Don Jon is a film about sex.
Okay, it isn’t actually — it’s about connection, consumption and change.
Written, directed and starring Joeseph Gordon-Levitt, the film is as close to artistic distillation as most artists can achieve — the vision is, as far as everyone reports, entirely Gordon-Levitt’s.
One of the advantages of having a clear vision is the ability to target narrative with precision — there’s no dilation of scenes and the valence shifts hit in every story beat.
The story is a maturation plot as Jon realises his treatment of sex and porn is a one way transaction. This draws a parallel to Barbra’s treatment of relationships, where she expects to be showered in favours, compliments and platitudes, offering very little in return, save her presence, and eventually, sex.
Throughout the story, Barbra continues to assert control of Jon, keeping sex as the final reward while manipulating him to fulfil her wishes.
For Jon, porn acts as the diametric opposite of his relationship with Barbra: porn requires nothing from him and is entirely one sided, all it requires is Jon’s presence. The important difference between his relationship with Barba and porn is that, arguably, no one is actually hurt by Jon watching porn, whereas his relationship with Barba has real implications for his life.
This brings me to an addition to the film that really demonstrates a nuance of storytelling that’s easy to miss.
We spend some scenes at church. Jon always goes to confession to clean his conscience about his porn habits. Every scene at the church features Jon’s family, and his sister is always quiet. Church represents Jon’s old world — the one he grew up in, and the one that tells him porn is a sin — and the same one that requires him to return to atone for this sin.
The family meals are the physical manifestation of this idea. No one seems to want to be there except Jon’s mother. Almost everything ends in an argument as Jon’s old world clashes with his slowly maturing tendencies. His sister remains silent, always observing.
After Jon realises Barba was a toxic influence, he comes to terms with his feelings for Esther and achieves maturation.
Then, when he finally returns to his old world, now armed with his maturation, his mother is deeply upset by the news that Jon has broken up with Barba. Finally Jon’s sister speaks up and says what the audience is thinking: Barbra never cared about Jon and was just dating him to manipulate him.
Jon’s sister, Monica, is effectively acting as the chorus in this scene.
The greek chorus would stand just off-stage in ancient greek plays and comment on the drama taking place, often mirroring the voice of the women of Greece.
Monica’s line here, as she acts as a voice for the audience, demonstrates Gordon-Levitt’s acknowledgement of his source material. Because the film is a maturation plot, it draws heavily on conventions we all know well: Jon’s plot is a mirror of Saturday Night Fever and even borrows themes from the hero’s journey.
The two parallel arcs — of Jon becoming emotionally mature as his relationship is revealed to be nothing but pornographic — is deeply satisfying to watch. The film is a complete, well-considered narrative.
It’s rare these days to see anything this slick and necessary in film-making that can appeal to a broad audience, but Gordon-Levitt and his team pull it off with room to spare.
In a landscape of passable films, it’s always exciting to come across people like Gordon-Levitt who refuse to bunt just to get to first base: he keeps swinging for the fences, hit or miss, and when it pays off, we’re rewarded by truly good stories.