Credit: Cannes Film Festival
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

The Shameless — Konstantin Bojanov [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 21, 2024

The Shameless feels very much like an art-sploitation entry from the mid-’90s, when directors thought that a frank depiction of lesbian desire, in and of itself, was some sort of radical subversion of the male gaze. Bulgarian writer-director Konstantin Bojanov, like many of the men depicted in his film, seems excited by the seedier aspects of life in India, where girls as young as 12 or 13 can be sold into sexual slavery. In the midst of this horror, a woman named Renuka (Anasuya Sengupta) murders a client and goes on the run, finding her way to a new brothel. It happens to be across the street from where Devika (Omara) lives with her embittered family, who have already sent her older sister (Kiran Bhivagade) to Delhi to sell her body. After a chance meeting, Renu and Devi fall very quickly into a forbidden relationship, one for which homophobia is only the most obvious obstacle.

The Shameless is overstuffed, hurdling from plot point to plot point with no attention to subtlety, character development, or plausible behavior. In short order, Renuka essentially grooms the virginal Devika, which is only the beginning of her psychological manipulation of the much younger girl. Devika, for her part, is hopelessly naïve when the film needs her to be, but suddenly wise and fierce when that suits the narrative. In fact, there is very little in The Shameless that articulates why these women are so hopelessly in love. They have little in common besides propinquity.

Bojanov has a habit of unexpectedly introducing new characters, most of whom come with some vague backstory that implies other layers of cruelty. Look! It’s horizontal violence, with women relying on outdated traditions to sustain generational trauma. Hey! There’s a political subtext, with a frequent john (Rohit Kokate) running for parliament on a Hindu nationalist platform. Hold up! Have we just been introduced to a crime family connected to one of the main characters?

To put it plainly, the filmmaker seems to think that throwing anything and everything at the wall will produce complexity or richness. In fact, it only shows just how little control he has over his material, and the extent to which he may not care. The Shameless is a film that revels in degradation on the pretext that it’s exposing the ugly conditions under which impoverished women must eke out a living. But there’s a sadistic tone running throughout The Shameless that suggests that its maker sort of enjoys staging these degradations, not even out of misogyny per se, but because he thinks they are the basic ingredients of compelling cinema.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024: Dispatch 1.