FANTASIA19 REVIEW: The Art of Self-Defense [2019]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 104 minutes
    Release Date: July 12th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Bleecker Street Media
    Director(s): Riley Stearns
    Writer(s): Riley Stearns

I want to be what intimidates me.

There was definite trepidation upon learning writer/director Riley Stearns‘ follow-up to Faults would be a comedy. That’s not to say his debut wasn’t funny, however. It was. But where its humor arrived from the matter-of-fact nature of the characterizations he utilized to turn his tale of cult deprogramming upside down, it remained a darkly suspenseful nightmare flirting with the supernatural in ways that forced our laughter to cease by lending those disquieting moments conviction beyond their inherent absurdity. I therefore worried billing The Art of Self-Defense as a comedy from the start meant Stearns had rejected this duality of tone to take a much broader course regardless of the “dark” clarifier with its genre. Thankfully the film alleviated those worries straight away by showing the opposite was true.

Rather than change his writing style to place comedy at the forefront of drama, he doubles down on what was so uniquely eccentric about Faults. Where that film dialed its earnestness to eleven to create an over-pressured atmosphere wherein its characters could explode without sufficient release, Stearns throws the scale out the window this time to manufacture an entirely different world from our own. I don’t mean this in how we interact with one another or how we’ve silently allowed toxic masculinity to implicitly reinforce an archaic status quo, but in how we mask those truths with inflection, attitude, and persuasion. Stearns strips his language and his actors’ performances of emotional subterfuge so the objective virulency of patriarchal indoctrination can be laid bare in all its hypocritical glory.

The result’s aesthetic makes The Art of Self-Defense a perfect tonal companion to star Jesse Eisenberg‘s The Double. The comedy is arid as it intentionally subverts reality to shine a light upon it. So while it’s funny watching Eisenberg’s Casey Davies matter-of-factly explain how a trio of coworkers bashing on their boss is wrong (he was just at his house to meet his lovely wife and wonderful children last weekend), it’s even funnier when Stearns zooms out further to reveal these meatheads are by standard definition exactly that. They read a magazine entitled “♂” with articles about wolves being a man’s ideal pet (gym rats do absolutely love German Shepherds) and dispassionate collages of the top five “breasts” removed from the women to which they belong.

It’s the perfect avenue (workplace cliques) to expose the intentional dichotomy presented wherein those men (masculine) are diametrically opposed to Casey (sensitive). He has a feminine name, owns a daschund, defends his boss, and listens to adult contemporary. So of course he’d be the latest victim of a rash of brutal beatings at the hands of a motorcycle gang targeting loners late at night. They ask if he has a gun (he doesn’t) and proceed to put him in the hospital. Suddenly his lack of confidence when confronted by other men is exacerbated to full-on crippling fear and the time it takes to pass a background check to buy a gun is too long. Luckily the karate grunts of a nearby dojo present an alternative mode of protection.

Here is a safe haven for “real” men just like Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Guns are crude and unreliable while fists that kick and feet that punch do so without fail. This class isn’t therefore simply a means to learn self-defense as Casey also sees it as a place where he can overcome the peculiarities that make it so strangers assume he’s a woman. That’s what he ultimately wants: to become the feared rather than always be the one cowering in fear. The belt becomes his physical reminder that it’s possible and that he’s on his way to being even better. This attitude has Sensei taking him under wing to progress his metamorphosis. Because his genetics are male, he can ascend to manhood (unlike Imogen Poots‘ prized student Anna).

It’s through her that the film really finds its focus on calling out masculine hypocrisy. Why? Because it doesn’t matter to Sensei and the other men that Anna could literally kill them if she wanted. She’ll always be a woman and thus inferior regardless of her accomplishments. This means that a cool down after a strenuous “night session” (where a no holds barred flavor enters as opposed to the more educational “day sessions”) consists of grown men stripping naked to massage each other with their “strong” hands. The same men who would victim blame Anna during a rape attempt want nothing to do with her “weak” hands when it comes to non-sexual touching. In their eyes she will always be less than and at their whims.

Anna epitomizes Sensei’s idea of karate (it can even turn women into pale shadows of men) and the best chance to destroy it if given the opportunity. For the latter to be possible, however, she’ll need a male ally. While Casey never intentionally pursues that role, his growing closeness to Sensei triggers a series of revelations that position him to unwittingly take it nonetheless. At a certain point the instant gratification of becoming aggressive, violent, and self-involved wears off. That big a change inherently comes at a cost and Casey’s sacrifices will inevitably expose a reality wherein you don’t have to be the bully to stop being bullied. And the more blinded by masculinity his rivals become, the easier it becomes to prey on it as their weakness.

This isn’t about Casey being a “nice” guy, though. Stearns very astutely keeps everything non-sexual in terms of Anna’s relationships with these men—no romantic competition or chauvinist ideal of what she wants/needs from a man are included. They are all but students in a dojo struggling to advance towards a black belt that their teacher has placed non-meritorious conditions upon. This is because the filmmaker isn’t trying to prop one form of masculinity above another. He’s dismantling the concept altogether. He’s showing how it has nothing to do with strength, virility, or, most especially, dominance. On the contrary, the outdated notion that it does only serves to reveal who the truly insecure of us are. Manhood is exposed as a façade … and not the bulletproof kind.

courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

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