You know the story: A disenchanted writer and college professor is seduced by a younger woman, snapping him out of an existential lull and helping him reconnect with his creativity. It’s a narrative that lands clumsily in 2022, romanticizing a problematic power dynamic and casting women as mere accessories to a man’s personal growth.
“Art of Love,” directed by Betty Kaplan, is a male fantasy. Called only the Writer (Esai Morales), the film’s lead is an enigmatic older man surrounded by women who fawn over him, despite his apathy. When he starts receiving cryptic messages from an admirer — slipped to him by a young woman on a skateboard, etched on the sidewalk in chalk or hidden in the pages of a book — the Writer is seemingly invigorated for the first time. He soon finds out the messages are from a young Chinese immigrant named Li Chao (Kunjue Li), eager to escape the confines of her situation. The two set off on a giggly, disturbing and confusing journey through the city, placing art installations, having pseudo-deep talks and eventually becoming physical, despite Li’s early proclamation that she is a lesbian.
The film is rife with tropes and stereotypes: Li’s character is a model of demureness and subservience who serves as a mouthpiece for problematic beliefs, at one point noting that her “irregular choice” to read makes her an anomaly in her insular Chinese community. Lesbianism is treated as a matter of circumstance rather than a full identity.
And the film reinforces the fiction that it is often younger women who seduce older men and not the other way around. The writing, which leaves much to be desired, underscores these issues. Tortured by Li’s elusiveness, the Writer ponders during one of his solipsistic reflections why Li “was so insistent in possessing me.” It’s a tired and male-serving narrative one wishes might be retired.
Art of Love
Rated R for graphic sexual content, nudity and some language. In Spanish and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.