The Japanese iconoclast Sion Sono concludes his self-titled "Hate trilogy" with Guilty of Romance, a baroque murder-mystery that proceeds from the discovery of a body - or rather body parts, sewn into tailor's dummies - around Tokyo's love hotel district, and comes to centre on two women obliged to lead double lives. There's a Godardian charge to early scenes, charting a bored housewife's sideways move from supermarket sausage saleswoman, stuck in a sexless marriage that requires her merely to rearrange her writer husband's slippers after he leaves for the day, to softcore pin-up sensation, swapping one form of flesh-peddling for another, more lucrative, yet psychically damaging variety. Matters get murkier yet when our heroine falls under the spell of a bisexual poetry lecturer who spends her nights as a streetwalker, and - like some hybrid of Derrida and Heidi Fleiss - insists every word be given its true meaning, while inviting her protégée down to her chosen level.
Despite its outré plotting, Sono's international breakthrough Love Exposure was relatively restrained in its content; the trilogy has moved on through February's wildly transgressive Cold Fish to arrive at this concluding instalment, which has some of the textures and reach of latter-day Almodóvar (typified by its classical score and literary references), coupled to an enfant terrible's fascination with filming naked and rotting flesh. Sono thinks nothing of staging cackling, cacophonous, wackily lit and framed scenes in which the women are coaxed into giving up their bodies, and the viewer realises we've come a long way from Naruse and Mizoguchi, even though the themes of these directors - chiefly, the oppression of women in a patriarchal society - remain much in evidence here.
The control is just such that, even when flooding his sets for greater atmosphere or fetishistically splashing shocking-pink paint around, Sono avoids the tonal and aesthetic meltdown - the aggravating mess - of his compatriot Tetsuya Nakashima's not dissimilar 2006 drama Memories of Matsuko. Instead, he yields a fairly astonishing performance from real-life glamour model Megumi Kagurazaka, straddling the nice girl/nympho divide with a commendable lack of inhibition; re-viewing her first and final scenes, it's difficult to believe this is the same actress, and Sono is clever in engineering the character's lowest points to coincide with her most conventional acts, warping even the everyday in her gradual spiral downwards.
Granted, certain aspects are rather less successful. In the two-hour European theatrical release (cut from the 144-minute version that premiered at Cannes), the murder-mystery angle is underdeveloped, and barely appears to go anywhere, in part, one suspects, because Sono can't bring himself to consider anything as procedural and linear as a Marple or Poirot case; you may also take away from Guilty of Romance no more than a general sense that Japan is pretty fucked-up, where the more expansive Love Exposure and Cold Fish permitted comparatively complex responses.
Still, the trilogy has been completed in a tremendous burst of creative energy - we've seen all three films in the space of two years - and if nothing has quite matched the sui generis blast of its opening salvo, there's been a clear progression of sorts, and one that leaves enough thematic room for this director not to have pigeonholed himself. What is it that Sono hates, exactly - social injustice? Or the conventions of cinema? In the end, all three films are confounding in different ways, and in our current, heterogenous movie culture, I think I mean that to stand as a compliment.
Guilty of Romance opens in selected cinemas on Friday, before being released on Blu-Ray and DVD on October 31st.