12:13 PM PDT 4/3/2017 by Frank Scheck
Kaori Kinoshita and Alain Della Negra's documentary/fiction hybrid examines a retreat for the members of the Raelian Church.
It’s hard to know what to make exactly of Kaori Kinoshita and Alain Della Negra’s documentary/fiction hybrid about the activities at a retreat run by the Raelian Church, a religious sect whose founder claims to have direct contact with extraterrestrials. Happiness Academy, which weaves an unnecessary fictional romantic triangle into a fly-on-the-wall look at the activities of the wacky subculture, exerts an undeniable fascination that could well drive up recruitment for the pleasure-loving cult. The film was recently given its U.S. premiere at the 2017 New Directors/New Films festival.
Resembling a New Age-style summer camp for hedonists, the Croatian retreat hosts dozens of attendees who all look really, really happy. And why shouldn’t they? They spend the bucolic summer days swimming, sunning, eating watermelon, meditating, doing yoga, and, oh yes, attending a masturbation class. The participants are a largely attractive and sexy bunch, although, admittedly, the filmmakers may simply have selected the more photogenic subjects.
The members, several of whom are seen delivering effusive testimonials to the church, follow the teachings of the elderly Claude Vorilhon, who calls himself “Rael.” Via Skype, the leader extols to his followers the virtues of “laughter, orgasm and meditation,” although he doesn’t specify in what order. The Raelians apparently also adhere to their own calendar, since some of the activities are occurring on a mid-summer night that they celebrate as New Year’s Eve. The holiday events include a cross-dressing dance party, with the attendees advised to stick to their new gender roles until at least the next day.
As you may have already deduced, sex is a key ingredient to the proceedings, although we never actually see anyone doing the deed. But we do see the attendees being given a choice of bracelets to wear, with the different colors signifying sexual preferences, including desires for a serious relationship or multiple partners. Naturally, the white bracelets indicate abstinence, although they don’t seem to be very much in demand.
The film’s weakest element is its fictional one, involving a rakish pop singer/composer (Arnaud Fleurent-Didier) and the two young women (Laure Calamy, Michele Gurtner) vying for his romantic attentions. As the three bland characters hang out in the resort’s spacious swimming pool engaging in tedious flirtatious banter, you’ll wonder why we’re supposed to care about them when we could instead be spending more time watching the masturbation seminar that at least might provide some useful tips.
Production company: Ecce Films
Directors: Kaori Kinoshita, Alain Della Negra
Screenwriters: Kaori Kinoshita, Alain Della Negra, Rose Philippon
Director of photography: Yoann de Montgrand
Editor: Nicolas Boucher
Costume designer: Francois-Louis Delfolie
Venue: New Directors/New Films