Year: 2003
Director: Vincent Gallo
Writer: Vincent Gallo
Starring: Vincent Gallo, Chloë Sevigny

The Brown Bunny is a road movie about a disaffected motorcycle racer, Bud, who travels across America to a race in California where he hopes to reunite with his former girlfriend Daisy. The film features long, uninterrupted takes of Bud driving across the country, interspersed with cryptic, dysfunctional encounters with several women he meets along the way. It ends with a meltdown between the emotionally crippled Bud, and Daisy, a drug addict with a penchant for self-destruction. Bunny premiered at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, where it generated a media storm for its climactic, highly explicit fellatio scene between Gallo—who wrote, produced, directed, filmed, edited and played Bunny’s lead actor—and indie A-list actress and Oscar nominee Chloë Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry). Noted critic Roger Ebert walked out of the Cannes screening, labelling The Brown Bunny “the worst film in the history of Cannes” and opining that those who stayed till the bitter end only did so to boo.

Gallo revealed that Sevigny was his third choice for the role of Daisy and that he had earlier hired and fired both Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst. What no one has satisfactorily explained—least of all Gallo himself—is the deeper meaning of The Brown Bunny, or why three actresses of the calibre of Ryder, Dunst and Sevigny signed on for this supposedly wretched piece. The superficial plotline about Bud’s cross-country drive is as obvious as it is meaningless. The film’s onetime official website[1] described it as a love story; Rob Larsen at DrunkenFist derided it as “a road movie stuck in the wrong gear” while others dismissed it as second-rate porn. The Brown Bunny is none of these: it is a harrowing and courageous depiction of the alienation, both from society and from the self, of a man in the frigid grip of profound sexual shame.

The Brown Bunny’s opening scene establishes the film’s idiosyncratic style: shaky home cinema shots of motorcycles circling an unnamed racetrack somewhere in America. There is no dialogue to key you into the characters, no signposting voice-over, no bombastic Hollywood score to tell the viewer how they should feel about what they see; the viewer is simply subjected to a stream of images and must find their own orientation. The whole film is this way. If you like your cinema served on a silver platter—or object to graphic fellatio scenes—then The Brown Bunny is not for you.

The Brown Bunny

After the race, rendered meaningless by a lack of context (Where is Bud? What is he racing for? Where did he finish?), Bud stops to refuel his van and meets an aimless petrol pump girl (Bambi-eyed newcomer Anna Vareschi). For a man confident at piloting a two-wheeled machine at 200 miles per hour, Bud is remarkably diffident at steering a conversation about refuelling a transit van. Bud hangs his head frequently. He whispers, stumbles with his phrases, avoids eye contact. These are all symptoms of sexual shame, for reasons that will soon be explained. He convinces the girl to join his trans-American quest by the staggeringly simple means of saying “please” a couple of times but, while she is presumably stashing her baubles in a knapsack, Bud—with equal simplicity—just drives off, leaving both the girl and the audience in limbo.

Long driving scenes follow until Bud stops at a dilapidated clapboard house. It feels like Ohio but it could be Timbuktu. It’s immaterial. In a well-written script every element of a film is supposed to matter. In The Brown Bunny a good many things don’t matter; that is exactly the point of them. Inside the clapboard house, Daisy’s mother doesn’t remember Bud, who apparently grew up next door. Nor would she: sexual shame renders its victims invisible; people with significant shame often have a curiously self-erasing quality. Daisy’s mother has not heard from her daughter in a while. From the mother’s zombie stare we can understand why Daisy might not spend her evenings Skyping home. In fact this is a portent of a much darker truth, a portent delivered in a singularly offhand manner that only comes back to jar our memories as the final reel—and with it Bud’s zipper—unwinds.

More driving follows until Bud stops to buy a Coke from a vending machine. On his way to the machine he passes a woman, played by former Saturday Night Live presenter Cheryl Tiegs. In the film’s most poignant and elegiac scene, enhanced by its total lack of dialogue, Bud and the woman attempt to strike a relationship. The craving for human touch, particularly from Tiegs, is palpable.

