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January 24, 2012 / Siobhan Argent

Guilty Pleasures (documentary)


Guilty Pleasures, a documentary about the world of romance novels directed by Julie Moggan (As the Sun Begins to Set, Waiting for a Lift), is definitely a bittersweet romance. There’s no Cinderella happy ending, no thrilling sexual encounters or dangerous escapades (aside from a ride in a Porsche, but we’ll get to that later), but there is the more sage romance of real life, which seems to pervade every corner of this loved-up, mushy film by its somewhat predictable conclusion.

Moggan follows five different stories all tethered together by the unique connection of the romance novel. Three are avid romance-novel readers (Indian Shumita, Japanese Hiroko and English Shirley). Another is an English-based, single romance novelist who lives and works in a caravan (Roger, who works under the pseudonym Gill Sanderson) and sometimes helps out at the romance writers’ association. And then, in a category entirely his own, there’s American Stephen, a Miami-based romance-novel cover model so obsessed with himself that there’s barely any room in his life for a potential lover.

The main point Guilty Pleasures illustrates is that fictionalisation is perhaps both the biggest attraction and greatest caveat of romance novels; they don’t reflect real life. While Stephen spends every waking moment thinking about, talking about or working on his physique and his emotional well-being, Hiroko daydreams about her dance teacher, dancing itself a fantasy she has gleaned from novels where a once-unloved heroine is swept onto the dancefloor for the first time. Her dutiful and cheerful husband doesn’t seem to mind; in his own words, he admits that he’s happy for her to read the novels if they give her something he can’t.

They’re familiar stories: Shumita thumbs through romance novels for a bit of alternative-reality therapy; separated from her husband Sanjay for five years, she talks hopefully of a reunion once Sanjay has moved on from the woman he has been seeing since their break-up. Hiroko is happily married to what seems like a very sweet man, yet she longs for the fantastical romance of competitive ballroom dancing. Shirley reads novels as part of that grand English tradition of boring day-to-day life, it seems, while her husband-with-a-difficult-past does dorky romantic things like buying her balloons for Valentine’s Day. Aw, shucks.

Roger, a slightly short older gent with a penchant for penning romantic fiction, is a little different. First of all, there is no partner in sight and he works diligently in his caravan, apparently locking himself away from the world. Thus far he estimates he’s published around 50 books and, to demonstrate the power of his reach, walks into his local library and shows us how many times just one of his books has been hired out.

In another category we have Stephen. Moggan does her best not to caricature him, but he does that pretty effortlessly on his own. Our first glimpse of Stephen is at the beach, suntanning his perfectly built, muscular body into a glowing bronze beacon of romanticised perfection. He goes to a romance novel cover photoshoot, then goes back to obsessing about his ‘true flame’ and what he’d really like to achieve when he gets the chance. All of it involves him looking fabulous at all times. It’s difficult to empathise with dear Stephen, but you do feel that he is so ignorant of how silly he sometimes looks that you are grateful that he is, at least, not intentionally inflicting his Miami-style interpretation of the meaning of life onto Moggan’s audience.

There are road bumps to this documentary; most are small but some are quite groundbreaking. Shumita’s story, for example, is perhaps the most painful. Shumita struggles to rise to the task of seeing her situation for what it really is. Her story becomes more of a question of whether she can remove the rose-tinted glasses polished so well by romance novels plots and see reality on its own terms. By far my favourite ‘ending’ was in Hiroko’s rose-tinted, almost fairytale conclusion about the nature of life. Her perspective, in fact, validates everything that is good about real life and love, rather than the predictable fairytales that play out in a romantic novel.

Much like the romance novel itself, Moggan is apt to romanticise her subjects. It’s clear, at least, that she is deeply sympathetic towards her characters, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Considering this documentary is an analysis of the yawning gap between fantasy and reality, it’s pleasant to have Moggan’s gentle touch on the direction to bring us down gently. In the end, it doesn’t seem difficult to make her subjects appear romantic, as they appear to do a lot of the heavy lifting themselves. In locations and situations more exotic than my own, it’s all too easy to imagine what I might do in America, India or Japan were I to have my way. While Guilty Pleasures isn’t a romance novel it is an ode to that odd genre, and hence it does a creditable job of whisking the viewer away to exotic locations and difficult situations where one might, unexpectedly, find a little something to love.

The First Look season of Guilty Pleasures screens at ACMI in Melbourne from 2 to 5 February (see link for more details or to buy tickets).

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