“I love that you never do anything for me…it’s like I don’t even exist.”
That’s what Ann, a depressed thirty-something New Yorker, tells her older on-and-off BDSM lover in the first scene of writer-director Joanna Arnow’s “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed,” in which the filmmaker also stars as Ann. Her heroine is an existentially moribund millennial wasting away in an anonymous-feeling corporate job who passes her time with sexual debasement when not quarreling with her nagging Jewish family.
This clever and disquieting indie unfolds at a clip somnambulant enough to match its lead’s spiritual stupor, whether she’s spreading her ass for her partners (clients?) or on the phone with her needling mother insisting that, no, she isn’t running out of breath despite trudging up and down the Manhattan streets. (She very much is, and running in place within her life.) Kneejerking viewers might draw a cross between Miranda July mumblecore and Lena Dunham unfilteredness here in terms of Arnow’s willingness to degrade herself on camera, but that’s a comparison the filmmaker would probably be annoyed over and one that elides the movie’s uniquely droll vibe.
Ann is bored of contemporary life, and she’s been sleepwalking through it. She’s been at her sterile corporate gig for “three and a half years,” she claims, to little notice of her employers, who hand her a trophy declaring congratulations for her one-year anniversary. It’s not clear what she does at her desk job, or what it even is, but that matters about as much to us as it does to Ann. There is, at one point, a restructuring and a title change (“clinical media learning e-specialist,” whatever the hell that means), but Ann saves the real adventures of her life for a private parallel sexual universe in which she performs as a “sub” for dominating men. There’s finance guy Allen (Scott Cohen), fuckboy film composer Thomas (Peter Vack), emotionally inaccessible Elliot (Parish Bradley), and, eventually, Chris (Babak Tafti), with whom she may finally approximate something toward love. But how much of a performance is it if Ann is actually pretty into the whole arrangement?
In between seeking derangements, she lives alone in a Brooklyn apartment, eating microwaved meals squeezed out of bags, that’s eventually crashed by her sister (Alysia Reiner), whose life is falling apart. But as with Ann’s trysts, this is but one in a series of vignettes that the screenplay loosely strings together — there’s not so much of a story as a kind of languorous rhythm the movie unfolds to, with long, single takes framed at a distance almost as if Joanna Arnow is surveilling her own self vis-a-vis this character. The editing (which Arnow also does herself) picks up once Ann’s life starts to become too mundane with its routine: go to work, have debasing sex, go to sleep, maybe go to yoga, and repeat.
Arnow is totally willing to sink herself to the lowest of lows onscreen as when, in one sequence, Elliot turns Ann into a “fuck pig,” dressing her up with ball gag, swine ears, and all, and demands she masturbate on his city rooftop. Some of Ann’s encounters are more interesting than others; Vack is little-used as the composer who, after having enjoyed many blowjobs, tells Ann he’s getting back together with his ex-girlfriend, who doesn’t want him to see other “subs.” Ann briefly bonds with him over her love for the soundtrack to “In the Act of Wishing for Love,” a funny malapropism for “In the Mood for Love” that also might as well be wishful thinking on Ann’s end. That she gets the title to her own favorite movie score wrong suggests Ann is just ever so off-kilter from the world, but also maybe just walks to fuck with it, too.
Among her indie credits, Arnow previously directed the 2013 film “I hate myself :)” about a self-proclaimed nebbish documentary filmmaker during a year in the life of her toxic relationship. That title, when stacked up against “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed,” suggests that Arnow has now learned a little along the way. Ann doesn’t hate herself, she doesn’t ever self-destruct or try to. She’s just going through life.
There is undoubtedly a level of autofiction going on here on Arnow’s part as she uses the mosaic structure of a series of BDSM encounters to interrogate the alienating aspects of millennial life. (One of the film’s relatably hilarious moments that targets a very specific Gen Y angst comes when Ann goes on a family vacation, and her mom is stunned she has to work remotely throughout the trip.) It’s also clear that Arnow wants to present a picture of a woman in a BDSM relationship who has agency and ownership of the situation rather than as a passive participant. “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” lacks for drama in its portrayal of the quotidian realities of sexual kink, but Arnow’s voice is distinctive, shrewd, and spiky enough to keep it afloat.
“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.