Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Abigail Hardingham in Custom
"Whilst exploring ideas around power, perception and the reshaping of boundaries, Teixeira also delivers a tender love story." | Photo: Frightfest

In many traditions (as for a long time in the UK), acting is closely associated with sex work. This isn’t just because of the notion of people being on display. At a more fundamental level, it’s about the way that workers in both professions make their bodies available for the performance of other people’s fantasies. Tiago Teixeira’s Custom, which screened as part of Glasgow Frightfest 2024, follows a couple who merge the two. Unable to fund themselves purely through their art, Harriet (Abigail Hardingham) and Jasper (Rowan Polonski) have turned their creative talents to making pornographic videos on a custom basis, doing whatever the client wants. Mostly that’s a bit of mild, stage-managed bdsm, but they are about to get an unusual request that will change everything.

In the internet age, the long-cherished Western notion that body and mind are separate domains is coming under increasing pressure. We know that the pressures people encounter online can affect their mental health, which can in turn have physical effects. Esoteric traditions have preserved, over centuries, the notion that ideas can directly shape physical reality. Nowhere is the relationship between ideas and the physical closer than in film. When one asks a person to do something, and they do it, one is influencing the world with one’s mind. And when that’s recorded on VHS? “It’s a chemical process, a physical process. What this sees is conjured into reality,” we are told. The video word is made flesh.

So far, so familiar – but the tapes that Harriet and Jasper are sent by a mysterious client who calls himself The Audience appear to have been treated with something. The Audience doesn’t want them to fuck. He’s after something rather different. Dressed in black clothing and red masks, they sit opposite each other in an empty studio, carrying out precise rituals. The camera rolls. They have been instructed not to watch the tapes afterwards, but knowing, no doubt, how this kind of story works, Jasper breaks that rule. What he sees disturbs him like nothing he’s encountered in the past.

Whilst exploring ideas around power, perception and the reshaping of boundaries, Teixeira also delivers a tender love story. The couple, so clearly besotted when we first see them, have been drifting apart, perhaps due to sex losing its thrill after becoming work. Initially, this new project seems to bring them together, as they both contribute to it creatively; but Harriet engages with the material in a way that Jasper can’t relate to, and he flounders, desperate not to lose her. Their physical interactions have altered her understanding of the world. She is going somewhere that he might not be able to follow, and one wonders if the destruction of the bond between them is part of The Audience’s pleasure.

Viewers will inevitably be reminded of Videodrome. This is at once the most successful heir to David Cronenberg’s classic and a wholly independent endeavour, exploring related material in its own distinctive way. It brings its own erotic visions into play, no prosthetics needed. Both actors immerse themselves fully into their roles, recognising the connection between the characters’ situation and their own, with Hardingham bringing the same keen understanding of psychologically complex erotica that she showed in Nina Forever. This makes the film feel like an insider’s perspective, not another of those always slightly embarrassing takes from people who have only ever observed at a safe distance.

Custom is big on atmosphere, working with very little and taking its time to build. A restricted colour palette and Philipp Morozov’s wonderfully textured cinematography contributes a lot to this, but most important is Teixeira’s understanding of the importance of letting viewers’ minds do their own conjuring. To get the most out of Custom, you will have to be willing to cross the boundary between reality and fiction. One hopes that, somehow, there will eventually be a VHS edition.

Reviewed on: 16 Mar 2024
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Custom packshot
A couple producing custom erotic films are dragged into a nightmarish conspiracy.

Director: Tiago Teixeira

Writer: Tiago Teixeira

Starring: Abigail Hardingham, Rowan Polonski

Year: 2023

Runtime: 76 minutes

Country: UK


Glasgow 2024

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