Feb 16, 2011

Bird's Eye View 2011 Preview: Guilty Pleasures

DIR: Julie Moggan
Julie Moggan won a Best Pitch prize for her idea for a documentary exploring the world of Mills and Boon readers. Mills and Boon, in case you have never been in a charity shop, are a seemingly endless line of romance novels, written to a prescribed formula. In Guilty Pleasures, Moggan turns most of her focus on the series' readers, trying to discover how their lives are influenced by the books. She also profiles a writer (a retired doctor named Roger who writes under the name Gill Sanderson) and a cover model (the incredibly flaky Stephen).

Most of the people that Moggan looks at here aren't very appealing. There is Hiroko, whose love of the books has led her to take up ballroom dancing with such passion that her (clearly long suffering) husband sadly notes that they can't discuss having more children because it would interrupt her lessons. British housewife Shirley seems sweet enough, but her husband Phil is almost a living caricature of a chauvanist, and it is he who gets the more screentime (one cringemaking scene has him showing off his tool belt, and almost every sentence he says seems like a bad joke from a politically incorrect 70's sitcom). In India, Shumita is a middle aged woman whose husband left her some years ago for a younger model, but seems now to want to be back in her life (we meet him briefly, he's a knob). Shumita seems to have bought into the idea of lifelong romance through her reading, even though life is suggesting that she shouldn't.

It's interesting, though, that perhaps the most unrealistic ideas of love are held not by the readers but by the man on the covers of their books. Stephen comes out with an endless stream of new age bollocks, much of it revolving around the idea of his 'true flame'. He should, one suspects, be writing Mills and Boon rather than exposing his abs on the jackets. Roger is probably the most normal person in the film, there's an air of sadness and loneliness about him, but he seems to push that to the background, and for the most part is pretty happy overall.

Even though most of Moggan's subjects are rather unlikeable or annoying, there are interesting stories to be told here. Unfortunately by following so many people Moggan gets only a loose grip on her narrative threads, and ends up with little real insight. There are moments that intrigue; Hiroko's husband saying that the books give her something he can't; a couple of unpleasant meetings between Shumita and her estranged husband Sanjay; Phil's general attitude to women, but Moggan fails to make the most of them, she never seems to be there with the well placed, probing, question that would open these people and their lives up. Too often she's content with a trite image (Shirley and Phil in bed, her reading a Mills and Boon, he a true crime book called Unnatural Deaths Volume 2) or leaves something potentially intriguing (Roger writing observations of everyday people, which he says give him story ideas) unexplored.

That's not to say there aren't fascinating moments here. I don't like Hiroko, but you can't deny that she's intriguing. More than the other readers she seems desperate to engage in this dreamworld, she doesn't seem to like her husband very much. For his part he seems to love her, in one very sweet scene he practices the dance steps she wants him to learn for a competition while standing alone waiting for a train - though here, as in several other moments, there could be definite questions about how real the moment is. Hiroko's princess fantasy seems to begin to come true towards the end of the film, though how you'll feel about that is very debatable.

Roger is also interesting; a lonely man, posing as a woman and writing about love. I wish Moggan had dug into his story much more deeply, because I suspect there's a whole film there.

Ultimately, Guilty Pleasures doesn't really tie itself together very well, Mills and Boon barely figures in some of these stories (especially that of Shirley and Phil), and we don't really learn much about the brand itself. There are flashes of the better film that this might have been, but overall this award winning pitch hasn't lived up to the promise it had.

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