Love Exposure

Love Exposure ★★★★★

Film #91 that was recommended to me -- now subject to loose, arbitrary ranking! (Recommended by Nadia)

There is so much going on here that writing about this film is daunting. It might not look like there is much depth, as some ridiculous story about a guy who becomes a master of the art of upskirt photography, but this isn’t just random wackiness and the 4 hours are certainly not wasted. Underneath everything else going on, it’s also a simple, touching love story. Normally I can almost never avoid criticizing films that go beyond 3 hours – they wear me out, and I prefer tightly constructed movies that get to the point and get out. Love Exposure gets away with it all though, because Love Exposure is, at its core, excess.

With layers of detached irony, people build walls around themselves, and true sincerity can be hard to come by. This problem has bothered me in the past, yet I think we’re starting to move beyond it. I’m becoming an old man now so I’m getting out of my depths when rambling about kids these days, but I’d argue that, in my experience, Gen Z has ran with this and created a new meaning out of the meaningless. This meme is the Rosetta Stone for decoding the nonsense your grandkids are saying to each other. It’s vulgar, it’s stupid, but it’s funny and heartfelt.

That’s what Love Exposure is, too. In this year of pestilence, we look back on the traditional romantic films and many of them are too cheesy, too unbelievable (there is also an element of romantic films getting relegated to being “movies for women” but please don’t get me started on that here). Why is this woman instantly throwing herself at the first handsome man she sees? Why the swelling music to tell us that love is causing emotions inside of us? I myself am guilty of asking this of the classics. If you strip Love Exposure down, much of it is no different. A man falls in love with a woman at first sight and dedicates his life to her. It’s a simple story that’s almost sweet in its purity, but today we see through its tricks immediately, our cynicism and aversion to being manipulated makes this trick fail.

So this story needs touching up. It needs first love caused by warm stirrings in the heart to be replaced by an erection so large it could crack the sky. It’s stupid and childish, sure, but the trick is taking it completely seriously. I won’t deny that it’s presented so well that it’s funny if you’re immature like me. That’s not what matters though. What matters is that Sono takes something this ridiculous and, without in any way undermining the truth that we’re dealing with a story about a hard dick, finds sincerity where it has never been before. This lets him catch people like me off guard, trick us into finding the story new again, and makes the emotional payoff harder than it could have ever been in a movie that respected societal norms or expectations of “high art.”

And boy does this one not stick to those. It is worth being forearmed with the knowledge that this is not an “unproblematic” story. Our hero, again, takes photos of women’s panties without them knowing. Issues of incest, child abuse, genital mutilation, school shootings, just about every horrible thing you can imagine comes up at some point. Many of these are accelerated past for only a brief mention. It’s like a cocktail of all of our worst impulses as people. But therein lies the heart of something this subversive and challenging. There are rough edges everywhere, though never does it really feel like the victims are the butt of the joke. Rather, the world has failed us, so we fail it back.

This is where so much of the meaning of Love Exposure outside of its simple touching romance comes from. Everyone in this movie is a product of their past. Religion, parents, gender norms, pornography, all of these and more do a number on us. For Sono, we might try, but organized religion can’t fill the void of meaning in us, and will only make things worse if we try hard enough. The guilt of always being a dirty sinful creature is too much to bear. Our true religiosity only comes from the meanings we make out of it, even if we re-appropriate its weight and status to turn Jesus into Cobain. If we let others tell us what it means, the cross will, (quite literally here) weigh us down if not outright crush us.

Nihilism isn’t the answer, though. It’s right there in the title: all we need is love. The Beatles were right. Every person in the world needs to feel exposure to love and needs to express it themselves. That sure isn’t always easy though, and much of how we’ve structured our whole world works against that very goal. We’re splintered into isolated family groups, and what happens if your own family just isn’t the type to express love, or perhaps, are outright harmful?

All the characters in this movie, in their own ways, explore the consequences of that. A judgmental God can’t be a full stand-in for a loving father. It shapes who they are and sometimes forces them into new, harmful roles. Identity itself and the adoption of personas to interact with the world differently come up, too. Some of the greatest pain is knowing that someone only loves a false projection of yourself and worrying that you could never open up and be honest. Leave that alone long enough and maybe the projection will overtake the “true” you.

Oh, by the way, it helps that the movie is fun, too. The pacing is almost magical in its ability to ease the pain of the long runtime. This thing just flows from start to finish, almost feeling like a montage for half the movie, but somehow never getting as exhausting as that should be. We’re always just around the corner from some new shock or total change in scenery, so it doesn’t stagnate.

Thus, while no one eats dog shit, Love Exposure just might be the most transgressive film I’ve ever seen. Other films can destroy, though few can be just as subversive in recreation. The exploitative image of a young woman’s skirt blowing in the breeze, revealing her panties underneath, takes on a profound new significance paired with a religious choir, and the surrounding film framework to support what should be an absurd juxtaposition. The transcendent beauty of creepily leering at a woman (in a movie that still takes her totally seriously as a person) is not something you can experience every day without being the sort of misguided pervert this film is about. Gratuitous panty shots drag down other films, only Love Exposure can turn panties and penises into sincere expressions of the recognition of another’s humanity and worth of being loved. This can only be a 5 star for so perfectly embodying a most truly modern spirit, creating something moving that few other filmmakers would dare attempt.

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