“I think some things are inaccessible, and can’t be shown. For instance, when it comes to love relationships, love scenes, once you go beyond the Hollywood kiss, you don’t know how or what to show. You can only show other images of a process at work.” —Anne-Marie Miéville
(Editor’s note: This essay describes an act of sexual abuse that occurs in the film.)
How does a film which reunites an Oscar-winning director and star in an ensemble romance full of famous comic actors end up being a commercial and critical flop? In the case of Full Frontal, by being a movie that bites the hand that feeds it, pulls the skin off the hand, and waves it around like a grotesque glove puppet. Full Frontal is a movie of interlocking love stories, which questions the very premise of movies and love stories. It’s funny, loose, smart, and utterly self-vivisecting.
Coleman Hough’s brainy script covers four nested levels of reality: An action movie (1) starring Brad Pitt (played by Brad Pitt), showcasing an up-and-coming movie star, (2) Nicholas (played by Calvin Cummings, played by Blair Underwood), who’s being interviewed by and falling for a movie journalist (played by Francesca Davis, played by Julia Roberts) while he tries to get a more personal script made at Miramax (played by the offices of Miramax) over the indifference of “Harvey, probably” (impersonated by Jeff Garlin). All of which takes place in Rendezvous, a movie (3) written by journalist Carl Bright (David Hyde Pierce) and produced by Gus Delario (David Duchovny), whose birthday party is the climax of the movie (4) Full Frontal.
We spend most of our time on level three, Carl and Gus’ Los Angeles, where a roundelay of Hollywood types spin in search of love and success. Carl’s wife, Lee (Catherine Keener) is a corporate tool about to break, facing another day of deciding what small percentage of employees will survive a mass firing. Lee’s sister Linda (Mary McCormack) is a massage therapist, who’s engaged in online dating/mutual catfishing with actor/director Arty (Enrico Colantoni), who’s currently directing “Hitler” (Nicky Katt) in a play about the last days of the Third Reich. Linda is both our moral center and the person with the least connection to the entertainment industry, but her sister is trying to convince her to meet men in the business, and it’s her two awful encounters with Gus that bring the story back to the movies.
It’s confusing just to type, but Soderbergh makes it as clear as possible by using different film and video looks to distinguish scenes that differ not in location (as in Traffic) or time (as in The Underneath) but in level of “reality.” The Hollywood movies are shot in brightly-colored, smooth 35mm, while the real world is indicated by the handheld camerawork, digital speckling, and blown-out highlights that typify early reality shows like Cops—the video signifiers of authenticity.
And much like in Traffic, the things being distinguished turn out to be a lot less separate than we initially think. Full Frontal starts out establishing dichotomies of real/fake, success/failure, movie/reality, and then collapses those distinctions so thoroughly that each side becomes indistinguishable from the other. Even the Cops theme song, which tells the TV viewer that they’re about to see something real, is here used as a pre-show routine for the hammy actor playing Hitler, whose attempts at naturalism undermine the plausibility of the character he’s performing. The many neurotic, awkward conversations of Full Frontal perfectly illustrate the weird way that people—especially entertainment-industry people— elaborately pretend to be authentic when they’re at their most manipulative. Nothing is faker than acting real.
“The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are…Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself…As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them…Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.” —Harry Frankfurt
In Soderbergh’s films, love often happens through acts of storytelling, as two people try to show themselves to each other. When our ability to tell stories is corrupted, our ability to connect with each other decays. And when the process of storytelling has been hijacked by a sinister industry dedicated to the creation of plausible-looking lies, our own hearts become someone else’s property. So Full Frontal’s constant and compulsive yanking the rug out from under the narrative isn’t just a formal game; it’s an attempt at identifying and resisting the tyranny of false stories.
In Sex, Lies, and Videotape, speaking—that is, performing—was how people connected with others and repaired themselves, particularly by speaking with the mixture of detachment and intimacy that comes from performing before a camera. In Full Frontal, Soderbergh’s self-described sequel to his debut film, all performance has become a form of coercion, and cameras are the shroud that wraps up an authentic gesture’s corpse. Everyone is behaving like actors at an industry party: they can’t talk to people, only perform at them, especially when the performance is an elaborate simulation of “acting natural.”
And it all comes back to the movies. The place where alienated people—that is, just about all people—learn how they should behave when in love.
