Other Media Review

Guest Film Review: Guilty Pleasures

Guilty Pleasures is a movie about romance, by which I mean the genre, as told through three readers, a writer, and a cover model (Sounds like the start of a bad joke, doesn’t it?. It premiered in the US in North Carolina at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and mega-power librarian Jennifer Lohmann went with her book club to see it. What follows is her review and reaction. I found it very fascinated particularly in light of my own questions about the Mr. Romance pageant at RT, and the ever-changing way in which romance and its readers are portrayed in documentary film. I know that there’s another documentary about romance in the works, and I am cautiously optimistic about it – but only because I’ve met the filmmaker and know she’s awesome. I can only hope that project yields a more different portrait of the romance reader.

On Thursday night, my romance book club and guests went to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival opening night film, Guilty Pleasures. The showing was followed by a moderated discussion with filmmaker Julie Moggan and Stephen Muzzonigro, one of the movie’s subjects. Before I talk about my reaction to the film, I want to thank Full Frame, which made sure my book club got tickets to this movie. The opening night movie sells out very quickly and we really, really wanted to see this movie. Without Full Frame’s help, we probably wouldn’t have been able to purchase tickets.

I didn’t intend to write a review or reaction to the movie. We were just going to go as a group, watch the movie, go out for drinks afterward to talk about it, and be done. However, the more I thought about the movie and the more we talked about it, the more I wanted to respond. This is my response to the movie. I’m sure members of the book club had different impressions and opinions. They usually do, which is why our book club meetings are so fun.

Thinking about the movie changed my reaction to it. Sarah F. from Dear Author and Teach Me Tonight asked me what I thought about the movie as we stood outside the theater. I said I enjoyed watching the movie, but it was an outsider trying to look inside. Like most outsiders, I don’t think they really got what they were looking at; an outsider doesn’t know the best jokes. And, watching the movie, I did enjoy it. During the movie, I reacted like the movie maker wanted me to react. I laughed when she wanted me to laugh, I cheered when she wanted me to cheer and I disliked the characters she wanted me to dislike. But the more I thought about the movie, the more shallow I felt the movie was and the more upset I was.

The movie has five protagonists. Roger is an author who writes in the Mills & Boon medical line. Stephen is a book cover model in search of love. Shumita lives in India and has been separated from her husband for five years. Hiroko lives in Japan and is married with two kids. She learns to ballroom dance because the dance scenes are the favorite part of the books. Shirley lives with her bipolar husband in northern England. He is her third serious relationship, following several years after an abusive relationship. Moggan alternates among Roger’s comments and the lives of the three readers and one model as they look for love or reinforce the relationships they already have.

The best moments in the movie center on Shirley and Hiroko. Hiroko’s husband is the hero of the movie. Hiroko loves ballroom dancing and would like to participate in a competition with her instructor, but the cost is prohibitive. Her husband learns to ballroom dance because he’s sick of being jealous of Hiroko dancing with other men. They enter a competition, which they win.

When the movie starts, Hiroko talks about her marriage being less passionate than the books she enjoys and her husband shyly (and looking a bit like a nerd) says how she wants him to say things to her that he’s not comfortable with. He’s glad she has the novels to say such things to her. In the middle of their story, we see him playing catch with his kids and fishing as he talks about how he wants more children. He grows from a nerd to a sweetheart who adores his kids and wife. Hiroko starts looking a bit like a complainer when in the face of such a man. Then, when he learns to dance, we see joy in Hiroko’s face as she dances in a competition with her husband in her arms. She’s happy to win and she’s happy to dance with her husband.


Shirley and her husband find little ways to make their lives together more romantic. She loves that he doesn’t plan adventures but just gets on the highway and drives. She compares their little adventures to the adventures in romance novels and the spontaneity of the hero and heroine. Her husband, Phil, is bipolar and sometimes their plans for a romantic evening are interrupted by his illness. She worries about him and takes care of him as best she can while he is having a low period.  They do sweet, affectionate, and thoughtful things for one another and try to make everyday moments special and romantic.

