Part of filmmaker Sion Sono’s Hate Trilogy, Guilty of Romance follows the sexual awakening of Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), a mix of geisha, Jeanne Dielman, and Stepford wife. She’s married to a famous Japanese novelist who expects her to place his slippers in the same exact spot every morning, keep a readily available stock of Savon de Marseille soap, and sit motionless on the couch while he reads. While Izumi takes pride in her ability to be the perfect housewife, she starts slacking off on her domestic chores once she meets a porn producer who tricks and, then, coerces her into making a porno. This experience functions as a rabbit hole through which Izumi meets a series of seriously libertine women who live by the motto that “when you fuck a man you don’t love, it has to be for money.”
Though Guilty of Romance begins with the aesthetic and conceptual rigor of Blade Runner (a detective finds a Hans Bellmer-like corpse featuring human and mannequin limbs), it quickly veers toward the gratuitous outlandishness of a Bruce La Bruce film. The film is divided into five chapters, the first being the only consistently fascinating one. Here Sono develops a character study, and a cultural critique of awesomely metaphorical proportions, around Izumi’s quick path from domestic slavery to profitable nymphomania. We see her masochistic fantasies of normative home life get completely shattered by an overwhelming horniness once she (with her husband’s approval) takes up a job selling sausages at a deli and meets not only her porn fairy godmother, but a college professor who coaches her into an unrepressed and guilt-free sex life. The professor’s approach to prostitution, and perhaps the film’s, sees it as an activist tool against patriarchy where, instead of refusing men’s sexist come-ons, women provoke, exploit, and finally leave them for dead—sometimes literally. Sono sometimes goes about exposing these politics in rather obvious ways through the professor’s explanations, but he also produces beautiful scenes that evoke his philosophy in less spelled-out ways. For instance, at the start of Izumi’s social-libidinal makeover, she stares at her naked body in a full-length mirror and performs the repetitive and humiliating task that she normally does selling sausages, of all things, at the deli. She begs her reflection like a maniac to “try some,” because “it’s delicious.”
Guilty of Romance is an ambitious film set to an epic-like soundtrack that recalls the grand finale of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice. It’s also an uneven film, at times opaquely cinematic, other times excessively literal. Its ethos is at once poetic and grotesque. This is something of a feminist film with a message that’s both dystopic and invigorating. Instead of fighting the perhaps doomed fight against objectification of their bodies, the female characters embrace and take advantage of it—as if making a mockery out of the very social structures that entrap them. At the same time, while these women may charge men for sexual encounters (profiting off of a service they normally would have to provide for free), they seem to always pay a high price for such sexual-political consciousness. It’s as though heterosexual relationships, status quo and status quo-shattering alike, could never not end in violence or horror.