With pop philosopher Slavoj Zizek as the tour guide through cinema’s vast history, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema examines our perverse relationship with cinema (not whatever dirty thoughts happened to cross your mind when you first saw the title) and the way it not only reflects our innermost fears and desires, but also shapes them. Attempting the difficult task of balancing scope with depth, Zizek analyzes nearly 40 films in 150 minutes, and while he casts a fairly wide net -- from David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock to Duck Soup and The Matrix -- one gets the feeling that his picks were chosen for safe, concrete theorizing rather than for more interesting, complex debates. Fortunately, Zizek often brings more to the table than most other critics and theorists in regard to these perennial favorites, so the lack of surprise in the films chosen is more than made up for by his grandiose musing over their psychosexual tensions and philosophical underpinnings.
For a relatively lengthy documentary with simply a narrator and film clips, director Sophie Fiennes gives the film enough style and verve to keep things fresh, placing Zizek within an identical set of the film scene he’s currently discussing. The effect is occasionally corny, yet the duality created by Zizek literally injecting himself into the film’s frame is so perfectly in line with his rants about the viewer’s relationship to cinema and the potential embodiment in cinematic form that it becomes a natural part of the film’s style. The illustrative nature of this technique highlights the effectiveness of the discussed films' formal qualities, from the cinematography to the mise-en-scene, as well as mirrors Zizek’s own intensity for and investment in the subject matter.
At the center of the film, with his voice present in nearly every second, Zizek’s impassioned arguments and undying love of film is both addicting and invigorating. Even when revisiting clips that we’ve all seen a thousand times before, be it the flower girl finally seeing Chaplin at the end of City Lights or Neo choosing between the red pill or the blue pill in The Matrix, Zizek’s commentary always strives for depth and clarity in equal doses. Overall, however, the film is a bit too scatterbrained to hold together as a cohesive, grand statement about cinema, and although it is mercifully divided into three parts (one on psychoanalysis, the second on fantasy and sexual relationships, and the third on appearances and illusion), Zizek’s excitement too often leads him on tangents that take him away from interesting interpretations before they are fully-formed and crystallized. There is indeed something charming about the stream-of-consciousness ramblings -- as if he has so much to say that he can’t help but follow every thread of thought as it pops in his mind -- but this style is also what prevents the film from becoming truly special.
A good film to show to budding cinephiles? Yes, but in the end, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema falls slightly short of the monumental thesis on cinema spectatorship for which it strives.