The description of the movie on the Full Frame website reads:

Guilty Pleasures is a celebration of the desires and realities of the people it portrays. In sympathetically depicting the collision of fantasy and day-to-day life, the documentary offers a salutary combination of levity and heart.

and I think it is in the lives of these two couples that the movie works best. The realities of these two couples are celebrated. They are happy, loving couples working through their problems and standing side-by-side as they face the world. However, I don’t think that there was the collision of fantasy and day-to-day life. The women know what is fantasy and what is real life. If you were to ask them, they would say that they are not seeking a romance novel in their real lives. When they were searching for love, they were looking for the type of relationship and man they currently have, not the fantasy man from the romance novel. Collision implies a conflict between fantasy and reality and I don’t think, ultimately, that these women had a conflict, even Hiroko with her desire to ballroom dance.

The movie tries to make a collision between fantasy and real life in Shumita’s story. Moggan said in the discussion that the romance novels lead Shumita to believe that romance would be very different and that Sanjay might change. In this case, I think the movie and Moggan misunderstood Shumita and the romance novels.

Shumita has been separated from her husband for five years and he has been living with another woman during that time. Sanjay drives a fast car and likes to live large. He makes comments about her weight. He deliberately leads her to believe they will get back together while he means nothing of the sort. His bedroom looks like that of a teenage boy with a calendar of scantily clad women, one that says “shit happens” and a plastic snake handing on the wall.

As one of the book group members said and all readers of romance know, Shumita’s problem is that Sanjay is the not hero in her life. Sanjay is the jerk the heroine dumps so that she is ready for the hero. A fast car does not make a hero. Kindness, thoughtfulness, and affection (the attributes of Phil and Hiroko’s husband) make a hero. A romance novel hero can be a total jerk at the beginning of the novel, but he has to have the potential for change and, after five years, Sanjay has used up his potential.

Shumita says real life is what happens when the romance novel’s pages end. She knows real love takes work and isn’t always pretty. What she is slow to realize is that Sanjay isn’t the right person for her. That’s not the fault of the novels. The novels never tell her that he’s the hero and, while I feel badly saying this about anyone, Sanjay’s just not hero material.

I have few quibbles with the portrayal of Roger, the author. I felt like he was generally a good representation of an author in that he respected his readers, genre, and the other authors and was intelligent and interesting. He is not, however, a woman. Sarah F. asked Moggan why she had a male romance author and she replied that there is more comedic effect in the male author. That’s probably a true representation of her motives, but the movie confirmed incorrect stereotypes for people about romance authors. Those of us involved in the romance industry, even as a librarian and reader rather than a writer/editor, know that most romance authors are intelligent, savvy women with a professional, business-oriented approach to their craft.  However, in the movie, Roger is portrayed as a mother hen to the little old-lady pensioner chicks who come to hear him say romance heroes can’t have back hair. If a moviegoer left the movie thinking, as Roger says, that romance authors are very smart with a steely determination, they did so in spite of the visual portrayal of the movie.

There were moments of levity and humor in the movie, but those came at the expense of the characters. We laugh at Shirley reading her romance novel while eating chocolates and Phil putting on a clip-on tie. We laugh at Roger’s bald head while he describes the physical superiority of a romance novel hero. We laugh as the movie cuts from frumpy Shirley reading her books to Stephen on the beach in his swimsuit. None of these moments are a critique of romance novels or their readers. They are cheap shots which elicit a laugh, but don’t provide any greater meaning. I had an emotional response to the movie. I am angry about the movie, but I don’t think I’m angry because the movie was critical of the genre. I’m angry because Moggan was disdainful of her characters and her image of them was unkind.

Overall, I was left with the impression that Moggan had no desire to actually understand her subjects. She was an outsider looking inside a culture and she made a shallow effort to learn why Roger wrote a novel and Hiroko, Shumita, and Shirley read the novels but ultimately it was a superficial effort. She read hundreds of Mills & Boon, but I get the impression that she allowed them to confirm her stereotypes of the genre rather than opening herself up to a new understanding. Perhaps she is confusing understanding with endorsement and, in her effort to make sure she didn’t endorse the genre, she forgot to try and understand it.