The Brown Bunny

But the shame of the implicit sexual dimension is too much for Bud; he can’t relate to a woman anywhere near his own age without becoming aware of—and being disgusted by—his own unexpressed sexual urges. Bud knows, deep down, that the sole purpose of him relating to her in any way whatsoever is so that he can fuck her. He can hide this truth from the world but not from himself: hence his sudden flight when the petrol pump attendant accepted his offer of a ride. Bud wrenches himself away, forbidden from allowing himself the solace of human touch by the nausea that wells like vomit in his stomach. While it took Brandon’s gender identity crisis to trigger John Lotter and Tom Nissen’s shame in Boys Don’t Cry, the simple act of approaching a woman—knowing that his implicit goal is sex—shames Bud into withdrawal. Bud’s constant sense of having to retreat to conceal his shameful sexuality distances him from the outside world. This estrangement from reality is an outward symptom of sexual alienation.

Definition: Sexual alienation

Alienation: “cause to feel isolated.” (Compact OED) Sexual alienation is the state of feeling emotionally remote from both others and oneself caused by the sexual aspect of one’s psyche being rejected due to shame.

Back to the van… More driving. The shots are unflattering. Long, static takes through the van’s bug-smeared windshield. Evening rain. Driving into a city. Taillights dissolve into a blur. At times The Brown Bunny rises above its deliberately crude construction to become the most truthful of trans-American road movies. It’s hard to know whom to credit.

The Brown Bunny

Bud stops at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He unloads his motorcycle, bump-starts it and disappears into the shimmering haze in a long, wide take that’s as painful on the eyes as the sun reflecting off the adamantine crust of the flats. It’s another meaningless moment that somehow adds gravity to a film intent on capturing emptiness. Bud’s next stop is Las Vegas, where he talks to a prostitute on the pretext that he likes her necklace. Unlike the Tiegs scene, the moment is unconvincing. For once Gallo’s touch for making the meaningless feel meaningful through its meaninglessness goes astray.

Leaving Las Vegas, Gallo’s story, and Bud with it, is on the home straight. Bud stops at Daisy’s house, bangs on the fly-screen door for a pedantically long time—everything he does is wrung out beyond its natural lifespan; people with shame have difficulty accepting reality—and leaves a note for her. Bud checks into a motel in LA. He phones reception, tells them he’s expecting a girl called Daisy and can they please send her up? And then Daisy appears in Bud’s room. The suddenness of her arrival is a clue, but in the moment it too gets missed. Bud sits hunched on the bed, not even raising his head for the woman for whom he has crossed America. Daisy clings to her shoulder bag. Their conversation is awkward, tangential, defeated. It’s also barely audible. The viewer strains to assemble their relationship from these fragments, like scholars piecing together the Dead Sea scrolls. Bud and Daisy may as well be shouting at the top of their lungs in Aramaic. It doesn’t matter; their body language says it all. Gallo is back on solid ground.

Slowly it emerges that the viewer is watching two children in adults’ bodies coming to grips with difficult emotions. “Do you like me, Bud?” Like Dorothy in Blue Velvet, Daisy uses the word ‘like’ in a childish way to describe sexual attraction. “Yes, I like you. I like you best of all.” The adult word ‘love’, complete with slippery sexual ramifications, has not entered their lexicon. Bud’s efforts at reaching Daisy are pathetic, a teenager fumbling with his first bra hook.

The Brown Bunny

Then the controversial fellatio scene unfolds—as does Bud’s manhood, prosthetic or otherwise. Chloë Sevigny avers the scene wasn’t faked; others disagree. No one is willing to perform the necessary comparisons and anyway, once again it doesn’t really matter. The sex scene begins in the same frank manner it will end. Bud pulls down Daisy’s bra. As he fondles her breasts the bra remains girdled around her midriff, an ugly reminder of society’s fundamental antipathy to the naked body. Daisy’s attention turns to the tumescent bulge in Bud’s trousers. The rest you will have to watch for yourselves; as she demonstrated in Kids and Boys Don’t Cry, Sevigny has no fear of sexually charged material.

The Brown Bunny turns on the moment that the fellatio scene climaxes. Until this point the entire film has been about Bud’s quest—which is fundamentally a sexual one—to reunite with Daisy. Bud has now seemingly achieved his desire: he has reached Daisy and she has drawn his sex, sucked the poison from the wound. And at this moment, just like Frank Booth after his premature climax in Blue Velvet, Bud’s sexual shame recoils and lashes out from the darkest, most painful place in his psyche. He turns his back on Daisy, retreats into his shell and echoes Sister Bridget in The Magdalene Sisters: “You’re a whore. You’re a fucking whore. I hate you.” Bud doesn’t know love but he does know hate. Oh yes, because—as we saw with both Dorothy Vallens and Frank Booth—he loathes himself every moment of every day. Especially now, when Daisy has given him what he most wants but which, like both Dorothy and Caroline in The Comfort of Strangers, he believes it is wrong for him to have. It’s a brilliant portrayal of the double-edged blade of sexual shame.

