Rio Sexy Comedy

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Toronto Film Fest (Special presentation)–Jonathan Nossiter’s new narrative feature “Rio Sexy Comedy,” is a curious and sometimes fascinating corollary to his previous work, the documentary “Mondovino.”
“mondovino,” which played in competition at the Cannes Film Fest, was a globetrotting cultural, social and commercial study of the international wine trade.
As the title suggests, “Rio Sex Comedy” has a single setting, but it’s a mélange of languages, people, culture and sensibilities, much like its creator, the polyglot American-born child of a prominent newspaperman who grew up in different European capitals.
The new work is certainly freeform and vivacious and invites a certain autobiographical reading given the entwining of fiction and perhaps nonfiction elements. (Most of the main characters conveniently go by their own first names.)
The story is a mosaic that intertwines a series of overlapping stories. The movie’s governing movement is the irrational pull of respectful people undone personally, socially, creatively, by their wild and wholly uncontrollable sexual desires.
With its new go-go economy, rapid development and international underground sex economy, Rio provides an all too appropriate backdrop. A prominent British specialist in plastic surgery Charlotte (Charlotte Rampling) has fled her reliant though dull husband and turned up in the city, offering her special talents to the upper class expatriates and visiting socialites that turn up here in droves. (She’s also intent on pursuing her own brand of sexual adventurism.)
William (Bill Pullman), the new US ambassador, the heir to a prominent oil family, openly chafes at the roles and responsibilities demanded of him. He mocks his political responsibilities and finds sanctuary in the Vidigal favela, the notorious hilltop ghettos of extreme social inequality fueled by the local drug and prostitution black market. Hiding out, he falls sideways into the clutches of Fisher (Fisher Stevens). He is an unscrupulous tour guide whose romance with the beautiful and earthy native (Daniela Dams) has meant relocating her family from their village to this now equally strange city.
A French couple (Irène Jacob and Jean-Marc Roulet) is raising their two young children and trying to make an ethnographic film about class, cultural and racial divide in contemporary Rio. When she requires the services of a cameraman, he invites Robert (Jérôme Kircher), his wayward brother. Initially quite suspicious and even resentful of her brother-in-law, Irène quickly succumbs to her own wandering impulses and finds herself suddenly enthralled to a man she no longer finds quite so objectionable.
To his credit, Nossiter gladly doesn’t try to force unnecessary connections between the different plot strands. For the most part the stories exist largely side-by-side, rather than coexisting unnaturally and uneasily with each other.
As a result “Rio Sex Comedy” is more successful in parts than the whole endeavor. The French material is the strongest, in part because the tone, neither manic nor stylized, seems exactly right. The scenes are blessedly free or guilt or recrimination. Jacob showed a sexual flair in her films with Krzysztof Kieslowski (“Red”), but she ties her sexual abandon to somewhat previously unrevealed comedienne skills.
Neither upset nor especially humiliated at the prospect of being cuckolded by his own brother, the husband, Antoine, sees the built in opportunities to explore on his own and the resulting adventures, funny, absurd, have their own breathless lilt. Much of the same is true with Charlotte’s story.
The middle stories are more problematic. The story with the ambassador is captured at a more manic style more attuned to slapstick and some of the cultural collisions and observations are too stereotypical or absurd to go along for the ride. Some of the visual jokes, like the various disguises adopted by Pullman’s character, are repetitive and not terribly funny.
The sharper, more natural moments with the French romantic triangle and Rampling’s plastic surgeon are endowed with a certain observational flourish and ethnographic authenticity. These scenes, like the ones with Fisher Stevens’ adopted family, lack both the ease and grace of those stories, but also the concentration. Shot by Lubomir Bakchev, the wild abandon and color seemed to have been drained from these passages. It needs more speed and dexterity, and these parts come off as sluggish.
“Rio Sex Comedy” ends up caught in an in-between world. It is occasionally fun and exciting, but it is also overextended, the ideas lost in space.