Controlling Desires: Joanna Arnow Discusses "The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed"

The filmmaker speaks to the comic rhythms of her new feature, representing BDSM on film, and drawing inspiration from Tsai Ming-liang.
Christina Newland

The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed

The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed (Joanna Arnow, 2023). Photo by Barton Cortright.

To be introduced to the work of New York filmmaker-actor Joanna Arnow via her debut feature, as I did when I went in blind to a screening at Cannes’s Directors’ Fortnight this May, is to be surprised. Her sexual frankness, aesthetic composition, and talent for ambiguity are bracing in their freshness and precision. There isn’t a moment wasted, and her comic timing—often with a razor-sharp rhythmic edit—is unmatched. In her previous shorts (one of which, Bad at Dancing, won the Berlinale Jury Prize in 2015), her taste for deadpan humor is self-evident. But her combination of verbal and physical comedy lingers because Arnow takes a scalpel to her own predilections and personality traits in the meantime.

Her new film, The Feeling that The Time for Doing Something Has Passed—an intentional mouthful of a title, making reference to a conversation late in the film—takes a lean, drolly funny approach to topics which might, in other hands, feel familiar: Ann (played by Arnow) is a socially awkward millennial woman, unhappy with her corporate job and trying to find equilibrium with dating, sex, and romance. At the heart of that journey is her relationship with BDSM and sexual submission, and the film’s chapters are structured around the various men she becomes entangled with, from a humiliation kink dating app to her gentle coworker.

Arguably the most consistent of these men is Allen (an excellently patriarchal Scott Cohen), whom Joanna has been seeing on and off since her mid-twenties and to whom she seems to magnetically return to in spite of—or perhaps because of—his disinterest in her personal life (a running joke about his inability to remember what college she went to goes some way to prove this point). None of her relationships—from the casual and sexually exploratory to the more tender—seem to provide complete satisfaction, and certainly not an orgasm.

Arnow’s approach is unrelentingly committed to asking questions and plowing furrows that other, flimsier material in this vein, such as Girls and the work of Lena Dunham, to whom Arnow’s work has drawn comparisons, might shy away from. The Feeling is unafraid of being prickly, exploring the fine—sometimes invisible—lines between female self-realization, a desire for romantic happiness, and a taste for being sexually dominated. The film’s formalist look, with its static, careful shots, and Arnow’s overall clarity of vision is all the more impressive for a debut wherein she has set herself the task of directing herself, often completely naked for long stretches, in a story of sexually intimate subject matter. 

In person, Arnow is coy about her motivations, preferring to allow the work—and its aesthetic logic of dislocation and discomfort, with bodies often turned away from one another or posed awkwardly in supposedly sensual moments—to speak for itself, but her talent for unsentimental dissection of self and others is undeniable. The Feeling That The Time for Doing Something Has Passed has a rhythm that moves abruptly so as to leave viewers wondering about the layers of power and control Ann has in various aspects of her life. It’s the kind of comedy asking enough pointed questions to give it a real sting in its tail.

NOTEBOOK: Were you always going to play the main character yourself? What kind of challenges and or benefits do you feel that provides? 

JOANNA ARNOW: I always knew I was going to play the main character. Since it's a story that draws on my personal experience, while it's not autobiographical, it seemed to make sense. And to lean into the autofiction aspects of it and hope that it would give the story more authenticity. It's also something I had done in my short films and felt that the casting had worked. We worked very hard to make sure that we had a safe and respectful environment for all the actors, including myself. We had a lot of conversations about comfort level, being careful to plan and coordinate the scenes, reminding everyone that they could change their minds at any time. Also, having all standard protocols, such as closed sets—things along those lines. 

NOTEBOOK: The editing in the film has such a brilliant, funny rhythm, and just feels really well thought-out. Can you tell me about finding that pace? 

ARNOW: A lot of the script didn't actually change that much, so we were going into the edit structurally as a whole. Before I started refining it down, the first assembly of just the scenes as they were shot was four hours. So getting from that to eighty-something minutes was quite a process. I was editing it a lot for comic timing, wanting the comedy to play out in long takes and not feel constructed, but letting the audience feel aware of the context and the absurdity of the situations. The structure of the film is very unconventional. In a lot of ways that rhythm was driving it forward. And especially in the [story’s] first two sections, it was about using gestural punctuation and dialogue to create rhythms that give the film forward momentum. And using editing sometimes by contrasting between scenes and emphasizing their juxtaposition.

The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed (2023). Photo by Barton Cortright.

NOTEBOOK: Ann is quite a difficult character to read in terms of her motivations—she seems quite blank, and we’re never totally sure what she’s getting out of her relationships with these men as such. How do you see her?

ARNOW: I see her as a very active agent in the film, not someone who gets pushed around. In terms of showing BDSM, there are a lot of misconceptions around it. I thought it was important for me to show and, as an active participant in the planning of the sessions, to counter that. You know, being in the role of a submissive is often quite powerful and vulnerable. I hope the film can convey that. Often, I think it's misunderstood as a role that doesn't have agency, but I think you have to have so much agency to explore that. And in BDSM people are taking initiative about exploring their desires and communicating about them. Submissives are generally the ones in control, actually. I hope that the film shows that, because I don't often see that kind of representation in film. 

NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting that you structure the chapters of the story, in the film, around Ann’s various lovers. But they aren’t the actual momentum of the story.

ARNOW: I wanted it to be a complex mosaic, including work, family, sexuality, relationships. And in all of those threads, there are her struggles with navigating relationships, communication, and power dynamics. It’s also not wanting to box anything in too neatly. In a three-act arc from A to B, change is so clear cut. Change happens so markedly [with that structure]. But I think in real life, it's much more of a small change—if it happens at all. That's what I was hoping to kind of convey.

NOTEBOOK: The compositions in the film feel very precise, and it feels very much like about bodies in space and their relation to one another. How carefully choreographed were some of those physical movements? Was there any spontaneity to that?

ARNOW: The blocking was fairly carefully planned. I was really interested in the uncomfortable way these characters exist in the world. The way their bodies move through space is a big part of that, both in the cinematography and the blocking. 

NOTEBOOK: With these long takes and careful compositions, are there any visual references for you?

ARNOW: One reference for me is the work of Tsai Ming-liang and his long take, long shot style. His kind of absurd comedy often involves sexual situations and there’s this dissonant tone to his off-kilter universes—it's something that I really admire. But I also wanted to think about these framings and scenes for myself, and think about what worked best for the story and our excellent cinematographer Barton Cortright. It was great working with him on finding these slightly-off framings that I felt reflected the characters’ mindset.

NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me about the final shot of the film, which is very surprising? 

ARNOW: I think that it's an ending that I hope is true to the character and story that we're telling. It’s about the ways we both change and don't change, and there’s a self-acceptance to that. It wasn’t always the ending—it was an addition. But my producer, Graham Swon, heard about its existence [in the script] and said we should shoot it just in case. It’s such a complicated film that I was always hesitant about adding even more complicated layers. But I’m happy with the ending now.

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