Caveh Zahedi‘s I Am A Sex Addict is a brilliant film. (It’s playing in several cities across the country, but not in Detroit; I saw it on Comcast cable pay-per-view).The set-up is simple: Zahedi, playing himself, recounts the story of his sex addiction — specifically, his obsession with prostitutes — and how this addiction/obsession wreaked havoc on his various relationships over the years. All of Zahedi’s films are autobiographical; most of them involve (as this one does) re-enactments of real incidents in Zahedi’s life. Sex Addict brings these techniques to a new level; I think it is his best work to date.
What’s great about the film is the way it balances honesty and artifice, directness and reflection. Zahedi, wearing a tuxedo and about to get married, addresses the camera, addresses us. His tone is wry and somewhat detached; which is probably the only way anyone could recount something as potentially embarrassing and self-discrediting as the story Zahedi has to tell. Amidst a wealth of digressions, asides, and self-reflective comments, we hear about compulsive encounters with prostitutes, about struggles against compulsion and moments of giving into it, about ecstatic and spiritual moments, about honesty that wounds, about jealousy and depression and botched communication. The direct narration is mixed with re-enactments in a number of styles, including jump cuts, freeze-frames and low-res footage and animation. Actresses stand in for the women in Zahedi’s life; but we also get home-movie footage of the actual women in question, as well as asides on who the actresses themselves are. The re-enactments are not naturalistic; they employ various sorts of repetition (e.g. different prostitutes giving Zahedi what seems like the same blow job), sets that call attention to their own inauthenticity (San Francisco standing in for Paris, for instance), and various sorts of stylization in the acting (Zahedi’s screams as he is being pleasured, for instance).
We have a kind of cliche sense that confessional honesty needs to be delivered in a tone of wrenching anguish. One of the most noteworthy things about I Am A Sex Addict is the way that it demolishes this cliche. Has there ever been a film that is so raw in its self-revelations, and at the same time, not only so wry in the telling, but so highly mediated? The point, I think, is that there is no contradiction here, no opposition between truth and artifice. We live in a hypermediated world, and the media are part of the reality of that world. Godard said somewhere that film is not an image of reality, but rather the reality of that image. And that’s precisely what’s happening in Zahedi’s film. His relation with the video camera is as much a part of his subjectivity as any of the obsessions that he recounts and reenacts onscreen. The story of how he made the film, and of the divergence between the actresses on screen and the real people they portray, cannot be disentangled from the story of his addiction and how he overcame it.
There’s a beautiful moment near the end of the film where Zahedi recounts (and shows via animation) a Greek myth that I ididn’t know. It’s the story of the Sirens. These were singers whose beautiful songs lured sailors to their destruction. The familiar story, in the Odyssey, is about how Odysseus manages to outwit the Sirens, by putting wax in his sailors’ ears so they can’t hear the song, and having himself tied to the mast of the ship so that he cannot suicidally throw himself into the ocean when he hears them. But Zahedi tells a less familiar story: Jason and the Argonauts also escaped the Sirens; they did this by having Orpheus on board with them. Orpheus played a song that was so beautiful that it simply overwhelmed the poisonous beauty of the Sirens’ song. Zahedi is referring to his own (third and current) marriage, with which the film ends; the music of his current love, he tells us, has overwhelmed his prostitute obsession. But I Am A Sex Addict is itself also this more beautiful song, the transmogrification of pain and anguish into an art noteworthy for its clarity, distance, and lightness of touch.