Donning and Doffing Masks with Honey


Honey (1999) lays bare the ineffability of human contact. This harrowing account of fading love digs fearlessly into its characters lives. But with the burrowing the mysteries, that are their motivations, grows larger.

Almost as big a mystery is the neglect of Honey. Creator David Ball put his only film on the Internet Archive for free following years of festival rejections. After the production, he published a novel and went on to an office career. Perhaps Honey is a forgotten treasure because it feels as impenetrable as its characters. The ineffability permeates throughout the nauseatingly repetitive dialogue of one of the two couples in the film whose argument has its ups, downs and parries before the man, at his wit’s end, admits to the organisation of a surprise birthday party for the other. The narrative pivots around that night of festivity, but not before introducing two couples that don’t seem to be in love anymore yet are afraid to end their relationships. So they plod on, trying to salvage that which feels doomed.

From the get-go motivations are ever shifting in Honey with an intimate opening scene of one couple role-playing in a seedy motel. Ball wittily reveals their play-acting after the fact. Sociologist Erving Goffman studied social interaction within the framework of dramaturgical analysis, where every gesture or utterance is a sign communicating information to the other. The two couples feel like a personification of that idea.

Because as cramped as the spaces are, the camera roams freely from one to the other and back in a style reminiscent of the ever probing actor-director John Cassavetes. And just as in his Faces, it’s as if every character continuously puts on an act without there ever being a break from the stage play called life. Ball adds to that Cassavetes-like intensity with frequent jump cuts. It jars the already palpably nervous interactions even more.

The perspectives clash endlessly without a singular truth emerging from their interaction. Life is like a contest with unwritten rules, but the win condition is missing. It’s at times suffocating when the men make drunk fools of themselves during the surprise party or the women try to cut through the tomfoolery with more of the same. They all might be fooling themselves by staying in their failing relationships, but the question arises, as elaborated upon in Balls accompanying manifesto, whether the characters’ realisation of failure is just a new lie.

Oscar Wilde quipped that a person will tell you the truth if you give them a mask. Just so in Honey it’s not even a question of donning or doffing masks as if an actual self lies underneath. Rather the masks have been internalised, and which mask is used in particular is the unknown variable. Such opaqueness of motivations reminds one of director Mike Leigh (Abigail’s Party, Life Is Sweet), whose films also hinge on the clash of perspectives. Honey treads uncomfortable waters just as eagerly but without Leigh’s penchant for caricature. There is a raw honesty to the characters’ phoniness that confronts, a stark reminder that everybody wears masks.

Film critic Manny Farber once made the distinction between white elephant and termite art. The former wears its artistic meaning on its sleeve, like in a highly symbolic arthouse movie marketed to a sophisticated public. Termite art on the other hand diligently sticks to one particular moment, working hard to share that moment’s significance through the cinematic experience. Honey’s obsessive digging wonderfully illustrates what Farber was talking about. The film burrows deep into its characters’ lives, unearthing new questions for every surprise it finds along the way without proclaiming its meaning.

This Essay article was published in July 2020