Guilty Pleasures, the opening-night selection for the 14th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, is a movie about fantasy: creating it, living in it, and learning its limitations. Though ostensibly about harlequin romance novels, very little of the film is about the books directly. We hear some snippets of text read by various characters and learn a little bit about the demands of the genre (“The man must never have back hair,” we are told), but for the most part the film focuses on five people whose lives are somehow informed by these books—either as writers, readers, or models—and examines how their vision of love and life has been affected (often negatively) by the stories they read and create.
Overseeing it all is British romance author Roger, who writes under the pen name Gill Sanderson. (In a Q&A following the screening, director Julie Moggan described him as being a “God-like” figure, setting everything in motion and explaining what it all means.) Roger is a pensioner who has written nearly 50 books (doctors and medical-themed plots are his specialty), and who seems to take great pride in his craft and the joy his books bring readers. He bristles at the suggestion that romances are anti-feminist and encourage women to live in a fantasy world. Though he often talks about the mysteries of love and the differences between men and women, Roger spends a lot of his time alone, writing in his house or walking in the park, saying he prefers solitude.
His readers are international, but all women: Hiroko in Japan, so in love with the idea of romance and bored with her husband that she takes ballroom dancing lessons; Shumita from India, who is having trouble dealing with the separation from her husband, despite the fact that he is unfaithful, arrogant, and chauvinist; and Shirley in Britain, who tries very hard to support her bipolar husband. In America, we meet Stephen Muzzonigro, a model who has posed for over 200 Harlequin romance covers. Despite his perfectly toned physique, Stephen is still looking for what he calls his “twin flame,” his soul’s mirror image, and spends a lot of time (when he’s not working out) reading New Age books on Taoism and sunbathing. He has a love/hate relationship with food (he loves to eat everything, but hates the calories that come with it) and projects boyish energy and unflappable optimism. The audience at Full Frame loved him, and when he came onstage for the Q&A, he was treated like a rock star.
But Stephen’s story is in contrast to a lot of sadness in the film. Each of the women are living lives full of far more complexity and frustration than they expected: They all wanted to live like the heroines of their books, and are a little surprised when this doesn’t happen. It’s actually quite heartbreaking, especially for Shumita, who keeps trying to convince her estranged husband Sanjay to come back to her. It’s clear from the few glimpses we get of him, speeding around town in a Porsche and complaining about “militant feminism,” that Sanjay is no harlequin hero, and that the longer it takes Shumita to realize this the harder it’s going to be for her to move on.
That the film is able to end on a more or less positive note (“I love happy endings,” Roger says, “there’s nothing wrong with that”) isn’t quite as comforting as we’d expect. The characters may admit that the books are just escapist fun, but they never seem able to give up on the fantasies themselves. When Hiroko’s husband eventually joins her ballroom dancing lessons, we’re supposed to take this as a great moral victory: husband and wife together again. However, neither of them asks why Hiroko is so insistent on continuing to live out her harlequin-inspired desires to the expense of the rest of her family (they have two kids). These books may not be anti-feminist, but they sure don’t encourage anything resembling mature, adult relationships either.
This year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival runs from April 14 - 17.