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Politicising Private Love

A response to ‘Lust to Love and in Between’ – a programme of short films released as part of the London Film Festival.


Traditionally, love has been neatly categorised in the realm of the ‘private’, tucked away with all that horribly mushy stuff: desire, vulnerability, the feminine. What struck me most about the programme of short films I saw during the ‘Lust to Love and in Between’ screenings, though, was their politicisation of love and sexual desire. There is a conflict between the public sphere and the bower-like secrecy of the lovers’ bed, but this is tempered by the existence of these two worlds in such close proximity in these short movies, whether temporally or spatially in the frame. ‘Lust to Love and in Between’ changes our perception on the relation between the realm of the public and that of the private: it encourages us to think of love and sexual intimacy in the politicised terms of broader society.

This is perhaps most clearly exemplified by the five-minute Austrian film ‘Morning Person’, in which a young woman wakes after a night with a sexual partner and prepares herself to leave. The sensual stillness of the scene is destabilised by the jarring interruptions of calls from the protagonist’s family – reminders of the existence of an outside world – which jolt her, and the camera’s movements into a frantic dash for the door. A public/private binary is also explored through the use of nakedness. Almost all of the films use partial or complete nudity as a symbol for the natural liberation of desire, in contrast to a clothed, closeted external world.

(A still from ‘Morning Person’: The protagonist dresses, while her partner sleeps in the background)

As the titular ‘morning person’ adds layers of clothes to her nude body, she is also shedding her natural, apolitical self. The shift towards the public realm is finally complete when she dons a headscarf – a saturated cultural symbol connoting a myriad of social and religious ideas. This analysis of the film may seem like an affirmation of a separatist conception of love and society. But I think this visible layering of cultural baggage through dressing only serves to show the viewer what was latent in the character during her time in the private realm. The film reveals a paradox in which love is both a covertly operating microcosm of society, and also a rejection of its controls – the running riot of unsanctioned human desires.

Perhaps I had let a fever of pretentious politicised interpretation get the better of me, I thought, as a man in Y-fronts stared absently into camera, detailing his wanking routine in the very next film. Gone was the subtle imagery and cinematography of ‘Morning Person’; it was to be replaced by ‘Boytime’ (the film and the, umm, ‘pastime’) which is about as far from appropriate public discourse as you can get. However, at the risk of sounding like I’m just shamelessly trying to keep my line of argument alive, I think that this very estrangement is what introduces the political into this intensely private monologue. My skin crawled looking into the actor’s vacant face, but why? The matter-of-fact, unashamed presentation of self-gratification ridiculed my – and wider society’s – embarrassment. It forced me to examine the social processes that have made me so absurdly prudish; the same processes that led me to a long, but unsuccessful, Google quest to find a tasteful euphemism for ‘wiggling the walrus’.

(A still from ‘Boytime’, showing the semi-clothed lead staring into the camera)

The details of the monologue, rather than the irreverent premise, is what cements social commentary in the film. The protagonist reveals that he keeps only one earphone in while ‘beating the beaver’ (I’m sticking with the ill-advised animal metaphors) so that he can be in alert if anyone is about to walk in on his private moment. This suggests another paradox: the attempt to keep the world at arm’s length during moments of private desire by simultaneously maintaining a tangential connection to it. Even ‘Boytime’, then, with its brazen impudence, can be seen as a serious comment on the absurdity of sexual taboos in society: it furthers the idea of a paradox in the overlapping, but still alienated, realms of the public and the private.

‘A Female Body’, the final film in the programme, was to an extent separate from its fellow works, offering a detached, hypothetical look at sex and relationships. A documentary consisting of interviews with a diverse set of Brazilian women, it actively highlights the politicisation of sexuality (female sexuality in particular), yet still plays with the contrasts between public and private. The most heart-breaking moments occur when the interviewees unthinkingly reinforce the gender stereotypes and social constructions that oppress them. For example, one teen pragmatically states that her body is the possession of men who use it for pleasure, her tone legitimising patriarchy as regrettable but unavoidable and even natural.

(A still from ‘A Female Body’: A teen is interviewed in an empty classroom, and reveals that she regards her body as the property of men)

Again, our initial and innocent view of sex and love as natural and pure is destabilized in the film, through the unequivocal evidence that the realms are constructed and contextual social systems. By presenting a heterogeneous mix of female opinions about their own bodies and sexuality, the director makes it clear that there is no one ‘natural’ conception of it.

Should we accept or not accept it, love and sex exist as a part of our politicised society. For their expository force, I would recommend giving the films in this programme a watch (visit the BFI websitefor trailers and more information). I hope that together, they will push you to consider how your most private moments are shaped by the public forces with which they interact; a really helpful reflection to make, if a little unsettling.

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