Acclaimed Murderball director Dana Adam Shapiro makes an auspicious transition to narrative film with the compelling, if familiar, Monogamy, a searing examination of the emotional and sexual complications of its titular institution as filtered through a quasi-Hitchcockian prism of obsession and voyeurism. Reportedly made for a scant $1 million, Monogamy substantially elevates the bar for low-budget production value, giving Oscilloscope a better than average chance at reaching specialty audiences suffering from post-Oscar indie film withdrawals. Numbers should eventually skew on the higher end of average for Oscilloscope releases.
Like last year's Blue Valentine, Monogamy centers on a single couple and the ways in which a seemingly stable relationship risks coming apart at the seams when challenged by otherwise simple, even mundane stresses. Theo (Chris Messina) and Nat (Rashida Jones) appear, for all intents and purposes, to be a perfectly normal Brooklyn couple on the cusp of marriage—comfortable and secure in the cradle of familiarity. The only trouble in paradise is Theo's professional restlessness; bored with the tedium of wedding photography, he starts up a side business for fetishists looking to be stalked and photographed without necessarily knowing when or where, or even by whom.
Most of the clients are innocent enough, but one who goes only by the moniker Subgirl (Meital Dohan) engages Theo's services as part of a seeming sexual game—indulging in reckless promiscuity and public trysts intended as much to entertain Theo as his photographs presumably entertain her.
It doesn't take a cinephile to know where the film goes from there—lust, doubts, petty arguments fracturing what ought to have been a stable relationship as the allure of an illicit, even vaguely perverse indulgence wreaks havoc with Theo's head and hormones. It's a dynamic the cinema has explored repeatedly and routinely as far back as the pre-code Jean Harlow classic Red-Headed Woman. The innovation here is that the "affair" is ultimately more psychological than sexual, hewing more closely to the Hitchcockian Vertigo model than that of something like, say, Louis Malle's Damage. That by no means makes Monogamy a thriller, though the invocation of certain genre conventions and a carefully chosen visual iconography help transform what might easily have been another routine movie about the pitfalls of love and loss into an excellent showcase for two very fine actors. The enormously gifted Messina—whose talents have typically been wasted in routine television parts and formulaic studio efforts—finally gets a chance to flex his considerable skills, while Jones further cements her reputation as one of the most versatile and appealing ingénues presently working.
The real star of the film, however, is Shapiro who, despite treading on marginally derivative subject matter, demonstrates a solid sense of style and a refreshingly delicate hand with actors. Though no doubt helped by certain New York tax incentives, the film's superb production value is considerable by any standard and speaks volumes about Shapiro's ability to extract the most from virtually nothing, skills he no doubt honed as a documentarian.
In some respects, Monogamy feels more like an extremely accomplished exercise than a fully-realized film, but that may also be by design; Shapiro is clearly exploring a new form and doing so with extremely constrained resources. He, as much as anyone else, appears curious as to how well he will pull it off. At this stage, having done so with considerable aplomb, it's the follow-up that's bound to tantalize.
Distributor: Oscilloscope Pictures
Cast: Chris Messina, Rashida Jones, Meital Dohan, Sarah Burns, Ivan Martin and Zak Orth
Director: Dana Adam Shapiro
Screenwriter: Dana Adam Shapiro and Evan M. Wiener
Producers: Dana Adam Shapiro, Tom Heller, Randy Manis and Jeffrey V. Mandel
Running time: 98 min.
Release date: March 11 NY