Wobble Palace, premiering at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, is one of the most uncomfortable films I’ve ever sat through, an examination of a toxic relationship between two people who seem to be in direct competition to prove which one of them is the most repulsive character in this 86-minute offering from director Eugene Kotlyarenko, who also stars in the film. There’s nothing remotely likable about either protagonist, and very little entertainment to be found in watching them behave like terrible people. But perhaps that’s the point?
Set against the upcoming 2016 election, an event that is frequently referenced but seems to have no bearing whatsoever on the narrative, the film opens with an iPhone screen and several years of text message history, during which we learn the background of the romance between Eugene (Kotylarenko) and Jane (Dasha Nekrasova, who co-wrote the script), culminating in their decision to split up their house for the weekend: Eugene will have the place to himself on Saturday, and Jane will take over on Sunday.
Immediately upon waking, Eugene logs onto Tinder and sets about trying to get laid. The morning’s first rendezvous seems to be on the right track when his date pulls out a camera and goads him into an X-rated photo shoot, but her plans for the pics turn out to be quite different than what Eugene had in mind. Another encounter is cut short when the professional dominatrix he’s sharing a drink with leaves to get ready for her next client. A third possibility goes up in flames when Eugene takes umbrage with the length of time between messages, and goes into the sort of full-fledged meltdown that often scares women away from dating websites altogether.
Throughout each of these events, Eugene – hair done up in a ridiculous front bun to hide a receding hairline – proves himself woefully inept at conversation, let alone flirtation. He rambles incessantly about himself while sharing nothing of substance, makes little effort to actually engage with anyone beyond the surface level, and then grows frustrated when he can’t maneuver girls into the sack. His sense of entitlement would be amusing if it didn’t echo the very real attitude of men who believe that sexual relations are “owed” to them – he’s the kind of guy who likely would have hung around on the “involuntarily celibate” subreddit, spewing vile epithets about every woman that refused to sleep with him.
Meanwhile, Jane has been hooking up with an arrogant tech entrepreneur named Ravi (Vishwam Velandy), but the excitement of the new fling quickly begins wearing thin as she actually start getting to know him. He may be handsome, but his social and political views are in direct odds with her own, and his attitude toward women isn’t all that far removed from Eugene’s. Not that Jane is much of a saint: when she arrives home on Sunday morning, she finds Eugene in a state that should be a giant neon warning sign for someone in the throes of depression, bur rather than check on him or express anything resembling concern, she demands that he leave the house so she can have the place to herself.
That Eugene and Jane are terrible for each other and have no business being in a relationship together is evident from the early moments of the film, and waiting for them to both come to this realization is an excruciating exercise. Wobble Palace is billed as a satire of millennial romance, but nothing about it feels particularly satirical – it just feels like we’re spinning our wheels, watching two awful people do awful things in an effort to out-asshole each other. If the goal of the filmmakers was to create an upsetting and uncomfortable experience, then mission accomplished – but if there’s a message to be communicated through all this, it doesn’t come through.