The Onania Club (2020)

There is a sequence in Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik 2 (1991) where the protagonist Monika and her female friends gather together to eat sandwiches while watching a video of a dead seal being graphically skinned and butchered – something which Monika views with her thumb moving over her lips, in a response of clear arousal. Their party is interrupted by the arrival of Monika’s more conventional boyfriend Mark with pizza and a porno. “Films that always show dicks and cunts in close-up,” Monika tells him when he expresses disapproval of her seal video, “That’s supposed to turn you on, but it doesn’t work with everybody.” Monika and her friends, after all, derive their furtive sexual kicks from images of dead flesh and carnage. As they watch all this animal atrocity on screen, a severed human head sits prominently on the table before them as an aid to their viewing pleasure – only to be hurriedly hidden away when Mark shows up. That head signifies these women’s fetishised confusion of eros and thanatos (encoded in the very title Nekromatik).

Such illicit paraphilias are also the central premise of writer/director Tom Six’s latest feature, The Onania Club, in which, not dissimilarly, a group of women meets regularly to masturbate together over scenes of “violence, accidents, disease”, while their hostess Rose Tonning (Fio Lawrence) gets off more specifically, like Nekromantik‘s Monika, on disinterred corpses – and occasionally even lets her guests play with her posthumous trophies too. These women, though, are well-heeled, middle-aged, upright citizens of Los Angeles rather than young Berliners, and their pathological fixation on the suffering of others – what their newest member Hanna Vertree (Jessica Morris) terms their ‘sexual Schadenfreude’ – unfolds very much under the Hollywood sign, ensuring that their voyeuristic attraction to narratives of pain, struggle and disease reflects our own cinematic spectatorship. The Onania Club may seem exclusive, but really we are all signed up as members from the moment we too start watching and waiting for the satisfactions, shared yet private, that come from such viewing. 

Initially the footage that these women view is of starving children in Africa, people injured by accidents or war, and even the passenger plane flying explosively into the second building of the World Trade Centre. It is the kind of material that we all regularly see in the news, and the women’s orgasmic response merely literalises the second half of the metaphorical expression ‘misery porn’, while their vicarious pleasure in the humiliation of others merely exaggerates a mode of behaviour exhibited on the internet every day, where Schadenfreude and distant superiority are standard postures (significantly, Hanna found the group online). 

Accordingly The Onania Club plays a game familiar from many shock movies, presenting viewers with an ugly, distorted image of themselves, and challenging them straightforwardly to condemn that image when they are so implicated in the aberrant impulses which it presents and reflects. If the club members should not be watching this kind of material for their entertainment, then should we? Naturally this paradoxical strategy of filmmaking risks causing the viewer to break the accusatory spell precisely by switching off or leaving the cinema (rather than, like Hanna who was “raised a good Catholic girl”, by actively seeking some form of moral condemnation or absolution for the sins of viewing). Six’s fans, though, reared on The Human Centipede parts 1, 2 and 3, will know exactly what they are in for, right down to the on-the-nose dialogue and cartoonishly hyperbolic performances.

  In fact, rather like The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (2011), Six’s new feature is concerned with the effects of cinema, and where viewing can lead. For Rose and fellow club members Johanna Sturgeon (Darcy DeMoss), Erica Petrol (Deborah Twiss) and Barbara Dowels (Karen Strassman) are not just masturbating to recorded video materials, but also carrying their sadistic urges into their real lives, with victims that they make as much as watch. What would it take, Six seems to be asking,  for the kind of cruel sensibility that seeks enjoyment from a film like The Onania Club to turn to actual crimes without any intervening screen? or to start actually provoking the pain in others that gives so much gratification to the self? To infect, or to starve, or to deceive, or even to murder in cold blood? How far, once stimulated, will sadism go?

The 120 Days of Sodom, written (in 1785) by the actual Marquis de Sade, and glimpsed in one scene being read by Rose, was a story in part about storytelling, with four middle-aged (female) prostitutes narrating tales of debauchery to inspire four (male) libertines in their acts of outrage. The four existing members of the Onania Club similarly regale newcomer Hanna with their stories (of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, imposture, child enslavement, etc.), to which Hanna is soon adding her own anecdotes about the punishing progression of the multiple sclerosis that cripples her husband Barry (John T. Woods) – until the five women find their addiction to others’ suffering becomes insatiable, leading to ever more extreme actions in pursuit of a happiness that never comes (or at least never stays). 

All these stories derive their scenarios from other ‘shock’ films: not just the atrocity arousal of Nekromantik 2 (and of John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, 1996), but also a horrific home invasion modelled on James Cullen Bressack’s notorious Hate Crime (2012). There are even, in our early knowledge that Hanna has forever lost her husband and their young son as a result of her Club membership, hints of the scenario from Srđjan Spasojević’s A Serbian Film (2010) – although these are never quite realised. Most of all, the film adopts the narrative structure of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013), as Hanna’s disastrous descent into libertinage is presented in flashback as her lengthy confession to a man – in this case a Catholic priest (Ad van Kempen) – whose neutrality, objectivity and asexuality may be questionable fronts for his own (and our own) hypocrisy as her audience.

One might imagine that The Onania Club is gruelling horror, but like Six’s original The Human Centipede (The First Sequence) (2009) – if perhaps not like its more excessive sequels – this is a film which suggests its outrages more than showing them, and shocks rather with its associative juxtapositions than with much repellently vivid representation. There are frequent cuts from footage of human woes (global or local) to shots of privileged white women rubbing their (clothing-covered) crotches in pleasurable response – but there are no, to borrow Monika’s phrase, “dicks and cunts in close-up”, and indeed nothing as graphic as the cadaverous hardcore from the Nekromantik films. Perhaps some of this visual restraint comes from the film’s overt allegiance to the noir genre, as indicated by James Ruffell’s monochrome cinematography, Ian Hughes’ jazzy score and of course the LA setting. For all that, though, there is little nuanced shading to be found in Six’s broad satire of a pampered elite’s aloofness, entitlement and ready exploitativeness when confronted with the miseries that the rest of the world experiences – miseries that are in part a product of such criminal indifference. In place of subtlety (never Six’s trademark) or explicitness, The Onania Club delivers not a little dark humour, and leaves us unsure whether we are meant to be excited or appalled by all the film’s controversy-courting comings and goings. You may leave feeling soiled, even needing a shower – but the truth is that, like one of the film’s characters, you can just walk, or at least limp, away, relatively unscathed and absolved of any underlying guilt or shame, until you find whatever depravity turns you on next…  

© Anton Bitel