Adah (Betsey Brown) and Aaron (Jack Dunphy) bond over their love of buttholes, their fondness for poppers, and the growth of their genital and oral herpes with such vehemence that their faces transform into actual anuses. Such is the premise of writer-director Peter Vack’s deliriously gross Assholes, which begins as a clever pseudo-mumblecore provocation with shades of Bruce LaBruce only to quickly turn into indefensible nonsense.
The film’s world is peopled solely by either the most cartoonish version of psychoanalysts or the addicts who lie down on their couches, whether literally or at increasingly awkward family dinners: Adah’s mother, Anne (Jane Brown), is an analyst interested in emotional castration; her brother, Adam (Peter Vack), is an analyst-in-training developing theories around sublimation; and she meets Aaron in their analyst’s waiting room. In the film, it’s as if becoming an adult means becoming professorial and pleasure-less, and the only other alternative is to remain so polymorphously perverse that one has to regress not only back to “the anal phase,” but to becoming the anus itself.
It’s problematic that Vack depicts scatology enthusiasts as deranged lovers bound to commit murder, lose all sense of reality, and eventually turn into the very object of their fetish. But the fact that there now exists a film that so forcefully confronts the anus’s multiple functions is nothing short of a marvel. Not only do anuses exist here, but human bodies exist without shame: fat, smelly, wound-infested, and flatulent. There certainly could have been a less pathologizing approach to this material, which is something that the film’s first half embraces in the way that Aaron, almost Woody Allen-like, asks his analyst if he knows what a “gape” is. Here the neurotic’s complaint is rooted in his inability to function in the real world because he’s way too into “hardcore degrading violent ass-fucking,” and instead of looking at girls and wondering what it’d be like to be in a relationship with them, he just wonders what it’d be like “to see what her asshole looks like destroyed.”
Dumphy’s deadpan avowal of his character’s desire for anality and violence feels cathartic. But speaking of buttholes with such fluency, it turns out, is so alluring that when anuses begin to pop up in explicit rimming scenes or in the morphing of characters’ faces, something is lost. The film becomes so in love with its central provocation that little room is left for anything else.
This is obviously not the first time cinema takes up grossness as subject matter. David Wnendt’s Wetlands recently painted a bold portrait of a gender non-conforming girl through her hemorrhoids, penchant for vomit, and vaginal odor. But Assholes is perhaps the first film to use herpes as a visual motif. The film’s most romantic scene takes place in a bathroom with Adah defecating in front of Aaron while they sniff each other’s herpes scabs and whisper niceties in each other’s ears. And it’s here that we’re consumed by the hyperbolism of the characters’ symptoms—to the point where it’s as if the symptoms have completely replaced the characters. In the end, the film becomes total chaos, and all we see is a filmmaker enjoying himself too hysterically to realize that his concept has lost all consistency and that his storyline has unraveled not into allegory, but gibberish.