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Joanna Arnow Made Her BDSM Comedy for You

At a time when moviegoers are noting the lack of sex in mainstream films, “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” is something of a revelation—both because of what it shows and how casually it shows it. The feature-length debut of writer, director, editor and star Joanna Arnow, this sharp indie comedy (which opens today) introduces us to Ann, played by Arnow, who is drifting through her 30s in New York, unhappy at both work and around her family. (Indicative of the movie’s autofiction elements, Ann’s parents are played by Arnow’s mom and dad.) 

Those aspects of her life might be familiar to viewers, but her romantic life may not. As the film begins, she’s in a BDSM relationship with an older divorced man, Allen (Scott Cohen), in which she’s the submissive—we often see Ann naked and Allen clothed, ordering her around. Ann prefers this power imbalance, and “The Feeling” never comments on or critiques it because, well, why does the film need to? Many people prefer BDSM relationships, even if they’re rarely portrayed on screen—and if they are, there’s often an edge of mocking judgment to it. Not so in “The Feeling”: Being a submissive works for Ann, and that’s all that matters.

That said, there are hints that Ann and Allen may not be completely compatible. As the film moves along in its understated, fragmented way, we see her trying out other flavors of BDSM relationships with other men, eventually landing on Chris (Babak Tafti), who, if this were a stereotypical Hollywood rom-com, would be the patented “good guy” presenting our ditzy heroine with the healthy, stable, “normal” relationship she’s secretly always been craving. But “The Feeling” isn’t a Hollywood rom-com, Ann isn’t ditzy, and nothing that plays out goes to form. With her keenly modulated deadpan humor and her eyes for the small, unguarded moments that tell us more about a character than some big speech ever would, Arnow has crafted a strikingly original work—one that is deceptively slight. The movie flows with such nonchalance, yet its impact is massive, capturing a searching soul at a crucial moment.

Over Zoom, Arnow is more expressive than Ann, who tends to be pretty bottled up. Her film premiered at Directors’ Fortnight almost a year ago at Cannes, so she has heard myriad reactions from different audiences. She notices that sometimes viewers don’t know what to make of Ann, her sexual preferences, and her choices. Arnow doesn’t mind. “I personally still like movies where I don’t agree with the decisions a character is making or even like the character,” she tells me, “but that definitely is not for everyone. Although, I think my movie is for everyone.” Arnow laughs. Is she being facetious? Does she not think “The Feeling” is for all audiences? “I think it’s a comedy, and everyone likes to laugh,” she replies, “so I’m excited to show it to wider audiences. I guess we’ll see.”

Over the next half-hour, we discussed how male journalists respond to female nudity, finding the movie’s pitch-perfect comedic tone, and the best (and weirdest) reactions she’s gotten from viewers so far. 

Some of your most glowing reviews refer to the movie as expressing millennial angst or discontent. I’m curious how you feel about “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” being described as a generational portrait.

I think a lot of journalists talk about films that women make, especially about sexuality; there’s an unintentionally coded language that gets used. I hear a lot of words like “millennial,” “cringe,” “raw,” and comparisons to Lena Dunham. For a male director, they might use words like “powerful” instead of “raw”—“outsider art” instead of “cringe”—and not tag them to one specific generation that has a reputation as being self-involved. Some negative connotations there. I think that there’s a way, perhaps unintentionally, of othering women’s films about sexuality and diminishing their intellectual nature.

Other loaded words that might fall under that category of what you’re describing are “brave” or “courageous” in terms of depicting female nudity.

I’m proud of how this film uses nudity—I think it does so in a way that is right for the story and serves the narrative. I’m trying to use all the tools to tell the best story, to make choices that are right for this story, and to create the comedy and emotional response that I’m going for. However, I see headlines from publications that lead with “Joanna Arnow Bares All”—it seems so strange, in this day and age, that that’s the main take. [That] can be heartbreaking for a film I wrote, directed, acted in, and edited to be reduced [in that way]. I wanted to show nudity and sexuality in a very non-sensational way. To me, that’s not what the story’s about at all.

There’s so much discourse now about how sex has gone missing in modern movies. Was “The Feeling” an attempt to combat that—reminding viewers that sexuality is an important aspect of ourselves?

This is a film about a character wrestling with questions about sexuality, relationships, and self, and I think we all do that in some shape or form. I was excited to portray that comedically, which I hope leaves everyone feeling lighter about it all. 

I think sexuality is such an essential part of the human experience. I think bodies and how we move through space can say so much about character and relationships—and it can be quite funny, the vulnerability of connecting with each other and trying new things. That’s really why I was interested in telling a story about sexuality, BDSM, and relationships. 

I didn’t make this film to correct issues of representation, but it has meant a lot to me when people come up to me after screenings and say that they’re excited to see bodies like theirs, on screen, represented sexually. We don’t see many sex scenes with women with size-large bodies and in their thirties. I hope it increases the ways that sex scenes are represented and women are represented.

Ann’s office work, which looks soulless and miserable, is another crucial ingredient of this character. If sex helps give our lives meaning, are you also interested in how much our jobs define us?

I was interested in creating a story that includes work and family, relationships, sexuality, and even every-day interactions at a party. I was interested in exploring how the entirety of our experience informs who we are and finding both the comparisons and contrasts in these different plot lines that involve power dynamics, communication issues, and relationship issues. 

