Sex in Brooklyn: Joanna Arnow’s BAD AT DANCING

By Julia Cooper

Does the world need another coming of age story? Maybe not, suggests Brooklyn filmmaker Joanna Arnow with her latest short film running in the Berlinale Shorts programme, BAD AT DANCING. Set mostly in a two-bedroom walkup in New York, Arnow’s film appears frustrated with the platitudes of self-discovery typical of the genre (another NYC film, FRANCES HA, comes immediately to mind) though it does not discard its tropes altogether. Instead, Arnow plays the cliché of late-twenties ennui deadpan and presents the conventionally angsty love triangle as hilariously lopsided.

Drawing inspiration from her personal documentary I HATE MYSELF :), Arnow performs a version of herself in BAD AT DANCING. Dour and lacking all sense of boundaries, Joanna repeatedly walks into her roommate’s bedroom to talk about her problems while Isabel (Eleanore Pienta) is busy having sex with her boyfriend Matt (Keith Poulson). Captured in tight frames and shot in black and white, the friends’ conversations unfold as though Joanna’s “visits” are nothing more than mere annoyance. As such, the couple’s sex is immediately naturalized, recalling the mechanical moving bodies of Yorgos Lanthimos’ DOGTOOTH or Elizabeth Olsen’s detached voyeurism in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. The comedy of these scenes is heightened by Joanna’s unwavering monotone and slightly slack-jawed expression. When Matt looks side-eyed at a fully clothed Joanna while Isabel thrusts atop him, he suggests to his girlfriend that her roommate ought to leave. Joanna inches her face closer and chastises: “It is rude to talk about someone in the third person when they are right next to you.”

Though the film’s dialogue is monotone and its visuals monochromatic, BAD AT DANCING maintains a witty tempo, bolstered in part by its cheeky referentiality. In one instance, Joanna sits naked in shallow bathwater squabbling with Isabel and Matt in a scene that is an unmistakable visual reference to Lena Dunham (also playing a semi-autobiographical protagonist) in the pilot episode of Girls. Yet Arnow is not an aspirational filmmaker trying to re-plot the coordinate’s of Dunham’s Greenpoint. No, when Joanna finds pleasure it is by her own hand, making BAD AT DANCING something awkwardly and wonderfully masturbatory.