Like all artists seeking to depict sexual shame, regardless of the medium, Gallo is an artist working without a language. He doesn’t seem to know the term or fully understand the devastating effectiveness of its Swiss watch mechanism. All he knows is what he intuits of Bud’s behaviour, how the crushing darkness at the heart of Bud’s psyche manifests in his world. This much is clear from an interview with Rebecca Murray for About Entertainment where an increasingly irate Gallo rails against the incessant question of why the graphic fellatio scene was necessary: “I don’t need the sex scene in the film, because I didn’t need to make the film. But that film includes the sex scene. It’s not a separate part. It’s not a choice.” Gallo doesn’t seem to know—in the conscious, intellectual sense—why the fellatio scene is integral to The Brown Bunny. He knows it at an intuitive, unconscious level. Gallo must also have known that the fellatio scene would be the focus of media interest, and negative interest at that. Yet he went with it. He knew he was saying something important, even though he couldn’t articulate it to the prudish hacks that savaged his film. In the wake of its theatrical release, many shortcomings have been posited for The Brown Bunny. A lack of emotional courage by its creator is not among them.

The Brown Bunny

Following the fellatio scene, the revelations come thick and fast. Shots of Bud and Daisy curled together on the bed of his blindingly bright motel room, its walls of suffocating pastel, are intercut with grainy flashbacks. Daisy was carrying Bud’s child. She got drunk and stoned at a party. Bud stumbled upon Daisy, naked and incoherent, men queuing to take advantage.

Bud fled. Shame prevented him from accessing his love, his compassion and his courage. Instead he saw only the whore in Daisy and the whore in himself for having been where Daisy’s abusers so casually inserted themselves. Bud fled into the humid Los Angeles night, returning to the party only to find an ambulance outside, its lights bathing Daisy’s inert body on a gurney. “I died,” Daisy whispers as the ambulance drives away, “I threw up and I choked and I died.” Then it’s back to the motel. Only this time Bud is alone, wrestling with the mass of mixed emotions, from love to loss to cowardice to shame to self-disgust, arising from his sexual entanglement with Daisy and her subsequent death.

The Brown Bunny closes the next day with shots of Bud driving out to the racetrack. As originally intended, the film was to end with Bud committing suicide while leading the race. But Bunny was submitted to Cannes in unfinished form; its acceptance forced Gallo to abandon the complex racing crash scene and resulted in a simple, abstract epilogue. It’s an ambiguous ending that leaves the viewer to determine Bud’s fate. Though the film climaxes in California, it’s unlikely that many viewers will imagine a Hollywood ending.

Following its savaging at Cannes, Gallo cut Bunny from a ponderous 118 minutes to the DVD’s 89-minute version. It’s too deliberately idiosyncratic to be a great film, but as a stark depiction of the misery of sexual shame it has few equals. As our understanding of shame grows and our language around it develops, Vincent Gallo’s film will be recognised as a pioneering work. The Brown Bunny is a film whose stock will rise in time.

As our understanding of shame grows and our language around it develops, Vincent Gallo’s film will be recognised as a pioneering work. The Brown Bunny is a film whose stock will rise in time.

Ultimately, The Brown Bunny is a portrait of the drudgery that characterises sexual alienation. If its 89 minutes feel like an ordeal, spare a thought for Bud himself: his entire life is like this. He has no friends, no family and no surname (though a cruel wit might suggest one). He spends his life crisscrossing America in an unmarked van, occasionally donning a face-concealing crash helmet to pointlessly circle a racetrack, an anonymous also-ran on whom the spotlight never falls. Bud pursues sex only to shun it when it comes within reach. Although invisible to him, the push-pull mechanics of sexual shame totally shape his life. And this is the crux of The Brown Bunny: there are millions of people like Bud out there, with poor emotional cohesion and correspondingly low social skills, leading dead-end lives because of their overwhelming sexual shame. They too are trapped in Sexcatraz; only a paradigm shift to a society that no longer judges sex as fundamentally shameful can set them free.

This notion of sex as inherently negative comes into greater clarity in the next film, which features one of the most remarkable protagonists ever committed to celluloid.

Next: The Piano Teacher


[1] is no longer retrievable.

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