An unfulfilled housewife drifts away from her mannered husband by selling her body whenever he’s away in Sion Sono’s Guilty of Romance—a film that seems in conversation with Luis Buñuel’s classic Belle de Jour. As with his forebear, the central transgression Sono is after is the wandering sex life of an ostensibly monogamous woman, a subject the director makes personal in both writing and casting. The kept woman is Izumi Kikuchi (Megumi Kagurazaka, Sono’s wife), who’s left to rigorous housekeeping each day. Her perpetually domineering husband makes his living as a commercial artist, much like Sono himself—and that commercial element is born out in the various genre influences coursing through this story outside Izumi’s home. A philandering police detective (Miki Mizuno) investigates a series of murders in Shibuya’s “love district” (cop thriller) while a supposedly liberated professor (Makoto Togashi) leads Izumi into a series of increasingly fetishistic sex-acts (softcore pornography). Izumi’s domestic life is rendered in still frames with patient editing rhythms, while the worlds of sex and violence waiting beyond are painted with garish colors reminiscent of ‘neon-noir,’ and the contrast illustrates everything that’s attractive about the latter.
An overture links the three worlds of Sono’s film with a single image: a series of body parts sewn onto mannequins, blood and viscera leaking out the seams, commerce and identities and carnality co-mingled.
Buñuel saw the world’s various states with the same eye, but Sono has a more schizophrenic manner of filmmaking: just as he’s communing with film history, so too are the various aesthetics he designates for individual sequences engaging in a conversation with one another. An overture links the three worlds of Sono’s film—the personal, the professional, and the sexual—with a single image: a series of body parts sewn onto mannequins, blood and viscera leaking out the seams, commerce and identities and carnality co-mingled. A later image furthers the same connection: Izumi stands nude in front of a mirror, practicing the script from her job at a grocery store, marketing her own body (“try some!”). These sequences do, of course, require Sono to inhabit and dramatize female sexual psychology, which has led to “accusations of misogyny” or suggestions that Guilty of Romance is a “study in degradation.” But such conclusions assume that Sono is an ideological filmmaker, and his spiderwebbed considerations of culture and psychology produce results far too complex and multifaceted for that label. What he’s filming is not just the role that Japanese culture might force onto its women, but also the roles they take up in response. More contrasts: between dolls and living beings, between employment and agency, between desire and satisfaction. Sono’s surrogate here is not the police investigator, but rather the criminal—the figure who sews contradictions together.