Where is the love?
Bolivian director Rodrigo Bellot’s Sexual Dependency is an ambitious and intricate début. The story takes place partly in Santa Cruz, a major Bolivian city, and partly in Ithaca, New York. While at first the film appears to be a zippy account of macho swagger and of the sexual escapades of horny young men in both South America and the U.S., it is in fact a provocative political essay examining the consequences of consumerist culture on sexual identity and social interactions.
The film begins as Jessica, an attractive teen, ends her school day. She and a friend make plans to meet at the friend’s Quincanera, a customary sweet-fifteen party where parents celebrate a girl’s passing from childhood to womanhood. As she leaves school a young man shyly hands her a love note. Once home, Jessica faces her abusive father. Her barely visible, submissive mother lurks in the kitchen. Suspecting her of starting to run around, the father rails at her. Her looks are to be her ticket out of the poverty the rest of them live in and aren’t to be wasted on anyone in this neighborhood. If she gets pregnant, she will blow her chance.
At the Quincanera, while the far less polished boy from school looks on dejectedly in the background, Jessica is seduced by a rich young man on a bender with his buddies, out for a night of partying. Their stated goal for the night is to “bury the snake,” a quaint Bolivian idiom that he successfully realizes. What we see of his and Jessica’s union is anything but wonderful. Although, to begin with, Jessica is struck by her suitor’s suave appearance, when faced with the prospect of sex, she appears first reticent and when she submits, resigned.
There is so much sex in this film, all of it joyless. The sex is never fun but always motivated by things other than affection, let alone love. At best, it is selfish and at worst, a violation. Jessica has sex with the young man who crashes the Quincenera. Sebastien, the same young man’s cousin, visiting from Colombia, is abandoned to the care of friends, then taunted and bullied into having sex with a sad, sagging, prostitute. Choco, another character, feels compelled to prove his masculinity by scoring a beautiful fair-haired and fair-skinned married Brazilian woman in a nightclub.
This night of the Quincanera will change the course of Jessica’s life. The young man has sought gratification for his immediate desires. The currencies available to him are his clean good looks coupled with the smooth edges that money can buy especially in a country as poor as Bolivia.
Jessica’s father’s attempt earlier to protect her virginity stems from his understanding the social and economic realities he lives in; in this reality her sexuality is a valuable currency. Her virginity is going to be worth something, to her, to him, to the family. It may be her — and their — ticket out. Understanding how the society works is one thing. Believing its dubious logic and acting based on this logic makes the father a party to the socio-economic forces at play. Within this social model that dehumanizes people and uses them as products or as ways to place products, people become a means to an end. There can be no winners; not Jessica, not her father, not even Tyler, the blonde, white, sex symbol whose image graces the huge advertising billboard that looms high above the dusty street corner where Jessica catches her bus home from school.
The billboard is an ad for RigoBossD underwear. It is an ad à la Calvin Klein — think Obsession — that shows a handsome, muscular, young demigod, flaunting his body as two slender underwear-clad nymphs stand around in the background. The ad implies this young man has it all — good looks, a great body, not one but two women — but in fact it is the true source of the ills laid out in the course of Sexual Dependency. It is what links First World economic interests to the lives of Bellot’s characters in Santa Cruz: a dynamic built on constantly creating and feeding false desire.
Desire as a commodity is marketed and mass-produced. Purchasing power defines how close you can get to being the ideal man or woman. Can you or can you not buy lots of RigoBossD clothes and underwear? Will underwear make you the perfect man? Therein lies the catch that drives the bulimic economy of desire. The billboard looms in the background and the action unfolds before it.
The model who looks down on his dusty street corner in Bolivia is Tyler, a football player at Ithaca College. The ad is banking on the premise that men looking up at the picture on the billboard would like to be Tyler, handsome, huge and in the company of scantily clad members of the opposite sex. The ad also works on the presumption that women would like to be the sexy mavens gravitating in the demigod’s orbit. But back in the real world of the film’s narrative, Tyler is not the hetero icon he is projected to be. He is gay but feels obliged to fake and plays straight. He represses his inclinations and masquerades as something he isn’t for fear the angel-faced testosterone-charged ballplayers in the locker room, his posse, may find out his true sexuality. He seeks safety by posing as one of them. The steamy locker room becomes a version of hell that Tyler, perennially aroused and afraid, fills with stolen glances and repressed longing.
In the fourth of the film’s five chapters, Adina, an articulate young black woman in Ithaca, New York, delivers a powerful monologue that traces her own evolution. She starts off wanting to be desired and ends up reaching a place where she is transformed. Adina’s monologue, a powerful and hypnotic text, is the key to the film.
