I am a woman with traditional tastes for the most part, falling back into old preferences when it comes to the rom-com. On a rainy day, when it is cold and morose at home, give me movies like When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, While You Were Sleeping, Always Be My Maybe – rom-coms that focus on two people eventually falling in love with each other. These movies have humour, the lead characters are well-developed, fun minor characters and sometimes there is a backdrop that facilitates all this falling in love (When Harry Met Sally has beautiful images of autumn in New York, and While You Were Sleeping uses snow and the Christmas season to its advantage).
Then there are the films that educate you about love – the expectations, the pitfalls, the heartbreak. But these films aren’t usually rom-coms; the more striking ones that come to mind is the Before Sunrise trilogy and (500) Days of Summer. Of course there are the Seth Rogen rom-coms, like Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Knocked Up and Long Shot, each film dealing with a societal element/expectation of love and subverting it. For Zack and Miri, they are the furthest thing from a rom-com couple (who usually lead polished lives), having to make a porno to make some money.
In Knocked Up, the woman gets pregnant long before the two fall in love, while Long Shot aims to discomfort us by suggesting that beautiful people don’t always have to belong together, smartly turning the hottest guy imaginable (played by Alexander Skarsgård) into this creep, while Seth Rogen’s character charms us all with his wit and humour. But I have always felt that Rogen’s rom-coms are a bit heavier on the comedy side, and those are the elements of the film that stand out to me.
Don Jon is a different kettle of fish altogether. When I read the premise of it, I laughed a little because it sounded absurd. The main character Jon, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is also in the director’s chair for this one), is addicted to porn, and prefers it to sex with women. Porn can satisfy him the way a woman can’t – a pornstar’s assets are pronounced and in full view, and she performs a variety of sexual acts, while a regular woman’s figure might not match up in the same way, and may be less adventurous when it comes to lovemaking.
Jon often goes on the hunt in the club, performing the same sequence of moves, with the aim of getting the woman in question back to his place and bedding her. It is routine, perfunctory – he is not looking for love, romance, just a way to get off. Time and time again we are shown how he is not satisfied, returning as always to his porn habit. Then he meets the perfect woman, or so she seems. Scarlett Johansson plays Barbara, this woman in the club who did not buy into his ‘moves’, walking away instead of going home with him.
Johansson is dressed in red during this first meeting, and her person is always lit up, even in a dark club where everyone else is covered with the darker hues. Visually, Levitt is trying to draw our attention to how idealised she is by Jon. He is enamoured by her looks, her body, and especially how the rest of society perceives her, which makes him feel like he’s won a prize. When he brings Barbara home, his father (played with such humour by Tony Danza) is similarly smitten, and can’t help but touch her when the opportunity presents itself (he also kisses her lightly on the mouth when the two are leaving, yucks).
It is clear here that she is objectified, found to be desirable because of her physical appearance. What else does Jon like about Barbara besides her looks? We don’t know, because we don’t see much of their interactions beyond the physical. Barbara is also dealing with her own expectations, which is fleshed out to us when the pair go and see a romance movie together. She wants a man who would do anything for her, fulfill her bidding in whatever way she chooses, because that to her is what love is. When Jon wants to get cleaning supplies to clean his house, she gets angry because it isn’t sexy that he’s doing his own chores (I have no idea what this woman is on about, because anyone who cleans is an asset).
She buys into the stereotypes of what is masculine and manly, feeling that him cleaning his house and enjoying it doesn’t fit into her idea of an ideal man. When she disagrees with him about something, she doesn’t try to talk it out with him, merely demanding and wishing for him to accede to said demand – otherwise he doesn’t love her. When she discovers that he is watching porn after their night together, she is disgusted and makes it known that she will not stand for a man who watches porn. While it is okay to have opinions and make these assertions, when she confronts him later on about the porn history on his computer, she never tries to understand why he indulges in this habit, viewing it more as an affront to her, she who has given him everything.
She even uses sexual pleasure as a way to bend him to her will, giving him what he wants when he obeys, essentially inducting him into a Pavlovian system where his obedience is rewarded, and eventually he recognises that this is what he needs to do if he wants his reward. Both Jon and Barbara are solely driven by what they want or desire, and do not factor the other person into the equation. Until Jon meets Esther (Julianne Moore) during his night class, and from there we see him learn about being in a relationship.
Jon and Esther’s relationship move on a different trajectory to him and Barbara’s. Moore, while also beautiful, is not on the level of societal beauty that Johansson is on. She is also older, and once again, in comparison, Johansson has the youthful beauty that we admire and covet. The first time Jon sees Esther, she is crying, and he does his best to avoid her because it is uncomfortable. After that, she approaches him to apologise about that awkward moment, and catches him watching porn on his phone (this is when he needed to be more covert since he was hiding his habit from Barbara).
Like Barbara, she calls him out about it, but does it in a playful way, and even gifts him an old porno as a joke. While Barbara is inflamed and disgusted by his habit, Esther is curious. She wants to know how it began, what fuels it, and what Jon gets from it. He explains that he wants to lose himself, which is only something he gets with porn and not women. As they converse, Esther helps him realise that he is unable to lose himself in sex because he is looking at it as a one-way street. He isn’t connected to the woman he is with, eager to achieve his pleasure and not much else.
The true beauty of sex comes from being able to connect with the other person, and you lose yourself in the experience. In contrast to his sex scene with Barbara, with most of the scene focusing on his objectification of Barbara’s body, sex with Esther is softer and romantic, with her fully clothed and the two so caught up in each other. The camera angles, which stoop down to a lower level, where we seem to be peering up at them, gives me this sense that I am intruding, that I shouldn’t be watching something so intimate. I had to look away a few times because it was so vulnerable and poignant, and I felt myself tearing up for Jon, because finally he had found something that could satisfy him in a deeper, more profound way.
We see the change in him after; he doesn’t gel his hair anymore, he is willing to break out of his regular gym routine and join a bunch of guys playing basketball, and when he goes out clubbing with his friends, he stays with them till the end of the night, instead of abandoning them mid-way to go on the prowl. There is a softening of his persona, where he isn’t all hard edges and anger any longer.
At the end, there is the recognition that Esther might not be the woman he marries or spends his life with, since she was married before and had done the whole thing, before her husband and son died (this was why she was crying the first time he meets her). She might be too broken to ever chase that kind of life with him again, but for now, they have each other, and that really is what love is – two people coming together to love, compromise and be happy.
When I watch a rom-com, I want to be swept away in the fantasy of it all, but Don Jon shows me the reality is so much better.
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