“Being in love is like being high,” says Roberta Haze, a California-based costume designer sporting purple hair and layers of hoop wearings. “That has to transform into love, because that stays. Like snorting coke, it’s not a state that you can live in all the time.” Roberta is neighbors with the filmmaker Tao Ruspoli, who turned a painful divorce from his wife of ten years into a fascinating and stylish new documentary, “Monogamish.”
The title comes from a term coined by beloved sex and relationships columnist Dan Savage, who appears in the film as a talking head, but also as a benevolent guide for Ruspoli’s infectious curiosity.
Through his “Savage Love” column and podcast, which he has been writing since 1991 in Seattle paper The Stranger, Savage has become the most vocal and visible proponent of non-monogamy and non-traditional relationships in the country. Savage, along with other interview subjects Esther Perel, Dossie Easton, and Christopher Ryan, is largely responsible for the recent zeitgeist shift towards non-monogamy and polyamory. With more people flocking to pick up their books, “Monogamish” could not arrive at a better time.
“Every new relationship that’s sexual is kind of an adventure, and then the adventure goes away,” Savage tells Ruspoli. “Then it’s just kind of where you live, and then it’s not an adventure. And how can you continue to surprise each other? Without feeling like you have to pull rabbits out of a hat all the time.”
Ruspoli appears on camera as a boyishly charming and somewhat befuddled 40-something, easy to root for by the way he wears his heart on his sleeve. That passion and vulnerability could have to do with his Italian heritage; the film is sprinkled with fascinating family anecdotes about his Italian prince grandfather and his many affairs. One of the film’s most engaging guides is an elegant first cousin, Claudia Ruspoli, who takes Ruspoli through an illustrated family tree, describing their grandfather’s many passionate affairs. His free-wheeling lifestyle cost the family its fortune, and the old villa must be trotted out to tourists to stay afloat. That’s not such a tragedy in this day and age, to be sure, but an important entry point to discuss the murky foundations of marriage.
“Our economic system is based on an idea of a male breadwinner supporting a wife and children,” says divorce lawyer Diana Adams. “This is a way governments can privatize dependency and not have to take care of single mothers and their children… Having the government say, ‘Why don’t you get into a sexual relationship with a man who will support you,” is the equivalent to the government being a pimp to poor women in America.”
The interviews in the film touch briefly but profoundly on every major alternative philosophy surrounding marriage, feminism, sexuality, and relationships. “Monogamish” is like a starter course in the prevailing thinking around non-monogamy as taught by its foremost writers, philosophers, and therapists. Celebrated author and couples therapist Esther Perel calls the tension between monogamy and its alternatives a paradox:
“In one relationship, we want security, stability, dependability, all the anchoring, grounding experiences of life. At the same time, we also want our love life to bring with it mystery and awe and novelty and surprise and the unexpected and that which fuels desire. We are basically asking one person to give us two sets of fundamental human needs — it isn’t a problem that you solve, it’s a paradox that you manage.”
Following a touching “aha” moment for Ruspoli, Savage sums it up succinctly: “The culture says sex is so unimportant that you shouldn’t prioritize it in a marriage, but sex is so hugely important that you can’t have it with anyone else.”
Ruspoli’s presence in the film elevates “Monogamish” beyond the predictable talking heads documentary. While the meta-theatrical lines aren’t blurred so evocatively as in standouts of the genre like Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” or Nathaniel Kahn’s “My Architect,” the technique works its magic satisfyingly — with a twist ending like a feather in its cap.
Calling Roberta “wise and eccentric,” Ruspoli asks her why she left three husbands. “They were boring,” she says. “Or they weren’t the right person for me.” Paradox, indeed.
“Monogamish” opens in select theaters on October 13.