Sophie Calle's Journey into Doom
Revisit her mid-'90s experimental film, "Double Blind (No Sex Last Night)."
Image from Sophie Calle's Double Blind (No Sex Last Night) via YouTube
In 1992, the performance artist Sophie Calle and a man named Greg Shephard traveled from New York to California and embarked on a tedious art project wherein they filmed one another as they drove for miles on end into what is more or less a wasteland of interstates and greasy spoon diners. The resulting footage became an eighty minute experimental film, titled Double Blind (No Sex Last Night). Like so much of Calle’s oeuvre, the film is an exploration of lovelessness.
Watching Shephard and Calle interact with one another over lo-fi tape recordings doesn’t feel good. Dubbed with confessionals from both Shephard and Calle about their experiences as they were happening, the film takes on the quality of an almost Vardian reality T.V. show. Except instead of watching horny drunk people talk about how angry they are, Shephard and Calle talk soberly and candidly about being in a miserable, sexless relationship. It is excruciating to watch. Here are two people forced to spend hours and hours of time together who clearly don’t like one another. This much is clear within the first few minutes of the film. Calle describes how when she flies from Paris to New York she finds Shephard asleep in his apartment, fully unprepared and uncommitted to the project. Things quickly crumble from there. Calle and Shephard have car problems, constantly. It becomes clear pretty early on that Shephard is completely broke, at one point asking Calle for money to buy gifts for his nieces and nephews, to which she says no. They get drinks at gross looking bars and eat hamburgers that make both of them sick. So much of the film literally takes place at various mechanic garages. The sound of a car being pulled apart becomes the film’s soundtrack. Every time the engine of the car sputters you can see Calle tense up, and there is no greater metaphor for a messy and actively failing relationship like a car slowly spiraling out of control on a never ending strip of highway.
There is so much boring and vaguely theoretical writing out there by the French that romanticizes the American interior. Read no more than three sentences of Baudrillard’s Amérique and you’ll get the picture. Double Blind pretty much avoids the cliché of rendering this expanse of land as tantalizingly unknowable. For the most part, driving through remote patches of highway in the early ‘90s looks pretty dire. Calle does her very best not to romanticize the scenery. If anything, the backdrop is so ugly that it feels strangely cliched in and of itself. America is a pit of doom, in Calle’s eyes. There is no beauty in doom. This is not a film about trouble in paradise. Instead, it is a slow descent into hell. The further Calle and Shephard get from New York, the darker things get for their relationship.
This much should be obvious from the title. There is very little sex in this movie. No one gets laid and no one is happy. Shephard actively fantasizes about other women and tells Calle about it. The two have a shotgun wedding in Vegas and it is insanely uncomfortable to watch. It’s an inherently masochistic enterprise. Imagine having the idea enter your head that you should go on a drive across the country that will realistically last days and days on end with someone who treats you poorly and often acts actively annoyed that they have to be in your presence. Think of your worst ex and then think of being trapped together in a car that is constantly breaking down. It’s an experience that is so objectively horrible that it almost feels right—like picking at a hangnail or yanking a hair from a mole.
That’s Calle’s whole angle here. Maybe there are secret bright spots to the situation at hand. As an artist, it feels cathartic to force people to corroborate with your pain. There is a reason why art about lovelessness is so essential to consume. Double Blind is a feel-bad movie. At times it’s actually just boring to watch. But the mundanity is what makes it so good. It’s exactly the kind of movie to watch when you’re already miserable. It’s the right kind of movie to watch right now. It is a horrible, hellish background noise. The best antidote to depression can sometimes be to watch people completely outside of your present situation fuck up and be cruel. How does that saying go again? "Hell is other people?"