Using pornography as a central plot point immediately puts Don Jon in a very select group of films. The only other non-documentaries I can think of off hand are Lovelace and Boogie Nights. Both of those focus on the production side of the equation, so the only scene I can think of explicitly dealing with the consumption side is the train station scene in Chasing Amy. I think in general we discuss pornography less than we should. It is ubiquitous, and it’s hard to think that a genre of “artistic” production so widely available, heavily consumed, and financially robust has nothing to tell us about the society that makes and consumes it. I’ve had an order of magnitude more conversations with my friends about their sex lives than their masturbation fodder – maybe a symptom of being a WASP, but in some ways pornography feels like the last taboo topic of discussion.
Robin Williams once described pornography as industrial, that the close up shots of a penis in a vagina was like documentary about a meat factory showing a piston in operation. In this simple analogy, he reconstructs porn in what you could think of as the first degree – it is industry re-skinned into sex. I don’t know whether Baudrillard ever wrote anything substantial on pornography, but I expect he would go further and argue that it is sex re-copied and re-synthesised until it bears no resemblance to real sex: it is a simulacrum. Don Jon is based on the premise that the protagonist, Jon [Joseph Gordon-Levitt], has so fully sublimated the fantasy of pornography that he has lost the ability to recognise or experience the intimacy which pornography may once have had as an inspiration. Perhaps coincidentally, but probably consequentially, Jon has no female friends, though he has a sister and a mother. Women are completely sublimated into one of only two narratives in his world, as either sexual objects that because of their connection to reality are unsatisfying, or future or potential mothers, whose role in Jon’s life appears cloying and controlling. Jon has no other models, whether positive or negative, so has no complex interactions with them. In a sense, this film’s failure to pass the Bechdel test is part of the point.
The middle section of the film follows Jon’s first attempt to have a genuine relationship with a woman, Barbara [Scarlett Johansson]. The text of the film offers no explanation for why Jon pursues this relationship. They have nothing in common, aside from a general cultural background, and have no mutual interests. Jon is ostensibly intrigued by her rejection of him, which is an all-too common romantic trope, but I think we are supposed to perceive in this a deeply-buried glimmer of the desire to move beyond his totally superficial lifestyle and relationships. Barbara is herself the victim of a similar hyper-real construction, the romance film, and its peculiar definition of love; in its way as bizarre as pornography, a comparison the text makes a couple of times. Favouring her own fantasy, she rejects his. When she discovers his pornographic habit, she reads this as a rejection of herself, and reacts in the same way. He is, and the people he talks to about this are, baffled by this, seeing his habit as essentially harmless. Actually she is completely correct in her assessment of the situation, Jon’s habit makes it impossible for him to form a normal relationship with her – the kicker being that her habit makes the problem symmetric. In a way, because both pornography and the romance are hyper-real constructs, the film spares little attention in these crucial exchanges to explore the content of the competing fictions. Their simple existence as hyper-real constructs and the immersion of the characters into those simulacra is sufficient for the needs of the film.
In the second act, Jon begins a relationship with an older woman Esther [Julianne Moore], who engages directly with the unreality Jon has immersed himself in. In a lot of ways, this is a far weaker drama because to a large extent it is expository, rendering what had been subtext into text, complete with a cringe-inducing final voiceover that re-clarifies the situation if the audience had been confused. Here too, the specific content of the hyperreality is deemed not relevant, merely its dominance in his life. To an extent, this means the fiction can’t grapple directly with what makes that fantasy so appealing to him. The film gestures toward the idea that Jon’s obsession is essentially solipsistic, in that he can lose himself in pornography while real sex always requires engagement with another human being. As a high-level summary of the major symptom Jon experiences from his hyperreality, this is probably fine, but it feels quite superficial.
I can see why the film contents itself with the odd flashing image from pornography and why all of those flashes are basically vanilla sex. Anything more extreme could easily be problematic as inter-textual or not, harder material would raise the age rating of the film and potentially offend a portion of the audience otherwise sympathetic to the film’s basic gist. It also doesn’t create additional barriers for empathy with the character, because for all that there are adventurous people, I expect vanilla sex is by an overwhelming margin the most common experience people have; we are able to empathise with its requirements and process Jon’s vicarious experience in a way that would be difficult if, say, he were into Tentacle Hentai. Nevertheless, by treating his pornography at arms length, we can’t leverage much understanding of character as we could if there were specific qualities of his favoured material to interrogate.
The moral of the film is that in order to form a normal relationship, Jon must forgo pornography, whereas in a lot of senses the real problem is that Jon must forgo hyperreality. The unmistakable moral gist of the film is that pornography is bad, and by not treating it explicitly, the film in fact sustains and maintains the taboo while bootlegging energy from that taboo for its dramatic purposes. This reading is certainly not cut-and-dried, a counter argument is the gift Esther gives Jon of some “real” pornography to replace the “synthetic” stuff on which he usually thrives, but without a strong thesis to explain the difference, this point can’t redirect the moral flow of the picture as a whole.
Perhaps expectations doomed this film in my estimation to being a promising journeyman work. What it really needed was a script treatment by Kevin Smith, who has the dramatic skills to have retained all of the solid dramatic core to this story, while injecting a frankness about sex and pornography that would have gotten this film past the purely superficial concepts that it trades in. This film has made a realisation about the hyper-real nature of pornography and identified the problem is can grow into, but it can’t take that insight further or deeper. It wants to show a parallel between pornography romance, but can’t interrogate either genre and nor is it self aware enough to recognise the romance tropes that drive the relationship between Jon and Esther. In short, this film needed to be braver, bolder and tackle head-on the problems it merely sketches.
I gave it a 7/10 on the IMDB, which is a bit higher than its average and perhaps more than it deserves, but Julianne Moore’s performance convinced me to go the extra point. There was a niche here for a bolder director to do something truly groundbreaking and remarkable.