As more female directors try their hand at feminist erotica, a pattern begins to emerge. Readers of Harlequin romances will recognize it instantly, though many women who would never dream of reading a paperback with a Fabio clone on the cover will fall for the purple splendor of Jane Campion’s The Piano and now Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. There’s remarkable consistency in these erotic fantasies, and remarkable narcissism, too.
Which is not to say that male fantasies (which have, after all, dominated cinema since its birth) are less goofy. But let’s stick to Kama Sutra, a visual feast (like The Piano) that wants you to think it’s deeper than Danielle Steel but isn’t (ditto). In the interest of deconstruction, here are a few femme-erotica clichés without which Kama Sutra (and The Piano) would be nowhere:
· The proud and willful proto-feminist. This is a woman who chafes at the crushing patriarchal society of centuries past, conveniently sharing and validating the sensibilities of women of the ’90s. Holly Hunter in The Piano, for example, was a feminist anachronism. Here it’s newcomer Indira Varma as a servant girl who beds the newly-anointed king, gets exiled as a “whore,” and returns to the palace as a courtesan (i.e., prostitute) to service the king. Eventually she will leave all this behind and live happily ever after, secure in the knowledge that men need women far more than women need men. Especially men such as:
· The flamboyantly sexist jerk. See Sam Neill in The Piano, who was such a sexist jerk, Andrew Dice Clay looked at him and said “That guy’s a sexist jerk.” Here the s.j. is Naveen Andrews as the lustful king, who can’t choose between Varma and his queen (Sarita Choudhury, from Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala). An opium addict and inept lover, Andrews gives the women in the audience a straw man to hiss without reservation. Ironically, Andrews was last seen as Juliette Binoche’s lover in The English Patient, where he embodied the next cliché:
· The dark-eyed, soulful, sensitive, tough but non-threatening man with a mane of shoulder-length hair. Whew. This is where the narcissism comes in. The ideal men in these fantasies are basically women with pecs and penises: feminine, but not feminine enough to detract from their hunkiness; masculine, but not masculine enough to make women go “Eww, yuck.” Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall, Harvey Keitel in The Piano: you get the idea. Here, the dark-eyed blah-blah-blah is Ramon Tikaram, who has the perfect hunk name. He exists to provide beefcake, as well as:
· The moment of self-sacrifice and tragedy leading to independence. Here I’ll reveal a major plot point, so beware. The jealous king wants to kill the hunk. Our heroine offers herself to the king, along with the promise never to see her hunk again, if the king will let him live. Sigh. But then the king has the hunk squished by an elephant anyway. Boo-hoo. And so then our heroine must follow her own path, alone. Sigh.
Every talented director is allowed one wet bit of flatulence like Kama Sutra, and Mira Nair is no exception. She has made fine movies before; no doubt she will again. But Kama Sutra, while easy to look at, is even easier to laugh at.