Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life
"Jonathan is an ideal subject because he's completely open to the world."

Jonathan Agassi is an adopted name. Many porn stars use them, usually for safety reasons. For Jonathan/Johny/Yonatan, as he is variously known, it's something more. Agassi is a character, a layer of performance behind which he can hide. He's naturally quite shy, even to the point of anxiousness, but when he's playing at being Agassi he can be a king.

At the point when Tomer Heymann's documentary opens, Jonathan is at the peak of his career success, a multi-award winning star and probably the most famous gay man in the industry. Heymann's opening scene, however, instantly complicates the picture. Preparing for a live sex show, Jonathan and his fellow performer discuss the latter's recent family bereavement. It sets a bittersweet tone that lingers throughout the film. They get on with the show because they're professionals but first and foremost we see them as human beings. This is what the director is really interested in and Jonathan is an ideal subject because he's completely open to the world. His star quality hinges on his complete lack of defences. This makes him compelling to watch but you'll know from the start that there's going to be heartbreak along the way.

A hit on the festival circuit and a highlight of this year's Newfest in New York, this is a film with a lot more going on than just an appeal to porn fans. Most people watching it will find themselves wanting to take Jonathan home, either because they're attracted to him or because they want to wrap him up in blankets and feed him hot chocolate and try to shield him from everything that's wrong with the world. In one scene he compares himself to Marilyn Monroe and says he wants to end up like her one day, and one wonders if he's talking about her fame or her overdose. As his career inevitably begins to slow down a bit, he drifts into escort work (something he stresses is not the same as prostitution, though he is sleeping with his clients) and imagines himself as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. If hookers with hearts of gold exist in this world, he's the real deal, but he seems painfully unaware of how different most men paying for such services are from the character played by Richard Gere.

Throughout the film, Jonathan's family life is centre stage. His father left when he was young, reappearing in his life at intervals to try and pressure him into turning straight, sometimes in deeply disturbing ways. Homophobia has also complicated is relationship with his brother, though they seem to have reached an understanding. His mother, however, has been there for him throughout. The warmth between them brings something really special to the film, and she also functions as a mirror for the viewer's concerns as Jonathan wanders into more and more dangerous territory. There's humour, too. As he struts around her small living room in Tel Aviv, showing off his new lace stockings, she acknowledges that it's strange for her to see him like that but agrees that they're nice. Heymann cuts to one of the family dogs, who has the most strikingly cynical expression you're ever likely to see on such a creature.

Jonathan's relationship with gender is complicated throughout. He talks about having wanted to be a girl when he was a teenager, and in photographs he looks very good in wigs and dresses. He still likes to look pretty, and fiercely contests the idea that femininity should be conflated with passivity, masculinity with action. Over the course of the film, however, we see him experiment with an exaggerated form of masculinity, taking steroids to bulk himself up, cutting his hair shorter and shorter. It feels like another form of disguise or coping mechanism. Agreeing to meet two clients for sex at the end of a long day, he looks around for a means of recovering some energy, and it's clear where this story is going.

If you think you've heard this one before, there's a final twist in the story that may surprise you. What really makes the film compelling, however, is the intimacy of what Heymann has captured on camera, which goes way beyond the sexual (there's enough of that to annoy censors but it's never gratuitous). Porn is often - and often fairly - accused of objectifying people, but that's nothing to the way its stars tend to be objectified by outsiders. In getting so close to his subject, Heymann invites viewers to examine their prejudices about the industry more widely. There's an acknowledgement of how exploitative it can be (some viewers may find the scene in which Jonathan talks about being pressured into bareback sex distressing) but much of this invites comparison with similar kinds of business - where there are stars to be made, people get burnt. Heymann's careful observations and Jonathan's willingness to share everything with the viewer remind us that those people matter.

Reviewed on: 15 Oct 2019
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Behind the scenes with Israeli global gay-porn sensation and self-admitted mama’s boy Jonathan Agassi during his first eight years in the business.
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Director: Tomer Heymann

Year: 2018

Runtime: 106 minutes

Country: Germany, Israel

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