Custom (2024)

Custom had its world première at the Glasgow FrightFest 2024.

“Hi, I’m Snake”, says a young man (Rowan Polonski) direct to camera at the beginning of writer/director Tiago Teixeira’s feature debut Custom. “And I’m Flower,” says the young woman (Abigail Hardingham) sat next to him. ‘Snake’ and ‘Flower’ are not their real names – for these two struggling artists are really called Jasper and Harriet, but have adopted pseudonyms for their latest for-profit project making sex videos to order for paying ‘perv’ clients. “You can’t pay rent just doing art shit, so we’ve decided to do something new, something fun and exciting” says Jasper – who hopes, with his lover, to combine work and pleasure.

These two characters’ porn names come with intertextual resonance. For Custom shares a focus on BDSM and impotence with Masaru Konuma’s pink film Flower and Snake (1974), while also borrowing from Takashi Ishii’s 2004 remake an ambiguous structure that confounds reality and fantasy. Jasper and Harriet may become embroiled with a mysterious, high-paying client who orders custom videos from them (with very rigid specifications) and regards the recordings as occult ‘rituals’ rather than mere masturbatory aids, and making and rewatching those videos may cause Jasper and Harriet gradually to lose their  minds and become lost to a process far beyond their control, but Jasper has a vivid dream about all of this in a scene near the film’s beginning, long before the couple has even heard of the client, so that we can never be sure whether what we subsequently watch represents Jasper’s real experiences (foreseen in a dream), or something that continues to be conjured out of his imagination – in much the same way that the sleazy Bishop (Brad Moore), who mediates between couple and client, suggests of the recordings that the client has insisted be shot on outmoded, non-digital VHS: ”What this sees is literally being conjured into the material world.”

When video artist Jasper tells Harriet that he is working on “a few ideas”, she responds by asking if he is “gonna finish any of these.” Jasper is the archetypal blocked artist, constantly starting projects but failing to follow through. Asked by Bishop what his idea of hell is, Jasper replies: “Gettin’ stuck… not being able to move forward, progress. Stuck.” Stuck is precisely where Jasper is, and there is a suggestion that his obsessive investigation into the identity of the client and the purpose of the videos is a physical realisation of his own faltering, confused creative process. For Custom seems to be showing us Jasper’s psyche through a glass darkly, exposing the inner workings of his stalled artistry. “I’ve been thinking about a new piece,” Jasper tells Bishop, and later he similarly tells Harriet, “I’ve been working on my new piece”, in words that quite possibly encapsulate and summarise the entire film. Even the shadowy client, his face always obscured and his voice muffled in video communications, suggests that the ritual will allow Jasper “to become a full artist.” That is certainly what Jasper most deeply desires – but in this Faustian pact, as Jasper attempts to summon something from the void of his own emptiness, he is instead left going around in dazed circles, becoming ever more absorbed and annihilated by his own headspace. It is his personal hell.    

Jasper is also a collaborative artist, and there are clearly problems in his relationship with photographer Harriet, not only professional but also personal. They may seem a happy, sexually active couple on their videos, but Harriet is unsatisfied and sees other people. In a sign of his emasculation and their reversal of rôles, Jasper dreams that Harriet is on top while he, underneath, bleeds from a large vaginal scar on his breast. Later, whether in a dream or otherwise, Harriet will be the one who inflicts that wound with a phallic blade. As Jasper tries to get to the bottom of the videos that they are making together, he is also working through his feelings about a more successful, more forward partner. When talking privately online with Jasper, the client refers to Harriet as ‘the female’. We suspect that this objectifying, dismissive language mirrors, and gives expression to, Jasper’s own misogyny. 

“I don’t know what goes on inside your head anymore,” Harriet will complain to Jasper. Just how much of all this is in Jasper’s head remains an open question – but as they shoot more scenarios on old, weird -smelling VHS, and as Jasper falls ever further down this rabbit-hole of sex, lies and videotape, the alienating influence can be seen of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), Iván Zulueta’s Arrebato (1979), Joseph Sims-Dennett’s Observance (2015) and Paul Hyett’s Peripheral (2018). “I figured it out,” Harriet will tell Jasper near the end of Custom, “It’s not that hard to understand, if you really think about it.” Her words come as a challenge to the viewer, who, left to sort hypnosis from hallucination, and sex magick from psychogenic fugue, may well not find things so simple to disentangle. Rewatching will certainly help attune you to the film’s nuanced layers of meaning, but if you do so, you had better hope that Jasper is wrong when, pale, strung out and lost in film, he suggests, “The footage is making us sick.” 

One thing is for sure, though: like Jasper with his art, this film does not really finish, but instead leaves the viewer, with Jasper himself, in an uncanny, oneiric limbo where intermediacy rules, ideas run free and creativity both lives and dies. Which is to say that Custom is a keeper, still playing out in the head long after the tape has been ejected.

strap: Tiago Teixeira’s feature debut follows a blocked artist down a rabbit hole of porn, BSDM and the occult nature of creativity

© Anton Bitel