Eye For Film >> Movies >> Surrogate (2008) Film Review
Reviewed by: Chris
Sexual surrogate therapy is an interesting area for a filmmaker. Why should a film from Israel about a seemingly non-political subject raise such a furore? (Protests and a threatened picket surrounded questions of funding when it premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival – something that is almost becoming an annual occurrence.) We can say that politics shouldn’t come into cinema, although this in itself is a questionable proposition. Many reputable filmmakers – Godard, for instance – have championed cinema as a political voice. But if we do hold the view that it should be above political disputes, we should at least be able to identify politics within a film.
Without analysing the tit-for-tat arguments about accepting funding, or protests about illegal actions by Israel that have nothing to do with film, what is the political undercurrent of films like Surrogate? I’ll deal with this first and then consider the movie on its other merits.
Surrogate is about a woman therapist who acts as a sexual surrogate for a timid young man unable to form relationships. Professor Ella Shohat, for instance, author of Israeli Cinema: East/West And The Politics of Representation, and Susan Hayward, author of Cinema Studies, Key Concepts, both identify two main themes that predominate in Israeli films. The first is ‘Palestinian Wave’ cinema. These movies, made by Israeli filmmakers, show the Palestinians as victims and seek to transcend the conflict through a love affair of cultures or characters. They present positive images of Israel but are ignored by Palestine which views them with suspicion.
The second group is about the portrayal of women, the egalitarian place they supposedly hold in Israeli society (the truth being rather more complex). This highlights the difference and supposed superiority over Arab Palestinian women who, even in Palestinian films, are frequently acknowledged to be victims of gender discrimination. Surrogate falls into this category and so, if one accepts the theory, is part of the media war against Palestinian culture. The corresponding ‘media war’ of Palestinian films is usually to show the privations suffered by expansion of Israeli settlers into Palestinian territory (films such as Lemon Tree and Pomegranates And Myrrh are recent examples). It is beyond the scope of this review to analyse the rights and wrongs, if any, of such trends in the respective cinemas, although readers might productively examine whether or not they pushes the cinema of each country to greater heights of artistic achievement.
Eli is seeing a (very expensive) sexual surrogate as part of his psychotherapy sessions. She is a 31-year-old woman who discusses his case with the doctor before and after each surrogacy session. Her technique seems both believable and acceptable, along the lines of such sexual gurus as Masters and Johnson, who pioneered gradual, sensitive touching for couples experiencing sexual dysfunction.
Each of Eli’s sessions follows strict rules which he must follow. For instance, at one session, she gently but firmly says: “No breasts, this time,” presumably to ensure he is not going ahead too quickly. She also has to handle his emotional responses as he tries (unsuccessfully) to form a personal emotional relationship with her. (She is quite firm that she has never dated a patient.) The degree of control she exercises is fascinating. A controversial reading might compare it to the calculated self-control of the high-class escort in Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience and the very specific differences between sexual surrogacy and prostitution, while recognising (or questioning) the apparent degree of control the woman has in both situations.
Occasionally Eli’s anger gets the better of him. He will try to force himself on her or shout that for the money he’s paying for each session he could have lots of good looking women. The angry scenes carry a certain conviction but the milder ones are more one-sided. The surrogate character is very believably acted. But I found it more difficult to believe in Eli, a handsome young man who, for the most part, seems honestly at ease.
In fact, I had to talk myself into believing he had sexual problems in order to appreciate her outstanding performance. His nervousness seemed to me to be over-acted. Perhaps it is a situation that is more difficult for men to portray convincingly? One might recall the similarly documentary-styled story by Catherine Breillat, Sex Is Comedy. Breillat’s film showed a director (based on her own character in an earlier film, Fat Girl) where it is necessary to coax a young actor to play a sex scene without a sexual ego that would spoil the story. Breillat’s advantage is that she is extremely comfortable and experienced in directing intimate scenes and almost tricking actors, if need be, so that the right performance is achieved.
Similarly lacking was any sort of character building before Eli launched into his agonised expressions of sexual inadequacy. Apart from the progressive nature of the sessions – and a revelation about his childhood – there is very little narrative development. With a running time of under an hour, some gentle massaging to expand this beyond the remit of a lengthy short would have been in order. As it is, we receive a taster but the end comes – if you’ll excuse the pun – all too soon.Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2009