Erotic Man (Det Erotiske Menneske) (Director: Jørgen Leth): This somewhat experimental and extremely personal film raised so many issues for me to think about that I’m not sure my rating will align much with that of other reviewers. I don’t mind at all. Leth, who has been making films for more than 40 years, has made perhaps his most honest and personal one yet. An examination of the erotic, it’s more of a personal memoir, a record of an attempt to recreate (or create) memories or fantasies (romantic/sexual) from years of experiences all over the world. Leth seems to have an affinity for the exotic, having traveled extensively in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Since 1991, he’s lived in Haiti, and this film seems to have emerged from a long-term love affair he experienced there. In fact, this film and his memoir The Imperfect Man have caused controversy in his native Denmark because in them he details his relationship with Dorothie, the 17-year-old daughter of his cook. It’s very clear from the film that his five years with Dorothie were among the happiest in his life, and his attempts to describe the erotic can be seen as an extended love letter to her.
At the beginning of the film, we are simply presented with several sequences of beautiful women, often nude, reciting poetry. We move from Haiti to Senegal to Brazil, from 1999 to 2002 to 2008. Are these love affairs simply captured documentary-style? Then Leth pulls back the curtain. We see him in Brazil at a casting session. He’s looking for beautiful women for his film. He tells them he’s recreating memories of past love affairs, and each woman is to lounge naked on a hotel bed, reciting a poem (often his own — Leth was an accomplished poet before he ever began making films) and simulating post-coital bliss. It’s a constructed dream, and the women are paid to portray memories and feelings they’ve never had.
It’s undoubtedly beautiful to look at, but it’s not erotic because these are not my memories or my fantasies. But Leth raises all kinds of issues with his honest desire to pursue his vision of eroticism. He’s a savvy filmmaker and a man of vast experience of the world. He must know that the places he’s chosen to travel to document eroticism (Eastern Europe, Thailand and the Philippines in addition to the countries mentioned above) have been places where sex trafficking takes place. Places where women sell themselves (or are sold) to men as canvasses for whatever fantasies they want to project. Though Leth is clear to the women that he’s not making pornography, the dynamic is the same. He’s a rich white Westerner who is offering money to women to do sexual things. It raises the question as to whether all male concepts of the erotic involve the same thing. We are aroused by looking, by seeing, by capturing and by keeping what isn’t necessarily ours. We often pay to pretend it is. There is a whole scale of activities, from staring at beautiful women on the subway train, to staring at them naked in magazines or strip clubs, to paying them for more and more simulation. This kind of eroticism is constructed, it’s not real. The interesting thing about Leth’s project is that the act of making a film is also a way of constructing a reality that is not real. Eroticism, like cinema, is a constructed reality. He is capturing, trying to hold onto, something that is ethereal (memory) and untameable (female desire/love). It’s a film that could only be made by a man closer to the end of his life than the beginning.
In Leth’s personal life story, the erotic often equates with the exotic. He loves women unlike those in his native Denmark. He likes dark skin and hair, warm climates and sensual music. In these places, women often seem more submissive. They have no problem playing their parts in his movie. Like actors, they don’t mind that he is giving them the lines they are to read. I suspect that many women in the “developed” world will see this film and think Leth is just an unreconstructed sexist. I’m not sure I’d agree, but I do hope that his honesty and vulnerability might lead to more open discussion of the different expressions of eroticism. The film is a bit like a mirror. What you think about it will very much depend on what you see in the mirror.