In Michael Salerno’s The Masturbator’s Heart, death is an unshakeable temptation so vivid it becomes an obligation. It’s a remedy, a return to total neutrality. The movie follows an unnamed, long-haired teenage protagonist (Ange Dargent) through his invisible world. He submits to an online game: fifty assigned tasks over fifty days. The early challenges are innocuous, yet they grow destructive and escalate toward the ultimate challenge — suicide. Along the way, he begins to eradicate every hint of his existence, including physical possessions, photographs of himself, etc. Slowly, it becomes clear that the end goal isn’t just death, but the complete erasure of anything that points to his time on earth.
On paper, this narrative of teenage nihilism and the shadowy depths of the Internet may evoke Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Yet Salerno’s approach is the inverse of Schoenbrun’s hyper-digital internet POV. The film’s 16mm cinematography embraces a visual terrain juxtaposed with the pixelated mediascapes the character inhabits. Aside from a few tightly-framed shots of desktop screens, The Masturbator’s Heart unfolds outside online terrain. The mechanics of whatever server the protagonist’s game runs through are unspecified (though the interface looks archaic), and our glimpse into his world is mediated and contained. His interiority, similarly, remains mostly enigmatic. Instead, Salerno’s camera cultivates a coldness, hinging on tableaux of his character, which range from quotidian tasks to limit-experiences. The crux of the film is Dargent’s performance and his empty gaze: lids half-closed over emerald eyes, sans expression. He treads with a laconic severity.
The compositions are vignettes of lonesomeness. The movie centers a character tossed otherwise peripherally in every sphere of life. Composed in claustrophobic 4:3, most shots feature Dargent alone in a house. The interior design is hokey: patterned wallpaper and wood furniture. It’s the image of superficial domestic respectability, completely disconnected from the protagonist’s inner world. His alienation is equally palpable in public. In class, his desk is pushed into the far corner, spread out from fellow students. Early on, the camera slowly zooms into his face as he glances at a classmate, his eyes meeting the anonymity of a back. The Masturbator’s Heart doesn’t chronicle failed attempts at human connection. By the time it begins, isolation is already a foregone conclusion. Death is the only release.
This is the first film from Salerno, who was born in Australia and works in Paris. He runs a small publisher called Kiddiepunk and DP’d both Dennis Cooper’s directorial efforts (Permanent Green Light and Like Cattle Towards Glow). But even beyond their collaborating history, Cooper is an inevitable reference point. The Masturbator’s Heart shares Cooper’s infamous obsessions: the flailing anguish of queer youth, the eroticized magnetism of death, adolescent worlds unknown to adults, etc. The film’s central tension stems from the relationship between its slow, non-expository storytelling and its harrowing material. It resists saccharine conclusions, psychoanalytic readings, or any moralizing. Instead, it articulates the feeling of hopelessness, and a retreat into self-demolishing desire.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 27