The Idol Pretends to Expose Exploitation While Reveling in It

6 minute read

The Cannes Film Festival loves a good scandale, and it got a mini one on Friday night when festival director Thierry Frémaux was caught, via a bystander’s cell phone, pitching a “Do you know who I am?”-style fit when a municipal police officer reprimanded him for riding his electric bicycle on the sidewalk. With outre hilarity like that, who needs Sam Levinson’s The Idol? But the festival must go on. And so a two-episode chunk of Levinson’s designed-to-shock television series premiered in Cannes on Monday evening.

The Idol stars Lily-Rose Depp as Jocelyn, a Britney Spears-style pop star who’s just climbing back into the spotlight after being sidelined by a breakdown, occasioned by the death of her mother. We see her, made up so heavily her skin looks like latex, twisting and turning as she’s snapped by an unseen photographer, her red silk robe taped artfully to her skin to prevent any unbidden flash of nip. That artificial coyness lasts about half a minute. She wants to show her breasts, and so she does, causing a nervous underling to protest that the photographing of nipples is prohibited by the nudity rider in her contract. “Side boob, under boob and side flank” are all allowed, but full-on nipples? No way.

Depp and Tesfaye in the controversial new HBO seriesCourtesy of HBO

Read more: How HBO’s The Idol Became One of TV’s Most Controversial Shows—Before It Even Aired

Yet Jocelyn—generally referred to as Joss—is modern and free and reckless in a just-sprung-from-jail way. She has full autonomy over her life and body. She can do what she wants. This is just the beginning of the many, many nipples to be seen in the first few hours of The Idol. Later, there’ll be some tastefully shot masturbation accompanied by mild autoasphyxiation, as well as yet more tastefully shot sex that involves a swath of floaty red silk, more mild asphyxiation, and a penknife. There’s also a bit of a kerfuffle among Joss’s team (a group of hovering mother hens played by Hank Azaria, Rachel Sennott, Troye Sivan and Da’vine Joy Randolph) when a picture of Joss goes viral. Her face is glazed with a slick translucent whitish substance that’s probably not snail mucin.

Not since early 1980s cable TV has there been such a parade of decorous yet sleazy debauchery, though it’s all presented with a kind of shockeroo enlightened knowingness that pretends to expose exploitation even while reveling in it. Meanwhile, the head of Joss’s record label—Jane Adams in an artfully torn T-shirt worn under an expensively baggy suit—keeps a tight rein on her star’s narrative. “Mental illness is sexy!” she declares with deadpan authority.

Levinson is the mastermind behind Euphoria, a show I confess I’ve never seen (though I tried, without success, to access a few episodes here in France). I have seen Levinson’s mildly stylish but ultimately empty black-and-white two-hander Malcolm & Marie, starring a pouty Zendaya—it seemed OK at the time, though I instantly forgot it. The Idol, created by Levinson and Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, who also co-stars in the series, has been plagued by bad press and bad juju for several years now. Amy Seimetz (She Dies Tomorrow) was originally signed on to direct; she had nearly finished the project when her work was scrapped and the production was taken over by Levinson, who reportedly shifted the show’s pitch and tone. There were reports of chaos and delays on the set, though who ever knows exactly what that means?

The proof will be right there in The Idol when the general public gets to see it. For now, know that Tesfaye plays a seriously bad-news manipulator known as Tedros Tedros, a name so not-nice you’ve got to say it twice. Supposedly, he’s from Hawaii, but not really. And supposedly, he’s extremely charismatic, but not really. He meets the emotionally fragile yet super-hot and ultra-famous Joss when she shows up at the club he runs. He seduces her, somehow, with his obvious yuckiness. (Joss’ assistant and best friend, played by Sennott, gets it right when she says, “He’s so rapey!”) Before long, Tedros Tedros is wrapping Joss’ face in silk and squeezing her neck just hard enough as they have rough sex. Ah, the perils of fame! Levinson and Tesfaye lay it all out in this almost Biblical cautionary tale that is absolutely, without a doubt—I mean, seriously now—not about titillating its audience.

Depp as a Britney Spears-like pop starCourtesy of HBO

Read more: Why Aren’t Movies Sexy Anymore?

As Joss, Depp—the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis—brings some tentative gravity to all the sordidness. Hari Nef shows up as a wily Vanity Fair journalist—The Idol appears to have no clue that most celebrity journalists are just awkward schmoes at heart, so watching Nef narrow her eyes and purse her lips judgmentally is kind of fun. Animal lovers should note that there is one brief shot of an adorable-looking poodle mix that we can only surmise lives with Joss in her giant, empty Los Angeles house. Nothing happens to him in the first two episodes, but beyond that, consider yourself forewarned.

Mostly, though, it seems really bad things are going to happen to people in The Idol. In olden times, like the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, we used to live for nudity in the movies. That’s not to say that actors weren’t sometimes, or often, manipulated or abused in the making of these pictures, a miserable side note that we’ve become more aware of in recent years. But from a viewers’ perspective, there was often something freeing and exciting about on-screen nudity. In the 1980s I worked for a company that published listings for cable TV companies. For a time, it was my job to write up little summaries of the movies coming up, which also included viewer “warnings” about nudity and sexual content. Every so often, we’d get a creakily handwritten note from one particular cable subscriber somewhere out there in America. We came to know him by name: I’ll call him Orville Snoor. Orville wouldn’t complain about the nudity and sex in the films. He would complain only when he believed we’d promised him sex and nudity that a movie failed to deliver. I doubt Orville is still alive today, but if he were, I’m sure he’d be shocked and appalled by The Idol’s pseudo-transgressiveness. I’m also sure he’d have his eyeballs glued to the television set. Levinson knows exactly what he’s doing, and how much you want to indulge your inner Orville is up to you.

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