Don Jon

Editor’s Note: Another day, another guest post. This time it’s an entry from someone whose guest writing was a big part of this year’s Hot Docs coverage – Kate Bradford. Kate’s selection for this series really interests me since it’s the newest choice by a healthy margin, and because her re-watch came so quickly after her first experience. Guess that’s proof that sometimes our minds aren’t as made up as we’d believe – RM

There aren’t a lot of films that can successfully illicit a drastic change of opinion from me. I know what I like, I know what I don’t: I rarely change my mind. Recently though, on a bored night with nothing on TV, I decided to re-watch the directorial debut of one of my favourite actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, expecting my second viewing of Don Jon to be just as lukewarm and so-so as it had been when I first saw the film in theatres last fall. What happened instead was a complete 180 from my last viewing. What happened was, I finally “got” it.

In my initial review of the film, I really wasn’t sure what to say. I had enjoyed it on a superficial level, but the entire thing seemed a bit directionless to me, a bit misguided, a bit green. On a second viewing, I realized that all of the things I had believed to be superfluous were in fact parts of a carefully structured and thoughtful film who’s only real hurdle is that it is examining a topic that is largely unexplored in a style that is completely unexpected.

Much is made of the negative effects associated with the objectification and over-sexualization of women in our culture. This is normally only examined as detrimental to women, though. We don’t usually think about the secondary victims of this unrealistic images that are projected to us in pornography, film, television, and advertisements: young men. Title character Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the “perfect storm” of unrealistic sexual expectations borne from a machismo upbringing and unchecked sex drive thrown further off course by the images he has flooded himself with. On first viewing, the subtleties of  his composition can be easily missed. The second time, they stood out to me like a sore thumb.

He and his friends give women ratings between 1 and 10. Jon is the leader, never going below a 7, and his friends look up to him for guidance. He is the sensei of picking up women, but he’s not really much of a friend to them. Much like his sexual style, Jon is completely selfish. The repetitive structure of his “hook-ups” enforces the empty, unsatisfying monotony of his existence. Jon is searching for something he will never find. He is searching for a mythical woman who only exists on celluloid. He believes he’s found it in Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), the “dime” who is the closest incarnation he has ever found of his “perfect woman”. She is a conquest, something to hang on the mantle.

JGL in Don Jon

This is never more evident than whenever someone asks him how he feels about her. His answer is always the same:  “She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Thing. Most beautiful thing. It is his response again when he brings Barbara home to meet his family one Sunday. His father even responds with a story of his own as they eat dinner. The first time he saw Jon’s mother, he looked at her from across the room and said, “That’s mine.” What at first seems like nothing more than chauvinistic chest thumping is actually a glimpse into the way that Jon’s father has shaped him into the man he is today. The entire scene, in fact, shows Jon repeatedly relishing the pride his father feels for him having brought home the beautiful Barbara. She is a prize. A conquest. A trophy.

But even Barbara isn’t enough. Jon mistakes desire for love, control for companionship, and lies to himself and Barbara the entire time. He has the illusion of ultimate mastery of his life, but he is on a free fall of sexual slavery and in a relationship with a woman who uses his desire for her as a means of control him. Barbara knows that her body gives her power, that men will obey her and tolerate belligerent behaviour because of it. I wonder where she learned that?

The third act of this film, involving Jon’s sexual awakening with Esther (Julianne Moore) is where we finally get the pay off, where the growth of Jon’s character is finally crystal clear. Back when Jon first sees Esther crying by the door, he avoids her, embarrassed and uncomfortable by her sadness. It comes off as cold, but in reality Jon is so disconnected with his own emotions that it would be impossible for him to empathize with anyone else’s. On first viewing I found Esther to be a strange character, almost out-of-place in this story. I realize now that that’s the point. Esther’s raw emotion, her pain bubbling to the surface at a moments notice, is a stark juxtaposition to Jon’s emotional deficiencies. She is his foil, and his salvation.

The final revelation that I had about this film is that it’s structure and deconstruction of the rom com genre is its final way to toy with its audience’s expectations. I missed it’s intricacies the first time, but I’m not too proud to admit when I’m wrong. I was rewarded with a brand new movie, one that I’m much happier to get behind.

Kate’s writing can be found at Kate Has a Blog