School of Film and Television at Falmouth University, Cornwall, UK | School of Communications, Dublin City University
by Laura Canning and Debbie Ging. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Dir: Tom Hall
Prod: Kieron J. Walsh
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Luanne Gordon
The opening sequences of Tom Hall’s Sensation (2010) present a highly visual collision between traditional rural life and the global world of cybersex, in which the former is both symbolically and literally killed off. In the first of these powerful juxtapositions, a bucolic shot of sheep skipping over a ditch, (reminiscent of The Quiet Man), cuts to Donal (Domhnall Gleeson) masturbating with a porn magazine in a field. In the second, a jarring visual paradox occurs within the shot: Donal, on discovering his father dead in his stair chair, retrieves the remote control from the wall and activates the chair into tragic-comic slow motion down the stairs. Between the figure of (dead) father and son, the film’s title appears in a lurid pink typescript beloved of 1970s soft porn. The superimposition of this incongruous font onto the shambolic rural kitchen scene, together with the symbolic spilling of seed on the land, annihilation of the father and drowning of the farm’s kittens, establish a scenario in which not just paternal authority, but also nature and procreation, are brutally and unceremoniously extinguished and in which sexual pleasure and freedom can now presumably flourish. The miseries of the rural father-son relationship, so long the staple of Irish cinema, are swiftly obliterated and, when Donal returns from his father’s funeral, the first thing he does is log onto an internet chatroom under the pseudonym ‘sweetdick’ to find himself a call-out prostitute.
While these oddly juxtaposed sex-and-death images make for an impressive start, Sensation as a whole is deeply unsure of what it is. Part black comedy, part social realism, the tone of the film hovers somewhere between the bleak, soullessness of American ‘smart film’ (Sconce 2002) and the self-knowing ‘grotesquerie’ (Attwood 2005) of Limerick hip-hop duo The Rubber Bandits and RTE’s television series Hardy Bucks. This marks a radical departure from Hall’s previous work, which focussed almost exclusively on middle-class urban narratives (Bachelors’ Walk, November Afternoon, Just in Time, Park) and demonstrated nuance, sensitivity and emotional insight in its dealing with difficult sexual topics, from rape and incest to the complexities of modern relationships. Sensation lacks this fine directorial touch, most notably in its conflicted – and ultimately dehumanizing – dynamics of spectatorial identification. It cannot be read simply as a comic black caper about two idiot bogboys and a hooker who set up a brothel, because the humour is based not on comic relief but on a desire to shock and transgress and, because of this, fails to lift the viewer from the underpinning ugliness of humanity that the film’s grittier elements are simultaneously trying to portray. Nor, however, does it work as a critique of the emotional emptiness inherent in replacing one constraining set of realities (land, tradition and inheritance) with another (the use of pornography and prostitution to compensate for loneliness and lack of human intimacy) because, at some level, we are being asked to experience a level of empathy with Donal which is problematic; not just because he is a cold, misogynistic loser but for a number of other reasons, not least that the film cannot work to generate a scintilla of empathy for the male protagonists without necessitating the dehumanisation of the female characters.
Donal’s alliance with New Zealand prostitute Courtney (aka Kim) – the first woman with whom he has ever had sex – becomes complicated when she is roughed up by men who are presumably pimps or customers, and accepts Donal’s offer to stay at the farm. Even though this arrangement is no longer a commercial transaction, she stills feels compelled to service him with a hand job, and from this point on, the lines of their relationship are constantly blurred as they clumsily negotiate the boundaries between being friends, lovers, client-prostitute and business partners. Unable to deal with the fact that Kim is still servicing other clients in their new joint business venture (an online-run brothel service which uses the domain names Limerick Ladies / Filthy Cows), Donal sleeps with local checkout girl Melanie while Kim is in hospital having breast implants and vaginoplasty to restore “honeymoon tightness” to her vagina, which she claims is like “a magician’s sleeve”.
