Judge Bryan Pope has a hungry, throbbing urge...to recommend this engaging documentary.
Five heroes, four continents, one dream of love. Because real life begins where Harlequin novels end.
Every four seconds, a romance novel published by Harlequin Mills & Boon is sold somewhere in the world.
Director Julie Moggan's documentary begins with this factoid, but if you think she's out to poke fun at the millions of readers who devour the popular books, think again. Guilty Pleasures may be lightweight fare, as far as docs go, but it's also poignant and quite fascinating in its own way.
This PBS doc tells the story of five people, three of whom are avid readers of M&B books. You might be surprised by the diversity on display; they aren't all middle-aged white women.
Hiroko is a discontented Japanese housewife who turns to the books for fantasy, and her husband is resigned to accept her hobby—"I think it's okay she reads to compensate for what I can't give her." Perhaps he doesn't realize Hiroko's fantasy includes her male ballroom dance instructor.
Then there's Shumita, a young Indian woman who plows through one M&B book after another while waiting for her estranged husband to return.
There's also Shirley Davies, a reasonably happy married woman (yes, she's white and middle-aged) from the U.K. who looks at the books as a source of ideas to spice up her marriage to Phil, who seems benign enough but professes to have a "dark side."
Not all of Moggan's subjects are mere fans of the books. Two earn their living from them.
Take Stephen Muzzonigro, the model whose visage has graced the covers of M&B books. It'd be easy to hate someone this ridiculously handsome, but the pride he takes in his work and the joy he derives from it is so apparent you can't help liking him.
Finally, there's Roger "Gill" Sanderson, who has penned a number of M&B books himself and developed quite a following among readers. Roger is a late middle-aged English gentleman who talks about where he gets his ideas (overheard conversations in cafes, for example) and offers tips to would-be romance writers. For starters, back hair is a no-no on male characters…and female, for that matter.
Sanderson also cautions against simply sending characters into a bout of sexual gymnastics. Not surprising, considering the tenderness with which he views his own creations. He says, "At night, you know, when you go to bed, you put your characters almost to bed. They're still in your mind, and you give them not a good night kiss, but a sort of little pat on the head: 'Yes, we've done a good job today, the three or the four of us and it'll carry on tomorrow.' I love happy endings. There's nothing wrong with a happy ending."
The material offers plenty of opportunities for fun. At one point, Moggan cuts immediately from Phil expounding on what makes a "man's man" to Stephen giddily giving a tour of his wardrobe and talking about proper "manscaping." More frequently though are the moments when the women feel let down by life. "What happened to all the promises these books made to me?" asks one of them.
What is Moggan's picture ultimately trying to say? As compelling as some of her subjects' stories are, I'm not exactly sure. Perhaps something about the fantasy of romance versus the often colder reality.
There's enough material here for two docs. One about the creation of a romance novel, the other about the people who read them. Until then, we have Guilty Pleasures, an enjoyable and surprisingly moving film that's worth cozying up with for an evening.
Guilty Pleasures gets a clean standard definition 1.85:1 non-anamorphic transfer with perfectly sufficient Dolby 2.0 Stereo audio. The package includes English subtitles, but no extras.
A pleasure, but by no means a guilty one.
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