Nude-positive film review: ‘Bonobo’ (2014)

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Wow. What a film.

This cute, quirky oddball of a British comedy delivers a surprising hit of gravitas. 

This will be more of a cultural commentary film review, not a ‘take you through the film’ film review. It’s kind of a hybrid. And spoiler-free.

Here’s where to watch it online:

Light and ‘fresh’ in tone, well-cast, and with good production values, I recommend you give it a go. It dragged on at the 30-minute mark for me, but then it got better and was beautiful in the end.

If you’re not hung up on either nudity or sex, ‘Bonobo’ is actually very funny. Even better, not only does it not take itself too seriously, but it shows very mature perspective. And I don’t know if it’s just me, but I think it reveals something about British culture that isn’t yet quite there in my native country of Australia. More on that later.

In terms of nudity, ‘Bonobo’ starts out with the nudist cheering on. Positive depiction of non-sexual nudity in a ‘normal’ mainstream film? I thought that didn’t exist! Oh, hang on, what’s this contrived yoga pose ‘conveniently’ hiding the male penis from the camera’s lens?

Sigh… Why is there such a fear of showing the human penis? Is it fear of seeing arousal, fear of being aroused, fear of being raped, or fear of same-sex attraction AKA homophobia? In most cases those reasons are in the ‘cultural bullshit’ category in my book, because past cultures have not had these fears connected to nudity at all.

So yes, it initially gives in to the current conventions of male penis-phobia in non-pornographic entertainment, but later on it does show it, in a scene of redeeming body positivity:

Image blurred for facebook sharing purposes.

So is this film a champion of non-sexual nudity? Compared to everything else out there, absolutely. But it does show some quite graphic sexual activity involving nudity too, so the viewer has to be sex-positive as well as nude-positive to probably agree with that. I’m in that camp.

What really matters to me is the acknowledgement of non-sexual social nudity at all, and this film does that. And when it depicts sexuality – a different thing altogether – it’s all with comical overtones and in a respectful way, instead of exploitatively.

But I have some larger cultural commentary on my mind, which is why I took the time to write this review. Something really stuck with me.

I think the mere existence of this film indicates that non-sexual nudity is more accepted in British society than Australia or America. As for New Zealand it’s closer to Britain, and my guess would be Canada is closer to Australia. (So a flow chart could be: UK -> NZ -> Australia -> Canada -> America.)

From start to finish, the mother character is the soul of this film. This very ‘normal’-looking British middle-aged woman goes through quite a journey, and with a spirit of curiosity all the way. Her initial hang-ups give way over time, and I think that’s actually realistic.

“Fuck all that fuddy-duddyness – I will do what’s healthy and right for me – Tradition be damned!”

I get a sense that in British culture there’s now a native capacity to actually say, “Fuck all that fuddy-duddyness – I will do what’s healthy and right for me – Tradition be damned!”

As an Australian I don’t feel we’ve reached that point in our culture quite yet. As a nation, in my opinion we’re still quite young, timid, and uncertain of ourselves, when compared to others.

I even feel there’s more honesty, transparency and ‘no-nonsense’-ness in the way that British people speak to each other. It’s not like Australians can’t be brutally honest – it’s more that when we’re talking about serious or truly uncomfortable issues, we’re more avoidant instead of willing to be open with each other.

There’s also the British stereotype we know of – ‘Put up with whatever comes your way, just keep smiling, and drink your tea’, AKA the ‘stiff upper lip’ – which, interestingly, may result in an accidental ‘tolerance’, open-mindedness, patience – even call it ‘decency’ – towards others, even if they’re pissing you off. We don’t really have that in Australia, either. Things are different here.

I don’t say all this from just watching one film. I lived in the UK for six years, so I know how many Brits act, including very conservative Christians whose circles I lived in at the time.

One time, I played in a classical music concert in a random 12th Century church on the rural outskirts of London – yes, a 12th century church, like it was nothing. I remember walking around a graveyard that was 900 freaking years old. I’ll never forget it. It blows our Aussie minds.

Clearly British culture has gone through a lot more, and all of it in one location. Britain has been a society for way longer and maybe they’re somehow more ready to accept the human body because of that. It feels like they’re 10-20 years ahead of Australia in this regard – after all, in 2009 they ‘legalised’ public nudity. NZ is very similar. Now, in 2019, is it time for Australia?

I think Australia will ‘catch up’ regardless, due to the global Internet-connected nature of today. Amazingly quickly, LGBTQ people have made incredible strides in being accepted in the past 10 years, with same-sex marriage recently being legalised Down Under.

I’m no cultural historian and I could be wildly wrong, but those are some theories for now.

Let’s get back to the film.

With sex toys among the props and Scientology references, it’s pretty funny.

Like many good comedies, in the second and third acts, ‘Bonobo’ settles into dramedy territory. It paints a beautiful relationship between a daughter and her mother. It’s an unexpected gift.

It also makes bold statements that unfortunately are a challenge for most people, like: There’s nothing wrong with human connection. To me, what’s not to like about that? ‘Bonobo House’ is just about people trying to live better, like anyone else.

I like this film because it isn’t avoidant or dishonest about any of the issues it touches on – cults, generational rebellion, cultural change and cultural clash – all things that many of us have gone through. It’s not afraid to get real. Is this a positive testimony on Britishness itself?

Ultimately the message of the film is this: cults and communes can be harmless, effective ways to help you find where you really want to go in life. They can be a stepping stone, not a destination.

Having lived at a yoga ashram for six months, I can humbly say I agree.


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