When Kim returns from hospital, Donal’s creepy friend Carl (“I love checkout girls. They’re chicks that have to talk to you”) is quick to exploit her suspicions about Donal, and offers to tell her everything in exchange for sexual favours. In this, the most overtly misogynistic scene in the film Carl leers at her bruised and bandaged breasts in a cruel and perverse enactment of the male gaze. Exhausted, still in pain from the operation, and upset about Donal’s infidelity, Kim explains, “I can’t have sex with you Carl, I’ve just had my vag done”, to which he replies, “You’re still OK above the neck though”. (The similarity of this with the scene in Pretty Woman (1990) in which Richard Gere’s lawyer attempts to rape Julia Roberts’ character, is striking in terms of how both mobilise a contrast between discourses of romantic courtship and those of sexual commodification in order to symbolically establish the male protagonist’s ownership of the female protagonist.) On discovering that Kim has performed oral sex on Carl, Donal calls her a whore and orders her to leave the apartment, although he does concede that she can stay there “until you have those stitches out of your gash”. Just as Donal’s transformation from gombeen farm boy to slick, pony-tailed pimp is nearing completion, however, the brothel is raided by the Garda and Donal and Kim are arrested. In court, Kim is accused of masterminding the operation and conning Donal out of his money but, in the final scene, in which Kim visits Donal in prison, it emerges that he took the rap.
Whether the decision to represent the film’s three prostitutes as ‘foreign nationals’ is intended to reference the sex industry’s exploitation of migrant women or evades compromising the sanctity of Irish womanhood is unclear. What is more obvious is the male characters’ apparent inability to treat prostitutes as real, equal people. Donal’s expectations of Kim to be a friend, a lover or a prostitute depend entirely on his needs at any given time, and both he and Carl seem unable to understand that what she does for a living does not automatically make her sexually available to them at all times: if they’ve bought her once, they’ve bought her for all time. While Kim is seen to exert some power by virtue of the money she has persuaded Donal to invest and her superior worldliness (Carl reprimands him for taking orders from her and not behaving like a proper pimp), the film is insufficiently social-realist in tone to mount a genuinely effective critique, either of the political economy of prostitution or of the dehumanisaton of women and sex that is shown to characterise the sexually repressed rural male psyche.
It is perhaps this treatment of the ‘male psyche’ that is the most chilling aspect of Sensation. While Carl is supposed to function as the villain to Donal’s more benign character, they are almost indistinguishable. At one point Donal explains to Carl over a quiet pint in the local pub that his dreams are “like directing your own porn”, and recounts in graphic detail a sexual fantasy involving cunnilingus between a mother and daughter, to which Carl enthusiastically responds, “You’re some dirtbird, like a rapist inside your own head”. In light of this, the framing of Donal’s brief interlude with checkout girl Melanie as a conventional romantic failure, rather than the abusive act it is, rings hollow. That Melanie effectively has sex with someone else, not the ‘Donal’ she thinks exists, is a kind of sexual assault in itself. She seems to exist only to illustrate Donal’s distance from convention and how much he has learned about how to impersonate normal human male behaviour/courtship. This may explain why Melanie, the only character who seems to have a reasonable perspective on the story (“It’s all so fucking sordid”), cannot figure in the film for any longer than she does. The idea of men hiding base and violent ‘natural’ desires to degrade and dehumanise women behind entirely plausible exteriors is disturbing enough in a film such as Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, which exposes – and condemns – this in all its grim horror, but in a film in which we are being asked to laugh along with the protagonist, the disturbance is doubled and the viewer is left wondering, if the film is not expressly condemning the notion that Donal and Carl’s perceived ‘right’ to ejaculate into any animal or woman trumps anyone else’s right to remain unviolated, then what exactly is it doing with its spunk-or-die configuration of rural Irish manhood?
