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‘I Love You, Daddy’ Is About Louis C.K.’s Shame—and His Shamelessness

In his now-scrapped film, the disgraced comedian once again wields his art as a means of confession. But what appears to be fearless artistry is in fact an exceptional act of manipulation.

The Orchard/Ringer illustration

The awards screener for Louis C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy is a strange artifact—beginning with the fact that it’s already, within a few days of its mailing, an artifact. On Friday it was announced that the movie will no longer be released in the wake of a report in The New York Times alleging that Louis C.K. forced multiple women to watch or listen to him masturbating in hotel rooms, his office, and over the phone. (Louis C.K. has since admitted to the accusations.) I received the I Love You, Daddy screener in the mail on Saturday. It was postmarked Wednesday, November 8—the day before The Orchard, the movie’s distributor, announced the cancellation of the New York premiere, tipping us all off that the other shoe was about to drop. The stamps on the package must still have been wet when that decision came down: That’s how close Louis C.K. came to releasing this magazine-cutout, mailed-in confession of a movie into the world. The screener may as well be a time capsule that just completed an orbit through outer space. “For Your Consideration,” the packaging reads. “Best Original Screenplay: Vernon Chatman and Louis C.K.” “Best Actor in a Comedy: Louis C.K.” “Best Director: Louis C.K.” Somebody had high hopes for this movie.

That’s hard to imagine or make sense of now. Truly, though, it was difficult to understand in the first place. I first saw the movie in October. Even then, the movie felt like a bitterly ironic admission of guilt, a stupidly bold flirtation with his own impending exposure. Rumors about Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct have, after all, been swirling for years, just as knowledge of the misbehavior of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, and other Hollywood men recently accused of sexual assault and harassment had quietly crept beyond the industry and into the public over the years.

What’s different about Louis C.K. is that his art has, from the start, been premised on confession. And there is no such thing as a confession without a witness. Therein lies the paradox. We didn’t need a sexual misconduct scandal to teach us that shame is the essence of his comedy. But the scandal did teach us, for once and for all, that Louis C.K. wanted his shame to be our own. I Love You, Daddy was to be a case in point. But all roads in the film—all wrongs—seem to lead back to the rumors about the man at the movie’s center. Its implicit subject is unavoidably Louis C.K.’s no-longer-secret shame. Its very existence serves as infuriating evidence of something else, too: his shamelessness. In the movie, an actor (played by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day) manically mimes jerking himself off to completion at the thought of a beautiful woman—a woman, it should be said, that Louis C.K.’s character winds up dating. As has now been frequently recounted, the movie stars Louis C.K. as a successful TV writer whose 17-year-old daughter becomes involved with an older filmmaker, a 68-year-old man who, besides being the TV writer’s hero, is an alleged child predator. It’s a character obviously based on Woody Allen, whose own widely loved movie about a relationship between a teenage girl and an older man—1979’s Manhattan—functions as Louis C.K.’s central cinematic point of reference. Like Manhattan, I Love You, Daddy is a New York tale filmed in black and white, rich with monied neuroticism and other stylistic riffs on the Allen Extended Universe.

The movie nods to Woody Allen because it knows what we know: Allen is living proof that alleged Hollywood predators have been allowed to persist. And it knew from the start that some of us would grumble, despite Louis C.K.’s previous denials, that the same applies to the comedian. These are the kinds of knots, the kinds of traps, Louis C.K. has set out for us. The movie plays out like it wants us to be grossed out and intrigued by the connection: It wants us to acknowledge this as an artistic risk. The movie is full of gross-out touches—a Louis C.K. standby—to that effect. We’re meant to be suspiciously repulsed by how often the TV writer’s bikini-clad daughter (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) says “I love you, Daddy” to get what she wants; we’re meant to raise an eyebrow at both the daughter, whose privileged feminism comes off as deliberately naive, and the actress the TV writer dates (played by Rose Byrne), who defends the daughter dating the older director because, once, so did she. Not all the women feel the same way, of course; we’re meant to notice that, too. Because of Louis C.K.’s deft ability to twist comedy into ethical knots, wielding his platform to intelligently push back against his audience’s social presumptions, we’ve tended to give his artistic intentions a lot of credit. We’ve tended to give him credit for being smart—and to give his smarts credit for having good will.

Perhaps, for the comedian’s fans, this sense of having been duped is what lingers most. It’s as if, by laying Louis C.K.’s secrets bare just as he planned to release this movie, we’ve only given him what, according to the movie, he was secretly demanding of us: that we acknowledge his sins. That we participate in his shame. Once again, he’s wielded his art as a means of confession. And once again—even without the release of his movie—he has recruited the rest of us to bear witness.

That Louis C.K. was able to finance I Love You, Daddy on his own proves that our willingness to go along with it has gotten him far. It’s all incredibly malicious. The risk—and the joy—of art is that it implicates us in the lives of others. The lesson of I Love You, Daddy, and apparently so much of Louis C.K.’s art, is that this vulnerability can be used against us. What appears to be fearless artistry is, in Louis C.K.’s case, an exceptional act of manipulation. This is why “I never liked him, anyway” remains one of the more annoying responses to these revelations, but especially here. It’s a posture that inadvertently reveals why we want it to be so easy to wipe our hands clean. We want to believe that artists cannot do this to us. We want to imagine that we’d be able to discern which ones will.

Louis C.K.’s comedy is as much about us as it is about him. I Love You, Daddy was only further proof of that. In his art, as apparently in his life, he got off on making us watch—and for too long we, susceptible voyeurs, were only too happy to indulge him. It’s an instructive example of the risks of making soul-baring, personal art: You muddy its witnesses. It’s a lesson many of us were much happier not to have learned.