[Fantasia Festival 2019 Review] The Art of Self-Defense Surprises at Every Turn
Screened at Fantasia Festival 2019:
Twenty years ago, one of the most misunderstood movies crashed at the box office but created a cultural phenomenon. Fight Club should have been embraced as a searing satire on male toxicity but instead its lasting impression on society has been “The Rules” and the twist. What’s more, it was embraced by the culture that it actually lampooned. Much like the so called red pill subculture in cyber culture based on a film created by two trans women, Fight Club was co-opted by a group that didn’t understand the movie. But I digress. My point is that The Art of Self-Defense is as biting of a satire as Fight Club was, but tackles the subject matter with a lot more skill.
Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is the kind of guy who is secretly fluent in French, but sits in his single-seat booth rocking nervously and avoiding eye contact when two French-speaking people make fun of his potential dick size and loneliness in their native language. At his office, he’s told “get the fuck out of here,” after trying to unsuccessfully interject himself into a conversation with his male coworkers. When he finds a magazine with the hilarious title ♂, he makes photocopies of it instead of stealing it. ♂ is a basic “how to” of male toxicity, filled with pictures of breasts and guns and articles like “Wolf, a Pet for a Man.” He’s meek and unassuming.
But all of this changes one night when he’s mugged and beaten to an inch of his life. Up until now, he’s just a “35 year old dog owner,” as the radio identifies him after his bloody mugging. But he soon discovers a karate dojo led by a man only known as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who sees something special in Casey…even though he has an feminine name. Because you see, unassuming Casey is also the kind of guy who puts all of himself into whatever he’s doing, whether that’s being on lesson 25 of a French language tape for a theoretical trip to France or learning karate.
And as Casey gets more embroiled in Sensei’s schooling, he gains confidence, yes. But a blood smear on the mat foreshadows that he’s signed up for more than he bargained for.
The Art of Self-Defense is a surprisingly dark and hilarious movie that completely disarmed me and my expectations…and I promise that wasn’t an intentional pun. Written and directed by Riley Stearns, who was also responsible for the excellent movie Faults, The Art of Self-Defense tackles the allure of toxic masculinity in shocking and biting ways. It’s set in an undetermined time, but the VHS and old school TVs place it somewhere in the past. But while the internet is probably in its infancy here, Stearns’ very dark comedy has a lot to say about the kind of trolls and behavior we see online today.
The only female presence on screen is Anna (Imogen Poots), who has to put in more work and be more vicious at the dojo than any of the male students just because of her gender. Her changing room in the dojo is the boiler room and when Casey questions it, she responds with a monotone, “It’s the same as the men’s in every way, only it’s smaller and not as nice.” The dialogue, in general, is exceptionally droll and stilted throughout. People don’t talk so much as exclaim or offer slogans or declarations. “Let’s do pushups now” and “I will sit in your seat” become the way Casey speaks to his coworkers once he’s started at the dojo.
“Everything should be as masculine as possible,” Sensei tells him. And like a good boy, he embraces it. Switching out Adult Contemporary music for metal. But what surprised me was Stearns’ ability to embrace the ridiculousness of the ritualistic karate. It becomes a toxically masculine interpretive dance. The only way these men can communicate with each other is through violence and aggro-body slams. It’s just another hierarchy, pitting student against student to see who’s more masculine. More powerful. But it also presents the homoeroticism inherent in these touches and fights. At one point, while the men are stripping down and massaging each other after a workout, Sensei sends Casey to Anna for his first time, apologizing by saying “a massage from a woman is still better than a self-massage.”
It’s this dichotomy between hyper-masculinity and hyper-sexuality that sells the humor and brings the story to a different level. But when it gets dark, it goes hard and unflinching. Stearns has created a movie that succeeds on all levels, from acting to script to cinematography. It’s a must see dark comedy at its finest.