Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"An interesting documentary on a highly pertinent subject." | Photo: Cristopher Gallo

Monogamy: what's it all about? Do love and marriage really go together the way the old saying goes, even in these days of horseless carriages? Filmmaker Tao Ruspoli had just been through a messy break-up when he began making this film. He set out to explore alternative ways of managing love, sex and relationships, but ended up gaining fresh insights into how they work conventionally.

Films about alternatives to monogamy usually follow the same format: they find people in polyamorous relationships and present them as, at best, ludicrous and eccentric; at worst, abusive, engaged in some inherently sexist behaviour. Queer narratives tend to be ignored and everything is framed in contrast to the 'normal'. Monogamish (whose very title hints at a more nuanced interpretation of human behaviour) signals its intention to take a different approach early on, when it places its focus not on the unusual but on the familiar. Ruspoli structures his journey of discovery around a conversation with Dan Savage, who immediately problematises notions most people take for granted. Why is it that people say marriage is about love, not sex, then throw it all away purely because of a sexual indiscretion? Why do people who say they would walk over hot coals for those they love consider as much as a kiss shared with somebody else to be beyond forgiveness? Isn't there something a bit odd about that?

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Importantly, although conventional monogamy is questioned in this way, it isn't ridiculed. Some of thise interviewed in the film - including people quite willing to accept that it's not the best option for everyone - say that it's really important to them personally, and has worked for them. Some interviewees discuss personal histories involving both monogamous and polyamorous relationships, weighing up the different issues they faced in each. Though it's never addressed directly, there's a tacit understanding that this isn't just about finding the right approach for individuals but about finding what fits particular combinations of people, each relationship having its own distinct tensions and chemistry.

Although many viewers will find the film packed with ideas that are new to them, there are moments when participants' lack of insight is just as startling. "If you see one old person pushing another in a wheelchair, there's definitely no sex appeal," says one, and frustratingly this ugly bit of ableism goes unchallenged. There's also a look at sociological narratives around marriage that stops in the Seventies with feminist analyses, leaving no room for more modern, equitable takes on the arrangement. A brief look at marriage and relationship structures aound the world throws up some interesting material but the predominant focus on the US means that working definitions are quite narrow. This does, however, allow for an exploration of what is termed the 'marriage industrial complex', looking at the advantages for states of encouraging a social structure based on familial dependencies.

There's an impressive range of academic experts here from different disciplines, and Savage is on top form, often doing more to frame the narrative than Ruspoli does. Because these contributions are intermingled with personal stories, the film never becomes too dry; it's informationally dense but it goes down easily. It's also fast paced, and you may find it difficult to take everything in at one sitting, especially if this isn't a subject you've given much thought to. This is an interesting documentary on a highly pertinent subject and it is, for the most part, remarkably even-handed. As an invitation to join a conversation that gets beyond the usual moral panic, it has much to recommend it.

Reviewed on: 08 Oct 2017
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A recently divorced filmmaker explores the different ways people manage relationships.

Director: Tao Ruspoli

Writer: Tao Ruspoli, Mark Wrathall

Starring: Diana Adams, Dan Savage, Christopher Ryan, Esther Perel

Year: 2014

Runtime: 73 minutes

Country: USA, Canada, Italy, Portugal, Spain


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