FILM REVIEW: THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE (FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL)
THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE is a film that is difficult to classify. It walks that razor-thin line between genres, making it a film that exists on its own little island of awkward. What I can safely tell you is that it’s funny as hell, a little disturbing, and well…just plain weird! But weird in the best possible way. THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE is helping to kick-off the festivities at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival with its unique brand of in-your-face confrontational comedy.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Casey, a meek…weak-willed individual who feels like an outsider in every aspect of his life. Our first introduction to Casey is a scene of him sitting in a small town coffee shop. He sits alone, minding his own business when a French-speaking couple enters the coffee shop. The couple is critical of everything in this quaint little shop. The coffee is shit, the decor is offensively plain, and of course Casey is on their radar as the type of loser who would frequent this establishment. The couple begins to play a game. The game is essentially the couple guessing what sort of life Casey leads. It’s a one-upmanship of insults spoken between the couple…in French… ranging from his job to the hypothetical size of his manhood. Casey exits the coffee shop and enters his car where a tape cassette prominently displaying “Learn French” sits in the center console. Once Casey starts the car, we can hear the tape spew out the 20th-something lesson he’s on, and to add insult to injury, “you should now have a firm grasp on the French language”. Ouch!
The film is indeed a comedy at its heart, but it’s so much more than that. The film is really quite philosophical, and asks the existential question about what it means to be a man. The term “toxic-masculinity” comes to mind, as many of the “qualities” men strive for can be destructive and harmful to themselves and others. Especially in the context of this movie. The film questions and challenges the normalcy of traditional genre roles and ideals, all under the guise of Casey’s journey of self discovery into the uber-masculine world martial arts.
The journey is set in motion by a late night mugging that leaves Casey hospitalized. Casey is a joke at work, and no one seems to miss his presence around the office. The other men in the office act as stereotypical “male” archetypes by talking about sexual conquests, objectifying women, and discussing other “manly” hobbies that Casey is not a part of. He desperately wants to be a part of the conversation, but his shyness and inability to relate leaves him excluded from the conversation at every turn. I should add that these “manly” conversations are EXTREMELY exaggerated and heightened to basically show the absurdity of such misogynistic speech. It’s never for a second meant to be serious, but rather a satirical look at “alpha” male behavior.
In fact, it takes a while to get used to the rhythm of the film. This is not a negative criticism, just that the film seems to use speech in a way that is so matter of fact, it almost has a life of its own. It almost can’t be taken seriously and it’s clearly hyperbolic as NO ONE actually speaks this way. It reminded me so deeply of the films of Yorgos Lanthimos (THE LOBSTER, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER), but through an absurdist comedic lens a la Tim & Eric. This is high-praise considering that Yorgos Lanthimos’ films have all been Oscar contenders for the past few years. If you’ve seen those films than you have an idea of what I mean by unusual speech patterns. The delivery is dry, matter of fact, and almost entirely devoid of emotion. It makes for comedy in the strangest of places, because we are not used to people behaving and speaking in such a way. For example, one character describes a woman’s inability to achieve the level of Karate black-belt because “her being a woman, will prevent her from ever becoming a man”. It’s layered and nuanced, but also makes little to no sense. It’s one of many sentences that hits the viewer over the head with blunt metaphor and venom, but with a sense of meaning in the alternate universe in which this film resides. If your brain is able to adjust to the pacing and dialogue, you’re in for a rewarding philosophical challenge about modern manliness.
Casey decides that studying Karate is the obvious answer to his deficiency of machismo. Once Casey enters the Karate gym, he’s met with open arms by the Sensei who informs him that his name is…Sensei! Sensei (played by FACE/OFF‘s Alessandro Nivola) immediately takes a shine to Casey and wants to take him under his wing. Casey begins to take the entry level classes taught by both Sensei and Anna (Imogen Poots), who seems to be the only feminine influence in this hyper masculine environment. She’s adapted her behavior to that of being just one of the guys…almost more so than the guys she’s surrounded by. Her demeanor is so blunt, it can be frightening. When she’s teaching the kids classes she speaks in terms of inflicting intense physical violence, even going so far as to choke a child unconscious during a demonstration. But hey…rule #8 says “tap or take a nap” so no one is upset by her words or actions, including the parents in the room. Casey identifies more with her than the other men in his life, but it’s confusing for both of them.
As Casey begins to progress in his Karate training, it becomes an obsession. Sensei begins to shape Casey into what a “man” should be, and Casey takes all of Sensei’s suggestions to heart. Swapping out his adult contemporary CD’s for brutal death metal…the only acceptable choice for an alpha obviously. Or the decision to start learning German over French…a much stronger nation than France. Casey just adopts these changes without a moment’s hesitation. As Casey begins to become an “alpha”, it ripples through the rest of his life. Whether that means joining in the sex talk at work, or throat punching his boss in the middle of the office. That’s just how alpha’s act, and are praised for it in this hyperbolic universe. His confrontational, and often violent, Karate existence is all that matters now. But this new existence comes at a price.
As laugh-out-loud funny as this film is, it also comes with a heavy dose of dark foreboding. THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE asks us to question gender norms while also explaining the inherent dangers that lie just beneath the surface. As Casey’s confidence begins to grow, so do the self-destructive tendencies of his new-found masculine nature. It’s a film with a message, but it expresses it in a way that also shows the absurdity of such a strong belief in “by the book” gender identity. Writer/Director Riley Stearns handles this hot-button issue with the touch of a master ventriloquist manipulating his audience with subtle and not so subtle pulls of the strings. It’s not a film for all tastes, but if you like your satire with some sharp teeth and absurdism, this one’s for you!
“THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE is a film that exists on its own little island of awkward.”
4 out of 5 Tombstones…..