I also think it’s interesting to explore how we’re all more than one person—we always change depending on who we’re sitting opposite and in what context. I think conventional storytelling often flattens characters to be very consistent throughout the course of a plot—they start at Point A and end up in a very different Point B. But in this film, I wanted to explore a character arc that was smaller and jagged and uneven—and perhaps the change doesn’t even happen at all. I think that leaves room for a character to be different ways in different contexts.

Ann’s two primary relationships in the film are with Allen, in which she’s a submissive, and Chris, which might be seen as a more conventional/traditional movie romance. Do you find that audiences root for her to end up with Chris?

The Allen relationship definitely has some fans as well. (laughs) But I feel like, in our society, there’s still a bias towards a nuclear-family lifestyle—and some resistance to seeing a character who maybe is not heading that direction. 

I am not surprised that the Chris character tends to be more favored. But I always try to express that I wasn’t looking to place a value judgment [on Ann’s relationships] and see it more as a story of a character exploring one type of relationship [and then] another type of relationship—not trying to say it’s about “growth” and she learns what love is or something. (laughs) I don’t know, all those things, that would be cringey.

I’ll be careful of spoilers, but the ending is a surprise. That said, it’s completely organic to who Ann is.

The way it ends wasn’t always the way [it was going to end]. That [was] partly to remedy that fairytale-like quality that I was worried about the film having. It does get gasps.

Did that reaction surprise you?

No.

Was part of you wanting to provoke that reaction?

Any vocalization in a movie, I’ll take—unless it’s a boo. [Gasping] is not my personal reaction, but I understand it.

In recent years, intimacy coordinators have been an important addition to film sets. For your film’s intimate scenes, which are the kinds mainstream movies rarely show, how did that work?

We actually didn’t have an intimacy coordinator, but we worked quite hard to make sure it was a safe and comfortable environment for all of the actors, including myself. We took checking in with actors about comfort levels very seriously—communicating about blocking, rehearsals, having a closed set and standard intimacy-scene protocols. And reminding everyone that they could change their minds at any time or express any discomfort. 

Were there specific films that you drew from in terms of how to craft your sex scenes?

Tsai Ming-liang’s “Vive L’Amour” has always been an influence on me, the way his minimalist style and long-shot, long-take style allows space for the audience to take in these absurd and sexual situations on their own terms and in their full context. I think that allows viewers to find the humor in them more as they play out in real-time. [I first saw it] back in college during a Contemporary East-Asian Cinema class. Those images just stayed with me—like people not knowing there's someone under the bed and letting that unfold in real-time. (laughs) The strangeness of that, I feel like it hit me so much more [having] those very striking and slightly off-kilter shots play out unedited. 

“The Feeling” is not autobiographical—it’s autofiction—but I imagine it’s hard for some viewers not to project their feelings of Ann onto you because you play her and made the film. How has that experience been?

My definition of autofiction is that, while the film draws on personal experience, it’s not autobiographical because a lot of things are changed. Things always change when you put a story like this into narrative form, even one that’s minimalist and experimental. But I wanted it to be a story that reflects things that are true. 

I consider it autofiction because I wanted to mine my own personal experience for humor and specificity so that, I hoped, it would connect more with others. In doing that, I did things like casting my own parents to play the parents in the film, casting myself to play a version of myself, using locations where [certain] things were inspired. Even things like I went to Wesleyan [like Ann did], and I was a clinical e-learning media specialist. (laughs) I used some recorded sounds that I could hear from my upstairs neighbors to enrich the sound design. I come from a documentary background, so sometimes, things that are true can be stranger than anything you could write. Incorporating these seeds of true experience, I hope, makes it a richer fabric.

You had mentioned earlier that you’re not a fan of having the film’s humor described as “cringe.” How would you classify your style of comedy?

I like self-deprecating humor, dark humor, deadpan humor. We call [“The Feeling”] a BDSM comedy, even though I feel like it covers a lot of other things, but [we] want to get people’s attention. (laughs)

It’s a very specific kind of dry, awkward comedy. How easy was it finding that tone with your actors? 

I was very lucky to have some rehearsals with the actors ahead of time. Especially since I was acting and directing, having that time to prepare in advance was particularly helpful—I even filmed some of these rehearsals, so I could watch them back, not on set. 

I feel like getting the tone right was a lot about the timing because I wrote the script with specific timings in mind. To me, the film is a lot about exploring in-between spaces—there’s this “casual-BDSM relationship,” but there’s also intimacy there, and what does it look like when [Ann and Allen] are having dinner together? Sometimes, it’s exciting to me as a viewer to think about what a character might be feeling or thinking [in those moments] and piecing that together for myself. In some conventional films, there’s not as much space, and I feel like that space lets the actors live in a more uncomfortable moment—but it also gives space for the audience to feel the complexity of those moments. 

Are you drawn to those in-between spaces because, in some ways, they reveal who we are?

Those are the times when we're figuring out something. This movie is so much about the process of grappling with ourselves and navigating life throughout the days and the years.

Ann is someone who’s searching. Have you yourself found something through this process of making the film?

Movies are hard to make, so I don’t think it clarified much for me, personally. (laughs, remembering) Someone in the Q&A at the Nitehawk preview screening told me last night that the clothes my character was wearing were normcore, which shocked me. (laughs) Most of the clothes came from my own closet. I thought I had a lot of individuality in my clothing so that I could do some reflection after that comment.

Was it supposed to be an insult?

I don’t know. I take it as an insult, but it’s fine. (laughs) I have thick skin at this point.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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