Given all this, the extent to which Donal’s and Carl’s social autism and underdeveloped sexuality can serve as a critique – whether serious or comic – of the paucity of Irish sex education (at one point Donal tells Kim that the only piece of sex education he ever got was from an uncle who told him that the most effective way to have sex with a sheep is to put its hind legs down the front of your wellies) is severely limited. Its attempts to engage the myth of the happy hooker are also compromised by its intermittent social-realist inclinations, such as when, Monica, frightened and alone, is taken by car to the apartment or when Kim recounts the sadness she experienced when she first had sex for money. In spite of this, Kim has no qualms about recruiting other inexperienced young women into the business and, in an unnerving subversion of the gaze economy of heterosexual porn, she asks Monica to strip so that she can peruse her body’s suitability for male pleasure, and swiftly gets down to the practical business of getting her vagina shaved and her “butthole bleached”. The prostitutes themselves seem conflicted about what has led them to this ‘career choice’, their obvious low self-esteem and lack of qualifications overlooked in favour of more deterministic accounts, such as Monica’s claim that she has a high sex drive and Kim’s recounting of her failed attempts to give it up.
There is an implicit message here that women enjoy or are addicted to their own subjugation, rather than any consideration of how lack of confidence and years of internalising their own sexualisation might have led them to prostitution. Nor are the men ever compelled to consider how they might feel if they were performing 69, BJ, deep throat, face-sitting, GFE, lap dance, outcalls, reverse, role play, tea bagging and uniforms (Kim’s / Courtney’s repertoire of services as advertised on her webpage) and cosmetically reconstructing their bodies for living. This is reinforced by the way in which the film’s own gaze economy replicates rather than critiques or subverts the gaze economy of straight male porn, lingering on and eroticizing the naked female bodies but never those of the men. The sex industry is configured as a dirty but level playing field in which women give as good as they get, exerting that quintessentially postfeminist conceptualisation of power which hinges upon women manipulating men’s desire. Meanwhile, the power dynamics of porn-inspired hetero sex and the macro political economics of the industry don’t feature in the sense that they are naturalised / invisible.
At best then, Sensation is a film about failure (Donal’s sexual inability, which can only be overcome by subjugating others, his failed entrepreneurial adventure, and the final ignominy of being recuperated back into his, explicitly female-dominated, extended family) but the bigger failure is its sheer lack of clarity as regards how it wants its audience to feel. Perhaps, as appears to be the case with many contemporary Irish films, it never really had female spectators in mind? Because it shies away from the uncompromisingly bleak, ‘smart’ (Sconce 2005) tone of satirical American films such as Todd Solonz’ Happiness (1998) and Neil LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbours (1998) or the gritty social realism of British films like Stephen Frears’ Pretty Dirty Things (2002), the naïve plot-related moralism of the story – Donal shows that he really cares for Kim by going to prison, and is thus punished for his transgressions – can never recuperate its darker messages about male heterosexuality. In 2008, Mark O’Halloran commented in a special issue of Film Ireland on sex in Irish cinema that there had yet to be an erotic Irish film (O’Halloran 2008: 5). Sensation is almost certainly the most sexually explicit Irish film made to date but it is entirely devoid of eroticism and as such it bears out Fintan Walsh’s claim that joyous, erotic, guilt-free sex remains conspicuously absent on the Irish screen:
… sexuality is curiously central to Irish film. Curious in the sense that it often functions as a highly symbolic device that shapes and critiques the ostensible world represented; more curious still in that it is a sexuality generally devoid of energy, feeling and eroticism. Viewed against the arthouse outputs of our European neighbours, for example, there is little in Irish film to match the easy sexiness of Fellini’s work, the latent carnality of Buñuel’s or the libidinous charge of Breillat’s (Walsh’s 2008: 16).
By contrast, there is nothing sensuous or sensational about this film, which parlays its faux-titillating title into a loathsome froth of masculine inadequacy and deep-seated misogyny.
Attwood, Feona. 2005. “‘Tits and ass and porn and fighting’: male heterosexuality in magazines for men”, International Journal of Cultural Studies. 8 (1), pp. 83-100.
O’Halloran, Mark. 2008. “Sex please, We’re Irish” Film Ireland, 120, Jan/Feb, p. 5.
Sconce, Jeffrey. 2002. “Irony, Nihilism and the new American ‘smart’ film” Screen 43 4 Winter.
Walsh, Fintan. 2008. “Cock Tales: Homosexuality, Trauma and the Cosmopolitan Queer». Film Ireland 120, Jan/Feb, pp 16-18.