Steve Balderson’s The Casserole Club (2011) is a film about a group of very nasty, very selfish suburbanites in the late-1960s who try to escape the plastic tedium of their lives through ritualistic spouse-swapping. This one-sentence synopsis hardly does the film justice. Watching it is like being thrown around a cage by a gorilla at your local elementary school’s Christmas pageant.
Usually, when you watch a mainstream Hollywood film, you know exactly who the characters are–often before the film even starts, thanks to the super-saturations of advertisement. And not long after the film starts, after the ham-fisted labeling of every quirk, every gesture, every impetus, you know where the characters are going. You know where the characters come from. You know what the characters are going to do. There is seldom any surprise.
In the case of The Casserole Club, it is impossible to anticipate what will happen next, how the film will advance and unfold. The spectator is plunged into a motley of swirling colors and sounds and has no idea, precisely, who these people on the screen are, what they are doing, or why they are doing what they are doing. At first. As in every great work of cinema (think of Fassbinder or Miike at their best), things gradually come into focus, but the intelligence of the spectator is continuously respected and required. Nothing is dumbed down. Nothing is didactic. You are thrown into the space of the presentation.
Imagine that you are invited to a party by one of your friends. When you walk through the door, you are told that your friend hasn’t yet arrived. You then realize that you are attending a party of strangers and are forced to figure out, on your own, who these strangers are. This is the experience that The Casserole Club offers.
It is a curious film. In the first act, the suburban spouse-swappers form a cohesive collective, a communitarian unity. There are rude jokes, obscenities, invasive party games, repartees, and sallies. They play at one another’s closures. When wounds are exposed, light-hearted raillery follows, but no one seems seriously insulted–neither abashed nor ashamed, though embarrassment seems to be the point of it all, as if shame would season desire. They seem to form a single unit, party-goers lying in a circle, their bodies radiating like sunflower petals. But, as I suggested earlier, the spectator feels a bit estranged from the goings-on.
It is only in the second act, when the commune begins to fragment, that the viewer begins to connect. The attentive spectator will be sucked into the world that is gradually illuminated. Identification becomes possible only when the group of suburbanites is dispersed.
The first act will be difficult for all but the hardest-hearted. The marrieds descend into carnality, into vulgarism and animality. There are grotesqueries and unpleasantries, but everyone seems to be enjoying oneself.
Why this “enjoyment”? Because, as I wrote earlier, these are very selfish people, and selfish people enjoy themselves when they think they are getting what they want. Husband takes neighbor’s wife and therefore (symbolically) anything that belongs to his neighbor. They imagine that they are returning to the bubbling effervescence of childhood, when the object of one’s every whim seemed within reach. These are infantile adults who lay up for themselves treasures on Earth. Adult infants.
After the orgy, bitterness and loathing. Self-disgust, but not much. There is anger at having one’s wife or husband borrowed–and here is another manifestation of selfishness. Above all, the party-goers seem bored. Why? Because sex is boring, though the film never is.
Sex is boring. Sex–when stylized, formalized, divorced from all affect and intimacy–is mechanically monotonous emptiness. Disharmonizing glaciality.
For the first time in his career, Steve Balderson has mastered both cinematic rhythm and cinematic space. With the exception of a single scene on a golf course and a few transitional moments, the entire film takes place indoors. One feels that one is inhabiting the space that the camera is describing. The direction is THAT strong.
The acting is eerily convincing and adds to the film’s strange assertion of realness. Two performances stand out: that of Starina Johnson and that of Backstreet Boys escapee Kevin Scott Richardson.
Mr. Richardson would be like Tom Cruise, if Tom Cruise were more than a one-note performer. His is a character who wounds himself as much as he wounds everyone else in the room, a character tormented by unexorcizable demons.
Ms. Johnson has the unnerving ability to fool you into thinking that she is not acting. Her character Kitty, whose breasts serve as the catalyst for the film’s sexual gymnastics, is the very model of self-deceptive housewifery, and Ms. Johnson makes her self-contradictions and -deceptions seem very, very authentic, particularly in a scene in which she is concocting what looks like an inesculent casserole and prattling on with her closeted gay husband. If Proteus were female, her name would be Starina Johnson.
The film is awash in Matissean pastels–lavenders, pinks, yellows, blues–and buoyed along by the slow hypnosis of Robert Kleiner’s beautifully lugubrious score. There is a superior use of imagery–the central images are the mask and the moon. Without giving too much away, let me say that the film is demarcated by the first moon landing, suggesting that miracles are around us every day but the characters lack the eyes with which to see them.
Robert Bresson once exhorted young filmmakers: “Make visible what without you would never be seen.” Steve Balderson, still young, is the incarnation of the Bressonian creed. We are able to see the world through his darkly magical eyes. The Casserole Club is Balderson’s masterwork.
Written by Dr. Joseph Suglia
The five couples are as follows (note the gender ambiguities): Sugar (Susan Traylor) and Connie (Kevin Scott Richardson); Jerome (the elegant Daniela Sea of THE L WORD) and Leslie (Mark Booker); Kitty (Starina Johnson) and Sterling (Garrett Swann); Florene (Pleasant Gehman) and Burt (Hunter Bodine); Max (Michael Maize) and Marybelle (Jennifer Grace).