This makes me wonder about the audience. I worry the non-romance readers in audience left feeling like they learned something about the genre when, in reality, stereotypes of romance novel and their bonbon-eating readers were confirmed. Moggan made a movie about three readers and one author who writes for one category line in a very large industry.  While she attempts to make a global statement about fantasy and reality, ultimately her conclusions are provincial.

I also have a criticism for Full Frame, if they were the organization that selected the moderator. The discussion was moderated by Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish. What does Daniel Wallace know about romance novels? The answer to that rhetorical question is nothing. He admitted that he thinks romance novels are at the bottom of the genre barrel. Why choose Wallace as moderator? The Triangle area of North Carolina is not of short best-selling, award-winning romance novelists, many of whom write for Harlequin/Mills & Boon. Look at that list – did all of those authors turn Full Frame down when invited to moderate a discussion or did Full Frame not even think to ask? The post-movie discussion moderated by Sabrina Jeffries or Claudia Dain would have been far more interesting and insightful than any discussion moderated by Daniel Wallace.

I’ve not yet said anything about Stephen, the cover model. I’m saving both the best and worst for last. The depiction of Stephen is the most interesting part of the movie and the most shameful. Let me first say that Stephen is BY FAR the most attractive person I’ve ever seen in the flesh. He was at the movie, sitting a couple rows in front of us, and had an unearthly handsomeness to him. Strangely, I don’t find him sexually attractive, but that’s a discussion for another time. Let me assure you that he looks in person like he does on his agency page.

I mention this not to drool, but because it’s relevant to the movie. In the movie, Stephen comes across as vain, shallow and dim. Between shots of him in his swimsuit at the beach, exercising, worrying over his calorie intake, talking about his dream wall, his true flame, and reading Deepak Chopra or books on tantric sex, the audience is left with the impression that Stephen can’t think of anything beyond his own hotness and we laughed. I want to be clear—we laughed at Stephen. We did not laugh with him.

At the end of the day, Stephen is a type of athlete and, like an athlete, relies on his physical prowess to feed and clothe him. If a swimmer talked about the care they took to moderate their caloric intake and their body hair maintenance regime, I would admire their dedication and willpower. Why did I laugh at Stephen for the same dedication?

If he’s vain about his looks, he has a right to be, just like Stephen Hawkings has a right to be vain about his intelligence. Both may be luck of genetics, but both Stephens spend time working to maintain and improve upon their luck. Also, I wonder how dim Stephen really is. He didn’t sound nearly so dim in the moderated discussion as he did in the movie. Not once did he sound uneducated. This makes me question whether he is as shallow as he appears in the movie or if the non-shallow Stephen moments were edited out.

Ultimately I am left with two questions regarding Stephen and the movie. The first is what does Stephen think about Moggan’s portrayal of him? Is he really so dim that he doesn’t notice the audience laughing AT him? Has he come to expect such treatment from people who consider themselves thoughtful intellectuals and, if he doesn’t like it, is at least no longer surprised by it? Or, is Stephen secure enough in his good job at which he works hard to be able to completely ignore such derision?

My last question is more troubling. How did Moggan intend the audience to feel about Stephen? Did she intend to make a point about the vanity in us all as we reflected with shame at the ease with which we laughed at another human being? Or, is Moggan so vain and shallow, wallowing in her own intelligence, that she cannot see herself reflected in her portrayal of a romance cover model?



Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Alex says:

    This aired on More 4 (UK tv channel) last week and I’ve recorded it to watch at a time when I’ve got 2 hrs spare. The way it was marketed over here seems slightly at odds with the reality of it as described by Jennifer – it’s the general British attitude towards Mills & Boon as something a bit comical and lightweight.  I’m really interested to watch it now though.

  2. 2
    jody says:

    Very insightful comments, Jennifer.  Too bad the film makers used romance novels as a theatrical device rather than as an exploration of the genre.

    I guess this isn’t the definitive Romance Novel Movie.

  3. 3
    MelB says:

    I see all of Jennifer’s points. I was skeptical of the film and wondered how someone who has only read a few hundred novels from one publisher going to present a documentary regarding the genre as a whole.  Highlighting one publisher in a huge genre is like looking in the kitchen window of a house and deciding that you’ve seen enough to know the family that lives there. Thoughtful review.

