Guilty of Romance Movie Review: Sexy Thriller with Tacked-On Murder

Sion Sono's Guilty of Romance is a sexy, strange, perverse thriller about a housewife's forays into prostitution.
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Izumi seems like the perfect wife, by her husband's sterile and demanding definition of perfect. She has his slippers in the right position for when he comes home at night, and has them right where his feet land when he gets up in the morning. He leaves at 7 every day, comes home at 9 every night, and those times when she is near him, Izumi seems happy, even though they do not speak. It does not last.

Guilty of Romance is a story about a bored housewife, with a wraparound story about a grisly murder of the movie serial-killer variety, with mannequin parts replacing body parts and an elaborate tableau that must have taken a hell of a long time to set up, for no reason than to be discovered by puzzled police. Of course, the two stories come together at the end. How successfully? That's debateable.

Director Sion Sono often plays with multiple levels of tone, sometimes successfully (as with Himizu, the other Sono movie in limited release right now) and sometimes with wildly confusing results. This film is, for most of its run, surprisingly straightforward, and demonstrates that when he wants to just tell a story, Sono actually has the command of narrative drive to do it, if not as keen a grasp of character as one would hope.

Because while we get deeply into where Izumi goes when she decides not to sit at home all day, trying to be perfect for her husband, we do not have any clue who she was before. How she and her husband, a famous novelist, met. How they got married and fell into their weird, apparently sexless existence. The husband character is also strangely underdeveloped. He is never outwardly cruel, just extremely fussy. When he finds out Izumi is getting a job, he's fully supportive (with the implied assumption that it better not mess with the placement of his slippers or getting the right brand of soap.)

After a few days being an unsuccessful free food sample girl at a store, Izumi is discovered by a modeling agency, and begins to work for them. As with all modeling agencies who discover girls in movies, what they actually shoot is pornography, but Izumi is so set on compliance that she can barely muster up a complaint as her co-star climbs on her and takes her clothes off.

Megumi Kagurazaka, who plays Izumi, spends a great deal of the film with her clothes off. Her newly (if mostly unwillingly) activated sexuality bleeds out into other parts of her life and work. There's a long scene of her standing stark naked in front of a full length mirror, repeating her lines from her food-sampling day job, getting more confident with each try, turning left and right to give herself (and, let's be honest, the movie audience) a look at every contour of her body. Her husband becomes more responsive, she becomes better at all her jobs.

Then, she begins to slide into the darker side of her awakening. After an afternoon pickup turns into a quasi-kidnapping, Izumi comes into contact with a severe, cruel-eyed prostitute Mitsuko, whose day job is being an associate professor of English at a local university. During the day, shes sweet and friendly, mocking and cruel in her nighttime hooker persona, Mistuko leads Izumi deeper into the world of sex trade, instilling her with her own perverse values.

What follows pivots from disturbing near-rape scenarios to strangely hilarious scenes as Izumi tries, with various levels of success to take complete control of her sex life. Eventually, Mitsuko takes Izumi to meet her mother, for an acidly funny conversation where Mistuko's mother, at first tacitly, then explicitly, says her daughter is a horrible degenerate and she'd rather she were dead.

It's all fascinatingly tawdry (and hard-R sexually explicit) but it careens, haphazardly, unnecessarily, to the wraparound story, the creepy murder. And that's the film's big flaw. Izumi's prostitution adventure is outlandish, psychologically unlikely and rife with perversity, but it is of a compelling kind. The relationship that grows between her and Mitsuko is creepily fascinating. The murder mystery, to put it bluntly, is not. There's icky corpses and maggots all over them. There's organs being removed from bodies. There's nothing there that you can't see on Hannibal on network TV.

Guilty of Romance contains a sexy, strange erotic thriller which slides deeply into perversity. The rote nature of the murder story that it is saddled with undermines that.

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