Bellot fuses the backbone of the stories told up to this point to the subtext of Adina’s monologue. She speaks about a mirror given to her grandmother (or great grandmother?) by her slave owners and passed down to her. Beneath the surface of Adina’s words simmers the narrative of abuse practiced over generations, abuse that was condoned and codified. Adina’s monologue is delivered in a room where another, ordinary mirror, reflects her image as she speaks at length about “the” mirror, and about the white cherubs that framed it.
As she speaks, the past and several layers of the present merge to give depth to a seemingly ordinary image (her face in a mirror in her room). In this, today’s mirror, gone are the cherubin that framed the other mirror. By connecting the plain prop in Adina’s room with the loaded mirror of Adina’s story, Bellot is able to create resonance and impregnate an anodyne object with the weight of history that is present in her narrative.
Adina is the first and only character to speak up and to speak her mind. She can tell her story. She can speak her mind because she has the talisman of language. Because she has a voice, she has power. Adina is empowered because she understands that conflict has forged the moment and the place that she is standing in. It is true that she becomes a victim of violence and hence, indirectly, of the same machinery that victimizes the Bolivian characters — the same machinery that encourages men to want to be the mythical towering demigod so like the boys in the lockerroom. But she dares to defy their sense of entitlement. And although she is violated, she is also invincible because she has discovered an immutable core in her that they cannot touch, that is not given to her from a billboard. Adina’s monologue becomes an appeal for advocacy, for language and for communication. This is what can challenge violence and the power structures that breed violence.
The film was shot digitally by Bellot and another operator on two cameras. Visually gifted, Bellot is able to spin images off the ideas he is exploring. He has chosen to use a split screen to tell his story and his use of it is seamless and original. At times, the same shot spills from one screen into another, at other times the same scene is played out with a slight nuance of perspective. He strums and riffs an image or sequence until he has squeezed the last drop out of it, like the face of Jessica’s friend whose birthday it is, or the many jigsawed images of the prostitute Sebastien has sex with. The decision to abandon the split screen in the film’s harrowing final sequence restores to the large single screen all its force and depth and impact, almost spelling out the difference visually between a large and small image, distraction and focus in an audience’s visual experience.
The characters move around one another in an odd temporal waltz in the clever and dizzyingly choppy time frame Bellot sets up. We move forward and then sometimes slip back a few hours to view the setup to an event from a different perspective.
The cast is made up of nonprofessionals, all of whom perform with great grace. This includes members of the Ithaca College football team who, to the director’s credit, perform with an uncanny naturalness verging on vérité. The locker room scenes, with their focus on the male body, generate the kind of eroticism that one has experienced with mind-numbing regularity at movies that focus on the naked female body. The men’s physicality is on display in a way that is refreshingly uninhibited and gorgeous. But the images also carry an inherent violence. Because throughout the film eroticism has been twisted into mutations of simple pleasure, the erotic undertones carry with them a note of foreboding, foreshadowing of the brutality inherent in these men. Further, these locker room images lend a new resonance to Adina’s meditation on the cherubs framing the old mirror. The white cherubs she describes necessarily bring to mind the angel-faced athletes whose conduct is demonic and savage.
Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America. Centuries of colonialism have resulted in a Westernized dominant ruling class who are affluent and light-skinned. This Westernized elite dominates economically. There is no trickle-down economic benefit to the urban poor or the huge indigenous population (45% of the eight million inhabitants). While this background is critical to the context of Sexual Dependency, the film’s strength stems from the fact that it succeeds in identifying the issues outlined in underdeveloped Bolivia and demonstrating that they not only exist in first world North America, they originate there.
The film is about the commodification of desire and its mutation into a “fix.” Desire is the product that advertisers and corporations manufacture. They successfuly create the desire to own something you don’t have and to be someone you are not. In turn, they dangle the promise to make you desirable. This economy of desire, the linking of buying power to desirability, creates a feeding cycle that not only leaves the end user permanently hungry, it breeds self-hatred and necessarily violence. It is the impact of this phenomenon on sexual and social identity in modern society that is at the core of the film’s exposé. Obviously, the cycles of domination and exploitation are not unique to Bolivia because of its history of colonialization and its culture of machismo. Where in Bolivia the violence is an undercurrent, however, in Ithaca College, it is codified and ritualized.
Going by the oblique and at times dazzling narrative of Sexual Dependency, the state of things is very grim indeed in the world. Nonetheless, Bellot’s analysis ends on a note of strength and hope that with knowledge and education will come a voice, and to those who have a voice freedom will come.