  4. 4
    Sarah W says:

    Thought-provoking review—and a timely reminder that documentaries aren’t necessarily objective or well-researched.

  5. 5
    Jennifer Lohmann says:

    @Alex—I think the movie was comical and lightweight with levity and humor. What made me uncomfortable with the movie is that I think the humor was at the expense of people. Like country music or video gaming, the good jokes are only made by those who know, understand, and like their subject.

  6. 6
    FiaQ says:

    Jennifer’s later reaction to GP is similar to mine. I knew how the doc would go from the moment it opened with Roger typing away while the voiceover narrated a sex scene. The tone and the structure were so there.

    I was hoping for a range of interviews with readers, editors, authors and industry figures with some bite-size info chunks, but no. Everybody had a role to play in Moggan’s script. Like Jennifer says, it’s shallow with no real insight. It’s basically a comparison between what’s in romance novels and what’s in readers’ lives, as if it both confirms and denies that women rely on romance novels as life posts to sort out their real lives.

    It’s obvious that Moggan wanted to give the genre a gentle but affectionate poke of fun, but it’s a dodgy risk because the genre is still subjected to mockery (gentle or not) and contempt. This kind of gentle ribbing can only confirm non-romance readers’ misconceptions of the genre. It doesn’t help that it was so scripted that almost the narrative seemed stilted.

    I still wish Moggan hadn’t used Roger because of these two reasons: a) what’s so interesting about a man as a romance author? To prove that a man can dare to lower himself to write romance? Or what? Either way, it lends a somewhat uncomfortable tone, and b) it deepens a belief that anyone can write a M&B if they want. I do like funny or affectionate documentaries, but I think it’s too early to try one on the genre.

    Anyhow, of all I saw so far, the most enjoyable would be Island of Dreams (1996, Granada TV). Even though there was a couple of snide digs (IIRC, narrator says “…[romance author] lives on Isle of Man, a tax haven for mil~li~on~ai~resss…”). Still not quite “it”, but it’s better than nothing. (I’m still trying to make up my mind about BBC’s Time Shift: How to Write a Mills & Boon Novel and Consuming Passion: 100 Years of Mills & Boon, though!)

  7. 7
    Suzannah says:

    I recorded this last week when it screened in the UK and watched it over the weekend.  Well, I watched some of it.  In the end I was fast-forwarding through it just in case there were any interesting bits, but I thought it was terrible.  The fans all came across as eccentrics who were using romance to escape from their lives in a really bad way, and I agree that having Roger as the token author was also probably meant for comic effect.  That was just rude when he’s obviously successful at what he does, and the points he was making about the writing of the books and what you can and can’t do were good ones.  But the film insinuated that everyone involved with the process was mostly just strange.  It was sad to watch, because romance is such a huge seller, and there’s a lot more to it than most people imagine, not only writing but also in the marketing and promotion.  I thought it was a big disappointment.

  8. 8

    I saw it in the UK, too. I know Roger (he’s a member of my RNA chapter) and the movie didn’t exactly depict the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about him. This film was definitely not a factual documentary.
    Because of that, I looked on the film as fictional, as fictional as any novel. As such, it works well, I think. But with characters acting as limited versions of themselves, rather than a real-life study.
    And I don’t think it was about Mills and Boon, or about romance writing today. We’re still waiting for that film. Instead, it chose to tell several stories in a certain context.

  9. 9
    megalith says:

    Thanks, Jennifer. That was a really interesting read. Nicely done.

    I thought your description of the film made it sound more like a feature film (fiction) rather than a documentary, so it’s interesting to hear Lynne’s take on it above. I think the only way to make documentaries about an industry or group of fans that succeed in being both funny and affectionate is to be an insider or a fan yourself. In the end, the tone of the movie is probably a pretty accurate depiction of how the film’s maker feels about the subject and the people involved rather than an accurate depiction of the subject itself. As you said, she couldn’t separate the subject from her preconceptions long enough to learn anything new herself, or share anything new with the audience.

