Another kind of dragon to slay

Don Jon is a 2013 movie written, directed by and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Spoilers follow. JG-L plays “Don” Jon, a late-twenties, early-thirties lothario currently on a streak of sexual conquests It also stars Scarlet Johansson as Barbara, the ‘dime’ and object of Jon’s affections, and Julianne Moore as Esther, an intelligent older woman at Jon’s night-classes.

Jon lives alone and works as a barman. He informs us that he only cares about a few things: his family, his car, his boys, keeping his flat clean (a major plot point) and porn. Jon likes porn more than he likes real sex. Jon consumes a lot of porn, and the effect of this on him and his relationships is the focus of the film.

The title is a clever little play on words that I appreciated. Jon is referred to as ‘the Don’ for his prodigious sexual prowess; it is also most obviously a reference to ‘Don Juan’, the famous (fictional) libertine and sexual adventurer. However, the themes the movie explores also invite the homophonic reading of donjon or, as it came to be in English, dungeon.

Jon begins the film by thinking that perhaps he is unable to enjoy real sex because he has been ‘doing it wrong’. He decides that lacking an emotional connection to his bed-partners I what is causing his dissatisfaction with sex. He tries to create one by engaging in a committed relationship with Barbara.

Barbara is not right for Jon (and quite unsympathetic to us the audience) as she demands a variety of things from him including giving up porn, attending night classes and (importantly) he should not clean his own house. This doesn’t work out; Jon is unable to form a genuine bond with Barbara and so he continues to return (secretly) to pornography. Jon does try to live up to Barbara’s (and society’s) expectations.

It is at night class that he meets Esther, an older woman who appears to be emotionally volatile. As the film progresses, we are shown that Esther possesses a great maturity than the other major actors in the film inasmuch as she recognises her own need to break down. When Jon & Barbara’s relationship eventually fails, it is with Esther Jon manages to establish an emotional and sexual connection.

(Perhaps at this point we should think of what Jon is in less of a dungeon and more as a labyrinth he is trying to navigate.)

There are quite a few things this film approaches thoughtfully and sensitively. Jon isn’t shown as a bad guy for consuming porn, but rather he is clueless. An early exchange between Jon and Esther has him incredulous to the idea that the sex he sees in pornographic movies is staged; Jon sincerely believes that the sex acts are more real than the real thing. What he likes, and what he is unable to find in physical intimacy, is that he can disappear while watching porn.

Esther attempts to introduce him to more healthy pornography (both the film and I will reject the porn/erotica dichotomy, at least linguistically). It is not the spectating of sex acts, or even necessarily the pleasure of voyeurism, that is at fault here but rather the specific praxis of pornography consumption that Jon engages with that is to be criticised; that of heavily stylized mainstream erotica. This is shown in the film when Esther challenges Jon to attempt to masturbate without using any pornography and he finds himself unable to.

Pornography is part of a more expansive cultural system that imprisons Jon. In his family we see that Jon is very much in the shadow of his father; his father’s response to Barbara is apposite, as is his response in the conclusion of the film that it is a man’s greatest happiness to start a family. While visiting the family Jon dresses and holds himself in a manner identical to his father. Much of Jon’s life is lived through the prism of masculine identity inherited from his father.

An exception to this, and one of the things that gives Jon joy, is that he cleans his own flat. He has a particular system which he tries to explain to Barbara. Barbara refuses this non-normative behaviour, labels it ‘weird’, and refuses to accept that Jon takes pleasure in tidying. It is not part of the conception of manliness that she (and culture) takes part in.

Another of the prisms of constraint Jon’s relationship with the Church. Jon, a Catholic, receives communion and goes to confession each week and informs the priest of how many times he has had sex and how many times he has masturbated during the week and then receives his customary ten hail-maries. When Jon forms a relationship with Barbara and lies to her about giving up porn, he also lies to his priest. At confession he he is given 5 hail-maries. (He is pleased at this, and carried out his hail-maries as part of his exercise regime. Barbara informs him this is ‘weird’ and he should stop.) In a later confession he informs the priest he lied earlier about having given up pornography but now has and the priest gives him ten hail-maries. Jon, visibly distressed, asks the priest how they arrive at the numbers to which he is told to ‘trust in the Church.’

The film is not so simplistic as to posit that Jon is the only character ‘living in the dungeon’ so to speak. It needs must spend less time on it, but the construction of conventional family and romantic love envisaged by Jon’s mother and Barbara respectively are equally restrictive. Even Esther is walking through the corridors of her grief.

The film parallels Jon’s response to pornography and Barbara’s to romantic films by reproducing facial shots, lighting and focus on the dilated pupils. After they have separated, Jon attempts to meet with Barbara to apologise for his dishonesty. Instead of closure, they squabble. It’s a good scene, with Jon attempting to articulate that he was addicted to porn due in part to loneliness, and Barbara unable to acknowledge that what she wanted from Jon was not reasonable; her constant reiteration of ‘I only asked you for one thing’ which Jon finally calls out as untrue.

As Jon’s sister observed when he told his family he and Barbara were finished, Barbara did not really see Jon, but only a life which she sees as desirable. For Jon this is part of the navigation of his labyrinth but Barbara cannot see that, stuck as she is in her.

It also bears mentioning that Jon attempts to replicate the dominant cultural narratives of masculinity among his friends; he (and we) are equally jailkeeper and jailed. Even though he is unhappy with Barbara, he lies to his friends about how fulfilling a sex life they have. He frames this as part of a narrative of give and take but, of course, neither of them are giving. It is perhaps that Jon has a problem with honesty, with himself and with others.

The film is not perfect, and comes across a little bit like JG-L had recently read Derrida on Rousseau/Derrida on Masturbation. It also relies a little too much on the idea of women being able to bring men wisdom which they cannot reach on their own; one of Jon’s friends attempts to speak with him about Barbara after their break-up, but fails to do so (though he does get Jon to continue with the night classes). It is only with Esther and his sister that Jon finds anyone willing to perceive his unhappiness. It also replicates the good/bad romantic/casual sex dichotomy at the end of the film, which we have already seen is damaging to Barbara.

Barbara is well acted but skirts a little close to unpleasant stereotypes about controlling women. The film is about Jon, and all the other participants are perceived through this prism (the parallel of Jon/Barbara to their respective reactions notwithstanding) and Barbara is very much part of Jon’s dungeon. There is an attempt to present her as a person in her own right, but little is done to make her a character we empathise with. We know that she wants to be successful, Jon to be successful and to have things a certain way, but we never receive any insight in to why. (It might be interesting to do a critical contrast with Shame; both are about men in thrall to sexual desire but manifested in different ways. Shame is also much, much less upbeat). Compare this with Esther who initially we encounter weeping in a doorway and, by the film’s end, we know why: her husband and son were killed in a road accident 14 months ago.

It does include positive elements of male bonding as Jon moves away from alpha male patterns to a more inclusive behaviour, rejecting homosocial mores. Even if it doesn’t completely reject the dichotomies of the romantic and pornographic films it attempts to engage with, it does at least try to question them. While one could criticise the film for taking the part of the ‘alpha male’ it is by following that track, and showing it is not all wine and roses for Jon, that the strength of criticism of the social structures that imprison us all can be founded. It also features this gem of a segment, on which I shall finish:

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