“The language of images—maybe not threatens, but directly changes actual lived life. I mean, consider that my grandparents, by the time they got married and kissed, I think they’d seen people kiss…maybe a hundred kisses. My parents, who’d grown up with mainstream Hollywood cinema, had seen thousands of kisses by the time they kissed. Before I had ever kissed anyone, I had seen tens of thousands of kisses, of people kissing. And I know that the first time I kissed, much of my thought was ‘Am I doing it right? Am I doing it according to how I’ve seen it?'” —David Foster Wallace
The main action of Full Frontal takes place in a single day, the lead-up to producer Gus Delario’s birthday party. Gus only appears in two scenes, but his influence is everywhere: Every major character is introduced by their relationship to Gus, the film we keep cutting to was made by Gus, and everyone in the movie who knows Gus describes how much they admire him, want to be closer to him, want to be more like him. To succeed in LA is to be like Gus Delario.
And Gus Delario is an asshole. When we finally meet Gus, we don’t know who he is; he’s staying in a hotel under a false name, and has booked a private massage with Linda. He’s amiable but diffident, parading around in a loose bathrobe, stage managing the massage and negging Linda with patronizing maxims that masquerade as assistance even as they’re designed to undermine. Halfway through the massage, he offers Linda a little extra cash for “release.” When Linda refuses, he wheedles her with an offer that’s easy for him to make: “When was the last time you made $500 for 30 seconds of work?” Linda sighs, “You’re cruel.” But after a little negotiation, she acquiesces. This successful man seems used to people acquiescing.
It’s only after the handjob, when Linda is vomiting in the hotel room sink, that she realizes that this man is movie producer Gus Delario. Like Harry Lime in The Third Man, Gus has been built up all through the film, and the discovery of his vileness makes the viewer reevaluate everything we’ve been told.
We’ve been seeing scenes from Rendezvous, the latest Gus Delario production, all through Full Frontal. It’s a pretty conventional romance, with attractive stars, nice lighting, a dash of social consciousness, and all the beats the genre demands: a slightly chilly meeting, he charms her, she rejects him, but circumstance will keep them together until her initial dislike transforms, as the movie requires, into love.
Now that we know what kind of man Gus is, the standard romance trope of resistance overcome seems much more sinister; given what we now know about Harvey Weinstein, one wonders how much the director’s disillusion with the man who brought him to the big time influenced Full Frontal’s harsh portrait of the medium, its tropes, and its creators. All our major characters are, in some way, complicit in the creation of a lie like Rendezvous—Gus who made it, Lee, who’s cheating on her husband with its handsome star, and Carl and Arty, who co-wrote it and enact its ugly assumptions with the women around them.
And Rendezvous, the source and the outlet for everyone’s worst version of themselves, is falling apart. As we learn the real nature of the movie’s creators, the movie loses what formal integrity it had. The actors’ blocking gets oddly slapstick, and the dialogue become sinister and elliptical, almost self-aware: when the journalist says goodbye to an agent with “Nice to meet you,” he smirks and replies: “Nice seeing you,” emphasizing “seeing” like it’s a correction and making Catherine pull her hand back as though she’s touched something dangerous.
Worse still, the script seems unable to make falling in love seem natural, even as it’s shoving the characters towards it. The heart of the romantic comedy genre is the moment when a person refusing love sees the error of their ways. But the screenwriter of Rendezvous seems unable to make that seem authentic. The movie’s characters are brought together, not by their own impulses, but by a mysterious red envelope containing the declaration of love that they can’t speak aloud. And the red letter seems to have come from nowhere but the screenwriter’s toolbox, its visual incongruity an objective correlative for the heavy hand of genre requirements.
And that pushy red letter isn’t safely contained in Rendezvous; it appears early in the ostensibly real world of Full Frontal, where it’s written not by an admirer seeking love, but by an exhausted wife demanding a divorce. It appears in Carl’s real world before and after it shows up in the movie he wrote, as though the purpose of fiction was to both define the gestures available to people, and to turn our ugly gestures into something more pleasant. But what we know about Gus leaves us wondering if the urge to immerse people in a reimagined reality is really all that harmless, for the viewer or for the filmmaker.
