Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Spotlight

The Feeling That the Time For Doing Something Has Passed — Joanna Arnow

April 24, 2024

Many critics have already labeled Joanna Armow’s laboriously titled The Feeling That the Time For Doing Something Has Passed a “millennial” comedy (a fitting alternate title: Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time), a descriptor that makes a certain amount of sense but that also feels limiting. It’s true that writer-director-star Arnow has constructed a cringe-inducing treatise on contemporary dating, but the feelings of inadequacy and interpersonal malaise that she so deftly chronicles ultimately know no generational divide. If you’ve ever been in an unhappy relationship or felt awkward during a sexual encounter, chances are Arnow will strike a nerve. It’s a universal ennui.

Structured as a series of discrete vignettes organized around title cards displaying the names of her romantic partners, Feeling begins with Ann (Arnow) in bed with Allen (Scott Cohen). It becomes clear that the pair have been together for quite some time, and that they engage in BDSM play, he as the master and she as the sub. But Ann is increasingly dissatisfied with their arrangement. She begins to assert herself by asking him to show some interest in her beyond sex, a change in the arrangement that irks Allen. And so Ann branches out, determined to meet someone new. Intercut between various, fairly explicit sex scenes are a series of conversations between Ann and her elderly parents (played by Arnow’s actual mom and dad) and scenes of Ann at her deadly dull office day job.

Arnow is in virtually every scene of her film, and her dry, deadpan delivery goes a long way toward normalizing the potentially problematic BDSM sequences. The master-sub relationship is rendered as physical comedy, not psychological gamesmanship; Armow seems interested in presenting things matter-of-factly rather than titillating audiences. She elicits some big laughs by underplaying the absurdity of her various arrangements, using repetition and stasis to enhance punchlines: Allen commanding Ann to leap out of bed, run to a wall, then rush back to suck on his nipple gets funnier and funnier the more it repeats; likewise a different suitor who endlessly repeats “fuck-pig.” Arnow has a knack for casual absurdity; one scene has her emptying a pouch of soup into a bowl in real time, an action that is meaningless to the narrative but nonetheless becomes a kind of recognizable symbol for loneliness and isolation. Ann eventually meets Chris (Babak Tafti), an encouraging development that allows Arnow to chart the tentative first steps of a burgeoning relationship. But a cryptic final scene suggests that the relationship won’t last, or at least that Ann needs something Chris can’t provide.

This would all be fairly familiar territory if not for Arnow’s keen sense of rhythm (the office scenes in particular tread very worked-over material). Scenes are short, clipped, almost a rat-tat-tat staccato, cutting abruptly at the end of a word or movement. Arnow favors static compositions that evoke portraiture, more of a lineage with the work of Ted Fendt or Ricky D’Ambrose than Lena Dunham (to whom she is most often compared). InRO contributor Lawrence Garcia has observed that Feeling denies us “the usual markers of personal change… thereby restricting our capacity to make sense of the protagonist’s behavior.” It’s a fascinating piece of work, hilarious and depressing in equal measure, often evoking autofiction as if daring audiences to psychoanalyze its creator. We’re all stuck in our own stasis, and love and work and family are all just different facets of the same power struggle.

DIRECTOR: Joanna Arnow;  CAST: Joanna Arnow, Scott Cohen, Babak Tafti, Michael Cyril Creighton;  DISTRIBUTOR: Magnolia Pictures;  IN THEATERS: April 26;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 27 min.

Originally published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 2.