San Sebastian 2022 review: Pornomelancolía (Manuel Abramovich)

“Although Abramovich does lose sight of the balance between flesh and soul (in favour of the former) to some extent, the film is an artfully shot but sobering account of a life in solitude in front of the world.”

With the advance of social media our lives have become a spectacle for others. What remains to us are our most intimate moments. But what if even that intimacy is shared with the world; what is left to desire then? In his latest documentary Pornomelancolía, Argentinian director Manuel Abramovich follows a sex influencer with thousands of followers thirsting for every bit of skin he shares, who turns inwards when the camera is off to discover the loneliness in his life. A frank and explicit portrait of a melancholic sex worker, Pornomelancolía shows how social media can turn us into performers, and how broadcasting our private lives can negatively affect our psyche especially when we cross the last line and let the world into our bedroom. Although Abramovich does lose sight of the balance between flesh and soul (in favour of the former) to some extent, the film is an artfully shot but sobering account of a life in solitude in front of the world.

On the surface, Lalo Santos is a Mexican factory worker like so many, but none of his colleagues have the highly successful role as a gay sex influencer that he has. Posting pictures and videos of himself, more often than not full frontal and erect, as well as creating homemade porn videos, Lalo has a legion of followers who hang on his every, ehm, post. Despite all that, it is clear that his life is increasingly empty, an endless string of sex and likes, one often leading to the other in whatever order. After losing his job he auditions for a porn film and surprisingly lands the role of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (any story can be made into porn, clearly). In between shooting scenes under the guidance of a director who seems to be under the impression that he is making art, Lalo and his co-stars gossip, exchange sexual experiences, and discuss life outside sex work.

During these conversations Lalo is mostly withdrawn, listening intently but also wistfully to the others. He seems to be realising the hole in his life. When one of the actors speaks about his parents, Lalo later calls his mother and there is a sense that his homosexuality and/or sex worker career has caused a rift. Abramovich’s camera may be focused on a lot of the carnal pleasure, but at key moments he not only captures Lalo, but through framing and shallow focus isolates him in the shot, symbolizing Lalo’s loneliness and melancholia. The addition of screen recordings of his phone as he is interacting with his followers only emphasizes the hollowness of his existence. An interaction late in the film with a man with whom he recorded a video shows that his separation from the world is not complete, as does a message to his mother that closes the film, but on the whole Abramovich exquisitely renders Lalo’s detachment and isolation, despite his large audience.

What may hold back audiences though is the sheer amount of sexual activity on screen, to the point where it becomes repetitive and exhaustive. This is partly intentional, but it doesn’t make for a pleasurable watch. The sequence on the porn set, which essentially covers what you could call the second act of the film, is drawn out so much that the point eventually becomes numb and flaccid. A better balancing act by Abramovich would have made Pornomelancolía more poignant and would have also shielded it from the easy criticism the film no doubt will have to deal with. A shame, because at its heart Pornomelancolía is an excellent documentary, bold and challenging, and certainly not for the prudish. But a bit more focus on Lalo and a little less on his sexual exploits would have lifted this into greatness. As it stands, the film is an insightful but uneven look at both acquiring and losing an identity.