“Godard, when directing his actors, transforms them into objects in order to film in them that which escapes this objectification.” —Patrick Levy
There’s a moment early in the movie when Arty says he likes online dating because it’s “[a place] where I can lie” just as he turns on the lights in a theater—a juxtaposition that creates a connection between performance, love, art, and lies. Arty is, according to the opening titles, a “part-time actor,” and it’s ambiguous whether that refers to his performance in Rendezvous or to his performance in online chat with Linda, where he’s pretending to be the handsome, successful artist that he isn’t. Everyone in the movie is desperate to be the person they think others want them to be, and the pressure of constantly performing is breaking them. They all want to be seen, and hope that being loved will give them an escape from the constant pressure to impress. As Carl says, with unwarranted optimism, “You can’t pretend that you’re having sex with someone…when you are actually having sex with them.”
All over Full Frontal’s LA, people’s performances are crumbling. Lee’s interviews with office workers turn into Kafkaesque interrogations, inexplicable and full of threat. Carl pretends to be making work chat while he sexually harasses co-workers. Arty and “Hitler” are pushing each other around with such an elaborate simulacrum of casualness that they’ve achieved Beckettian stasis. Everyone’s inability to perform believably is making them repulsive, and their attempts to be ingratiating are making it much worse. When Rendezvous’ film journalist Catherine dreams, she dreams of being invisible, imagining “And I could do anything, right? Because, you know, I’m invisible.” No authentic gesture can avoid taking the shape of performance. Nothing real can be said; nothing said can be real.
The characters of Full Frontal are trapped in the terrible, lonely solipsism of constant acting, their selves locked somewhere far behind their faces. And the only way out is through. The movie’s demonstration of its own artificiality is not a way of thumbing its nose at the credulous viewer; it’s the only possible escape from the trap the movie has identified.
The final shot of Full Frontal makes clear that Arty, Linda, Carl and Lee are all movie characters. But the movie’s been telling us that all along. The very first scenes of Lee and Carl’s story used rough video to signify that it was real, in contrast to the sumptuous 35mm of Nicholas and Catherine’s story. But it also used jump cuts and zooms to alert the viewer to the presence of the camera. Reality television has conditioned viewers to treat those obvious camcorder gestures as signs that what they’re watching is something true, but the obvious combination of multiple takes makes that illusion even more unsustainable than reality TV’s usual manipulations. Like Godard’s Contempt, nodded to with a large poster in Carl’s apartment, the film is highlighting the artifice of its own performance as a symbol of the artifice that people (trying to be) in love present each other.
And in the final scenes of Rendezvous and Full Frontal, we see the difference between a movie that’s trying to lie and a movie that’s trying, however hopelessly, to tell the truth. When Nicholas and Catherine finally acquiesce to the plot’s demand that they fall in love, they’re in an attractively art-decorated airport food court. Nicholas reads Catherine’s letter—the movie doesn’t even try to give her a convincing romantic monologue—and each knows the other at once. We cut to the plane, where they lean in for a kiss. But instead of their lips touching, they turn their face to the camera, giving it the movie-star faces that people pay to see and making themselves unable to look at each other.
In the end of Full Frontal, Linda meets Arty in a grungy airport food court, as both are on their way to meet the fictional person the other’s been playing on their dating app. Not knowing they’ve already met in the imaginary theater of the internet, they joke around, introduce themselves, talk without any particular goal. They get on the plane, and as they fall in love, the camera pulls away, moving so far back that we can no longer see them, only the movie machinery that presents them. Arty says “She laughed in a way that made me feel like she saw me.” And Linda says “It was like out of a movie.” Only when all the artifice is acknowledged can something like real love occur.
Behind the scenes, what ties all these stories together is Gus. But it’s not his story, and he doesn’t get to write it. Gus will be unable to come to the party, a victim of his own onanism, and what’s left to hold the movie together are the love stories. A love story is what Carl and Lee are trying to have, what Artie and Linda want more than anything, what Gus and “Hitler” are rotting for lack of, what Catherine and Nicholas can never have because their movie is a lie.
Full Frontal is an intellectual puzzle-box of a movie, but it cares about its characters. It wants them to fall in the kind of love that movies can’t show, and it’s angry at the forces that have led them astray. The tension and joy of the film is the way it bangs against the wall between the real experience of love and its cinematic simulation like a moth trying to get through a window. It knows people use the media they see, and are used by it, but that’s not all there is. Everyone is living inside a box with a screen in front, and no one can get out. But they can try, at least, to make their gestures honest, and hope that someone sees.