfect Man, in its elliptical presentation of its characters’ lives, brings to mind the latter-day films of Philippe Garrel, but Van Oostrum’s genre experimentation aligns him with Paul Verhoeven, a didactic prankster who recognizes an audience’s affinity for genre comforts and delivers them so vehemently that the line between sincerity and irony is blurred. Van Oostrum does the same thing here, but with reckless abandon, the film heedlessly switching between embroiled sex drama and light sex comedy, its characters’ moods oscillating from frenzied to disaffected and back again. Like Verhoeven, Van Oostrum doesn’t shy away from artifice for the sake of realism; he amplifies artifice to reveal the inherent inefficiency of reducing human relations to generic emotional cues. In other words, A Perfect Man is an autocritique, pathologically sexualized a la Basic Instinct yet comically subversive, indulging in formula so vigorously that it eventually resembles abstraction.