The title and premise of the new Spanish film 21 Positions (21 Paradise) may sound like it was made to titillate: the “positions” allude to a variety of sexual maneuvers performed for the camera by its protagonists, young lovers who have learned how to monetize their erotic activity by sharing their explicit videos online. But 21 Positions is more about provoking thought than arousal; it’s nothing so much as an arthouse exploration of the ways in which social media (and online amateur pornography specifically) blurs the boundaries between the personal and the public in ways that can discomfort and disrupt.
The young couple, Julia (Maria Lazaro) and Mateo (Fernando Barona), are shown first in the throes of passion, climaxing in extreme close-up in the intimacy of their idyllic bedroom. Above them, on a giant poster above their bed, hovers a telling image of what is perhaps cinema’s most romantic embrace—Sgt. Walden and Karen Holmes’ passionate, adulterous kiss on the beach in From Here to Eternity. This scene is the first of “21 Positions” that comprise the film’s titular and literal narrative (it consists of these 21 moments and nothing more). Yet like in From Here to Eternity, the lovemaking is a performance, as staged as Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s on location. Julia and Mateo are recording for OnlyFans.
There, Julia and Mateo seem to have found their niche. Together, they plan and choreograph their explicit lovemaking videos, tweaking their content to appease their online fanbase who ask in their comments for certain (ahem) shots. Julia in particular becomes especially recognizable and popular for her flaming red hair, and Mateo’s no slouch, either in front of the camera or behind it as the de facto director and cinematographer. As it goes, the more hits and subscribers, the greater the paycheck. The money is a welcome relief as the two work also to support Julia’s aging father’s smallholding on the coast of Cádiz, which can barely provide for the three of them.
All is well, except that Mateo and Julia have very different conceptions of what exactly it is that they are doing with their online performances. To Julia, the two of them are sharing a romantic intimacy with a fanbase invested in their relationship, a form of artistic expression blurring the boundaries between public and private, their lovemaking a daring and explicit moment of ardor shared with an invested fanbase. To Mateo, it’s porn. Good, profitable, safe, pleasant porn, but porn nonetheless: sex work for money.
As one might imagine, that small fissure widens to a gaping maw as other complications develop. Julia’s other ambitions—she wants to go to school and plan for a porn-free future—distract her from their scheduled performances; Mateo takes her newfound reluctance to perform on camera for a lack of passion for him (and, not incidentally, a plug in the cash-flow auger). Julia is clearly anguished by their situation, Mateo frustrated by it: he would seem like an uncaring jerk were it not for a beautifully composed song he performs on guitar for her, moving her to tears, as the images onscreen segue to a happier moment in their relationship.
Though Matteo’s singing for Julia feels more loving and authentic than any performance the two ever record for the camera, it’s not going to solve their financial problems. The scene is one of many excellent extemporaneous ones in the film, and it, like many others, feels intensely organic and natural. Writer-director Néstor Ruiz Medina and leads (and credited co-writers) Barona and Lazaro work from just 10 pages of script to flesh out (no pun intended) their characters’ relationship through the 21 scenes of the film.
Each of those scenes is named for and introduced with a nondiegetic title card of a single hand drawing on chalkboard à la Cocteau. Each scene’s title may or may not relate explicitly to the action that unfolds, but Barona and Lazaro work out their characters’ conflicts with a completely convincing improvisation, often enough fully naked, literally as well as emotionally. Ruiz Medina and D.P. Marino Pardo let the camera roll, favoring long takes that echo the lovers’ quarrels in Godard’s A Bout de souffle or Le Mépris. The earthy, naturalistic conviction with which the actors convey their doubts and desires calls to mind middle-period Bergman, a pared-down Scenes from a Marriage for an OnlyFans generation.
21 Positions may foreground its sexual explicitness, but it’s not a film that exists to titillate. In other words, the film is not the pornography it depicts. Above all, 21 Positions examines the tiny fissures in a relationship where goals and ideals come into conflict. When we partner with another, we find ourselves in a continual process of romantic (and in this and many cases, also professional and familial) negotiation over expectations and ambitions, courtesies and affronteries, gentle touches and wounding words. That Mateo and Julia perform sex on camera is only a part of the complicated terrain of a romance—no matter where, when, or how it takes place.
Directed by Néstor Ruiz Medina, written by Fernando Barona, Maria Lazaro, and Ruiz Medina, 21 Positions (21 Paradise) premiers on streaming and VOD December 29, 2023. In Spanish with English subtitles, 98 minutes.