Berlinale Impressions Part I: ‘Don Jon’ journeys boldly through porn, sex, love

A man with devastating charm and good looks, capable of taking home any woman in a club—and yet reliant on Internet porn for true satisfaction. This is the premise of “Don Jon’s Addiction,” an utterly fresh and disarming film, starring and directed by ascendant Hollywood golden boy Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt arrives on the Berlinale red carpet to promote “Don Jon’s Addiction.”

I was particularly excited to catch this film at the 2013 Berlinale. Joseph Gordon-Levitt frequently delivers layered, complex, thought-provoking performances, and this project was no exception. The film was frank, real and unabashed. This film and Gordon-Levitt’s role are perhaps perfect counterparts to Michael Fassbender’s performance in the 2011 film “Shame.” Like Fassbender’s character, “Don Jon” has a sexual addiction. Unlike the wrenching sadness and self-loathing permeating “Shame,” “Don Jon’s Addiction” tackles the theme with irrepressible cheer, humor and surprising beauty.

Interestingly, there was nothing strange about watching this character compulsively masturbate with a large theater audience, or watching the porn in question, for that matter. I remember being uncomfortable seeing “Shame”—not because of the sex, but because the character’s suffering is difficult to watch. His shame over his own powerlessness literally becomes the viewer’s. Although Gordon-Levitt’s character also struggles, he retains a certain touching lightness and comfort in his own skin. His shallow girlfriend’s attempts to break him of his porn addiction are depicted as egotistical, repressed and delusional, while his Catholic priest’s moral yardstick for assessing measures of sin and effort towards good behavior are portrayed as equally laughable and out of touch.

I found this take on the subject to be completely refreshing, intelligent and wonderfully human. While addictions can inflate any indulgence to terrifying proportions, the film took a nuanced stance that there is nothing inherently wrong or abnormal about masturbation or porn. The unhealthy element in Don Jon’s appetites lay rather in the fact that he was missing out on true satisfaction in the actual sexual act. After breaking up with his girlfriend Barbara, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, he starts a journey of sexual exploration and fulfillment with Julianne Moore’s older character Esther, which is breathtakingly moving and beautiful to behold.

On a technical front, I found that the film achieved masterful effectiveness in simplicity. Bold and vibrant, forceful and apparently uncomplicated, a sequence of recurring shots, predictably repeated at points throughout the movie, served to drive home the thoroughly formed habits of the character. A cloud in a bright blue sky passing above his church as he hurries inside to confession, the ritualized words, Don Jon striding along the same hallway with a vending machine and an open door to a basketball court as he heads to the weights room at his gym, a bird’s-eye bedroom shot as he airs and straightens his bedding every morning. These shots are subverted with a shift of perspective or a different turning when he starts to truly change—not under the demands of his girlfriend, but in a mutual evolution of desire with Esther.

The humor of the film is hard to define, but it is startlingly, irresistibly funny—whether the deadpan first-person narration describing Don Jon’s sexual habits and philosophy, his quirky, dysfunctional family dynamics, or simply hysterical gag moments like his trademark crumpled cleanup tissues or his expression of pained disgust on realizing that all his pants have semen stains resulting from his girlfriend’s initial refusal to have sex, stringing him along with hallway frottage sessions for a month or so.

In any case, this film genuinely shines with a unique storyline and fearless, all-in acting with heart. Definitely catch this one in 2013!

Photos from the red carpet (copyright Caitlin Hardee):

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2 responses to “Berlinale Impressions Part I: ‘Don Jon’ journeys boldly through porn, sex, love

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