I don’t have a great deal to say about Perfect Strangers except that it turned out to be much better than I was expecting. I saw it at Palace Cinemas Norton Street and in many ways this initially plays as the quintessential “Leichhardt” film – a knowing, “adult” dissection of contemporary relationships inflected through an anxiety around contemporary social media framed as a Eurocentric taste for boutique or “high culture” arthouse experiences. Like so many releases that seem destined to play at Italian (or other European) film festivals, that amounts to a distrust of cinematic extravagance in favour of a more theatrical, literary register, with most of the action playing out in what amounts to a chamber drama. This time around, the chamber drama revolves around a group of Italian friends – four couples – who decide to place their SmartPhones on the table during a dinner party in order to make all calls and messages public for the entire evening.
While the preface to that premise is fairly tedious in its knowing, complicit register, and its supposedly “adult” insights into the state of contemporary relationships, Perfect Strangers really takes off as soon as the phones are placed on the table. Not only does Genovese time the gradual revelation of information perfectly, but he rapidly opts for the tone of an erotic thriller more than a romantic comedy, with the messages gradually escalating towards some unspeakable transgression that seems destined to irreversibly fracture the friendship circle (which is already fairly fractious). Of course, there’s all the picaresque masculinity you might expect – suave Italian paramours swapping phones and sweating to make sure that their wives and girlfriends never meet – but the atmosphere is too claustrophobic for this to ever provide much comic comfort, or for the characters to feel endearing in any particular or pervasive way.
That all paves the way for an incredible conclusion prompted by one of the men begging another – whose new partner is absent – to swap SmartPhones and take credit for his mistress, who always sends through a selfie at 10PM. Being a good friend, he complies, with the result that when his new – male – partner starts to send through a series of increasingly erotic texts, it is his friend, in turn, who has to “come out” to the group in order to prevent his wife realising that he is in fact the one with a mistress. Through a series of narrative convolutions, then, one of the most emphatically heterosexist characters ends up occupying the position of disavowed homosexual other and experiencing all the latent homophobia inherent in the very insular knowingness of the parlour game itself. Observing that “tonight you’re the ones who came out, not me,” he leaves the party under the illusion of being gay, but not without first advising his actual gay friend not to introduce his boyfriend to the group at large, since he’s discovered that they don’t deserve it. The result is a kind of deconstruction of the Italian masculine comedy of manners in which bourgeois heterosexuality unexpectedly turns out to be the locus of shame, even or especially in its most apparently playful, provocative and open-minded incarnation.
Films of these kind often adopt a ronde-like structure, in which the vagaries of heterosexual attraction are indulged for a brief period of madness – in this case, an eclipse – only for the normative order to be rearranged and reestablished once again. Yet that effect is undercut in Perfect Strangers by a twist ending in which it appears that the couples may have never played the game, and that what we have watched is an alternative version of the evening that never came to pass. Yet it’s never quite clear whether this sudden shift is just the couples’ own coping mechanism working as well, with the result that repression, rather than ronde-like rearrangement, is the final note of the film. Far from celebrating the picaresque flexibility of bourgeois heterosexuality – as the couples claim to do with their game – Perfect Strangers suggests an intractability that efficiently and clinically represses anything that threatens the status quo. By the time the couples are heading home in the car, isolated once again with their social media devices, it almost feels as SmartPhones are need to compartmentalise and preserve the illusions of bourgeois marriage, rather than constituting any real kind of threat to it as an institution. In that final image – of total addiction to the new media that the film supposedly transcends – lies a wonderful inversion of the literary and theatrical pretensions of this particular kind of Eurolite cinema. While it may not be a masterpiece, then, Perfect Strangers certainly estranged me from my own expectations more thoroughly than most other films I’ve seen recently, and for that reason I found it quite memorable.