After his recent documentary incursions into Afghanistan, Iranian maestro Mohsen Makhmalbaf returns to personal filmmaking with a vengeance in “Sex & Philosophy,” a narcissistic tale of a dance master (Dalir Nazarov) who simultaneously summons four of his mistresses for one last tango in Tadzhikistan . Despite some lush fetish aesthetics as the master puts his divas through their stylized musical paces, locked-in compositions and joyless choreography quickly pall. Arch, pretentious, somewhat creepy metaphor for the auteur and his actors is assured a place in fests, but only diehard Makhmalbaf buffs are likely to demand wider release.
Makhmalbaf’s strength has always resided in his juxtaposition of highly stylized visuals and documentary-style social realism. Here the “art” side of the equation reigns supreme making prior Makhmalbaf films as formally rigorous as “Gabbeh” or “The Silence” look positively loose and improvisational by comparison.
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A lovers’ leave taking is shot from high above as an abstract ballet of a red umbrella (red and white are the dominant colors in the landscape of “Sex”). Such ritualizing seems particularly suspect given the hero’s avowed “revolution against himself,” a revolution he means to accomplish by means of brutally honest, confessional truth-telling in the arena of love.
Instead, he philosophizes endlessly about the ephemeral nature of passion in modern society, each woman a pretext to explore the waxing and waning stages of the same emotion.
It is the hero’s 40th birthday that triggers his “revolution,” as he drives around with 40 lit candles on the dashboard, picking up street musicians who provide parts of the soundtrack. Like an “All That Jazz” without the heart attacks, “Sex” could be interpreted as an artist’s musical, irony-tinged encapsulation of his whole creative process.
Makhmalbaf is lightly satirizing himself: There has always been something admittedly quasi-sadistic in helmer’s relationship to his actors (as in “Salaam Cinema”) and here, not only do the women barely exist outside of the dances they inspire, but the dance master breaks the news of his multiple infidelities by letting his mistresses all run into one another unannounced in a series of posed entrances like some highly mannered variation on a bedroom farce.
Director’s quartet of muses is made up of nicely assorted classes and ethnicities (pic takes place, for no specific reason, in Tadjikistan while both the hero and one of the women occasionally lapse into Russian). Hero’s parting gift to each woman is a stopwatch with which to measure, as he did, their moments of true love (read: the amount of great footage they appeared in). Stomping, swaying, leaning, dipping and twirling right along with an ongoing official dance class for younger girls, the four femmes, all draped in different red getups, are each separated out for a nostalgic pas de deux with the master as their turn for flashbacks arrives.
Tech credits are never less than spot-on in this tightly controlled international production. Sumptuous lensing is by Ebrahim Ghafouri (who, aside from “Khandahar,” has worked more frequently and every bit as effectively for Mohsen’s daughter Samira); here he spins some beautiful tapestries over the narrative void.