  10. 10
    Jennifer Lohmann says:

    @Lynne Connolly
    I guess I am most curious about your response since you are very vocal about facts and accuracy in historical romances. I can’t say the movie was factually incorrect—there were very few facts in it—but I did find it inaccurate. Were it a fictional movie, that wouldn’t have bothered me, but as a documentary I found it troubling. Why didn’t it bother you? Or am I misunderstanding your reaction?

  11. 11

    I also caught this on More4 here in the UK, however after watching it I was left with a very disturbed feeling, since I can’t say it better, here’s the review from the guardian which I whole heartedly agree with:

  12. 12
    Diva says:

    VERY thought-provoking and insightful review!

    I have not seen the film but it sounds as though the filmmaker viewed the subjects condescendingly. Perhaps a true fan of the genre would have explored the topic from a better angle.

    And of course the cover model must maintain his appearance and fitness level! That’s his job…there is nothing laughable about it!

  13. 13
    Ros says:

    I think I want to speak up a little bit in defence of the film.  I watched it on TV in the UK last week and enjoyed it very much.  I agree that it isn’t a fair representation of the romance genre as a whole, nor an information-packed analysis of Mills and Boon, but it really isn’t trying to be those things.  The title is ‘Guilty Pleasures’ and that encapsulates for me what the film is about – how do these five people living ordinary, difficult, complicated lives find pleasure in the category romance books they read, write and model for.  I didn’t find Moggan condescending towards the participants, but actually surprisingly subtle and nuanced in the way she showed them coping with their own relationships.  Even Stephen gets to find his happy ending. For me this worked, because it was a film about people, not because it was a film about books.

  14. 14
    Nancy B says:

    I enjoyed the movie but did groan at several sections. As a romance writer, who is first and foremost A WRITER, I also worried Moggan was continuing the misinformation, the same way I feel whenever someone refers to romance novels as ‘bodice rippers’. Yuck. However, I believe everyone in the audience, including the mayor of Durham, understood the difference between the recited story lines and the portrayed readers’ lives. I enjoy happy ever after endings and the Japenese couple proved it can happen!

  15. 15
    Jo Gilliver says:

    Thanks, Jennifer. That’s a great review. I’ve been tussling with my own thoughts about this documentary since I saw it at the London Film Festival late last year.

    Julie Moggan was at that screening for a Q&A, and when someone asked her how she felt about whether M&B books give women false expectations of love or whether they’re harmless entertainment, she said she was undecided.

    I felt that was a bit of a cop-out really, after she’d spent so much time with those particular people. Especially in the case of the woman whose partner was bipolar – they obviously had a deep and real love for each other.

    So I did enjoy the stories told in the documentary at the time I watched them, but had exactly the same misgivings about the director’s intentions when I gave it some more thought.

  16. 16
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  18. 18

    Well I don’t want to invade Roger’s privacy by revealing more about him, because he’s a private person.
    Just that the documentary showed him living in his caravan on his own, writing his books. The caravan is where Roger goes to write, because he needs the peace and the lack of distractions. That isn’t his only home, as the documentary made it seem. That isn’t all there is to his life. He’s far from a lonely man writing romance novels.
    So because I know more about him, it makes me wonder what other things were hidden in order for the stories to be seamless and have a point – to add to the film maker’s thesis.
    There’s a new movement, for the “fake” documentary, and for some kind of balance between pure fiction and pure non fiction. When a film maker wants to make a point, and deliberately suppresses information, so much that a false picture is set up, are we supposed to regard that as one person’s opinion only?
    Ricky Gervais’s “An Idiot Abroad” is far more amusing, but it might be more of the same. Gervais is refusing to say, but what if his “idiot” is an actor, or someone assuming a false persona? And “The Office” has that fake documentary filming technique which is brilliant, but is on the fiction side. Is this another example of the blurring of the line? “Extras” featured real actors playing a distorted version of themselves.
    We all know that film makers streamline things, and in the 1930’s and 1940’s the stars’ “biographies” could be complete fabrications, in order to support the image. Is this just a continuation of the same thing?
    I’m probably impossibly naive, but as a writer, this kind of blurring interests me. And I’m still thinking about it, so I don’t have any pat answers.

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