The two hardest things in movies are being funny and being sexy, because you can't force either of them; you either embody them or you don't. Shinya Tsukamoto's A Snake Of June tries to be about eroticism in the same way that something like In The Realm Of The Senses was, instead of just being, you know, a dirty movie. I am not sure if it is as successful, because so much of what any one of us finds sexy inwardly risks looking silly when made literal on a screen. But it's not a failure either, because it pushes at the outer edges of Tsukamoto's own sensibilities and shows him daring himself. I admire the impulse, even when I'm iffy on the results.
Many of Tsukamoto's movies are about sexual triads — specifically, two men in competition over a woman (see: Tokyo Fist, Gemini), although unlike most such stories, Tsukamoto's takes typically give the woman leverage instead of just making her a passive conquest. Snake is constructed in the same vein, and in fact puts the woman front and center. She is Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa), who works a call-in help hotline, and is married to Shigehiko (Yuji Kōtari), an energetic, heavyset fellow whose few moments shared with her at home is mostly spent scrubbing any bathroom fixture he can get his hands on. They seem happy, if distant, but then again maybe that's just modern life for you.
Then one day the photos show up in the mail. They are pictures of Rinko, shot from across the way of her apartment, Rear Window-style, and they show her doing things with herself that she has not even shared with her husband. They come courtesy of Iguchi (Tsukamoto himself), a reclusive photographer whose work consists mostly of sterile, industrial images of consumer products. Now he has a human subject, whom he sends a cellphone and taunts with the possibility of sharing the images with the wrong people — like, her husband, whose image of her would be destroyed — if she doesn't cooperate. If she plays along, he'll send her the negatives.
Then comes a set of revelations that establish the story's real purpose. Iguchi is dying of stomach cancer. He was, in fact, a caller on Rinko's hotline — he spoke to her, and she talked him out of taking his life earlier. This was his last stab at doing something in his life that he felt like he had control over, when his very life has slid through his fingers. But what he's put Rinko through, if I read the movie correctly, has awakened in her less a capacity for shame than a sense of independence. When Iguchi calls Rinko again, after she's received the negatives, she has only contempt for him instead of her earlier rage: "You needed to make fun of someone incapable of knowing her husband's true feelings," she tells him coldly on the phone. "A dummy like me who can't do what she really wants to do."
This comes hand-in-hand with another revelation. Rinko, too, is ill: she has breast cancer. Worse, she is lying to her husband about how bad it is — perhaps, like Iguchi, to use it as revenge for the emotional dissastisfactions in her life. If her life doesn't inspire him to be closer to her, maybe the threat of her death will. This comes as Iguchi shifts targets and now subjects Shigehiko to a series of torments and humiliations — although, as with Rinko, they end up proving more liberating for both of them than anyone expects, and with the suggestion that was Iguchi's idea all along.
The first third or so of Snake plays like many other pinku eiga ("pink films") of the 1970s, where things like humiliation and exhibitionism provided the erotic frisson since censorship forbade showing much. Iguchi talks Rinko into walking around in public with a skimpy skirt and sans underwear, using a remote-controlled vibrator — all things she's done on her own, but now compelled to do under his command. Very little of this part of the movie distinguishes it from many other run-of-the-mill sleazefests with parallel storylines, save maybe Tsukamoto's remarkable eye for how to frame and depict things. The whole film is shot in an eerie, blue-tinted duochrome, made all the colder to behold by everything being drenched in rain or humidity. Tsukamoto never made a boring-looking movie, and this is no exception.
The truly interesting parts come after Rinko realizes her experience has perversely empowered her — it's she who holds the upper hand, and not her tormentor. She also realizes she, like Iguchi, can use the knowledge of her potential impending death as emotional leverage over someone else — in this case, her husband, the better to extract from him the feelings she could not when she was healthy. This is magnified by the switch to Shigehiko as the focus, and the way Rinko uses the same sexual game Iguchi used on her to see her in a way he was not prepared to see before.
Where the movie falls short is, I think, largely going to be a matter of taste, and not because the film itself doesn't know what it's doing or how to do it. Brazenly erotic material is hard to film well, not least of all because it's hard to watch it and not think about how it's devolving into mere porn. It takes a very steady hand indeed (again, Oshima) to not do this, and Tsukamoto tries, but I am not sure he completely succeeds.
Consider the pivotal scene late in the film where Rinko knowingly lures Shigehiko out of the apartment, having arranged with Iguchi to control a sexual performance from her in an abandoned lot. The first two-thirds of the sequence work, but the final third runs the risk of turning silly because Tsukamoto insists on using his trademark jolt-and-cut imagery. Maybe he was just saving the most effective for last, a sequence where Rinko and Shigehiko make love, filmed both tenderly and in a way that leaves open-ended what their fates are. Hers in particular.
This isn't to say Tsukamoto should have kept things mundane. One visual highlight of the film is a David Lynchian nightmare where Shigehiko (drugged? hallucinating?) finds himself trapped in a room wearing a conelike mask that only allows him to see a small portion of something strange and horrible (and sexual) going on. (Tsukamoto uses a similar device, also to great effect, in his short film Haze.) I almost feel bad criticizing Tsukamoto for this, since it's one of the things he does so well. And the rest of the film aims very high in its trim 76 minutes. If you feel any serious treatment of sexuality in fiction is worth it, when it's easy to be crass about the subject, see this film.