Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 31 March 2009
Source Projected DVD
Categories The 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival
Its formalist merits notwithstanding, Modern Love is Automatic concludes in a fashion so unexpected and beautiful that its preceding minutes are rendered deceptively slight. The scene in question, which is, simply, a karaoke performance, is a cathartic release of the inhibition, repression, and self-deception tendered by the main character. The brilliance of this scene is in how it reconstitutes the tragedy of this character: Lorraine, a repressed, mid-twenty-something nurse. When we first see her she has the basic accoutrements of a tolerable, if not pleasant everyday life: a boyfriend, a steady job, and an immaculately kept apartment. Of course, it is the rigid, uniform perfection of this existence that is noticeably askew. Lorraine spends essentially the entire film communicating little of her own desires aside from the stark indifference with which she greets virtually any circumstance, but her dissatisfaction remains tangible. She has no real conflicts and no real passion, either; when she discovers her boyfriend in bed with another woman, she evaluates the situation in the same manner as she does television programs that bore her to death.
For the most part the film is a series of detached, comedic vignettes in which Lorraine is contextualized in situations in which her discomfort is maximized. These scenes are little more than accomplished comic strip panels. But in retrospect, a desperation is at the heart of each of these scenes, which in turn are made segmented tragedies that belie the determinedly pastel façade.
Lorraine’s difficulty in connecting with anyone or anything is most curious because she’s an obvious bombshell, which renders the film more fetishistic - seeing her in an array of turtlenecks, slacks, and ascots - than it is rigidly composed. She’s an action figure whose personality and features have been embellished. (As portrayed by Melodie Sisk, she’s a notably sexy nurse.) And she’s playing a role, subscribing to common notions of success, romance, and entertainment. She begins to realize this.
Lorraine’s platitude is established so comprehensively that some sort of revocation is rightfully anticipated. But the ensuing revocation is not served against routine, remarkably, but rather against aesthetics. Her clothes are typically soft solid colors - she toggles between three trench coats, even, in white, pink, and baby blue - metaphorizing a narrow spectrum of social interaction. She is asynchronous in almost any social situation, and her demeanor is characteristically indifferent.
This asynchronousness and role-playing are catalyzed through the discovery of an S&M magazine. In short order, Lorraine - in a latex body suit - places an ad in the local paper, and entertains the fetishistic, depraved requests of otherwise normal men in a cheap hotel room. This is the logical pinnacle of Lorraine’s pretending, and it’s precisely the action that should trigger the self-discovery she seems to be seeking. But it doesn’t; she remains equally indifferent, whether in a pastel turtleneck or a Nazi uniform (in a rather oblique nod to Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS). The film’s preoccupation remains with aesthetics, and Lorraine’s S&M gig serves to further juxtapose the willing central character with increasingly fabricated - by her own assertion - scenarios. She despises bullshit, and yet determines to manufacture it. This is the central irony, an opportunity for Lorraine to assert herself, and yet she continues to operate behind a façade that betrays her true interests.
Lorraine’s snowballing woes culminate in the aforementioned karaoke scene, which is the film’s only explicit moment of truth: arriving home after a date, and frustrated at the prospect of making herself watch television, she immediately exits into a night that has more potential. In the final shot she sings a karoake version of New Order’s “Age of Consent,” in turn exhibiting her desires, insecurities, and frustrations for the first time.
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