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And the passive way that his victims soak it into their skin

It’s also a movie that reckons — perhaps regretfully — with the fine line between performing trauma and enacting trauma, and how the mania of artistic creation can accommodate any number of sins. “The Forest of Love” is too deranged and un-didactic to cohere into a clear statement on this (or any other) subject, but it’s hard to shake the casually dehumanizing nature of Joe’s desire, and the passive way that his victims soak it into their skin. At times it feels like the relationship between an artist and their audience. Or, as we see in the memorable scene where Joe reinvents himself as a beloved pop star who assaults his band members, the relationship between an uncompromising artist and their collaborators.

Is that enough to make “The Forest of Love” into some kind of warped apologia? It’s hard to say, especially once the movie is renovated into a grind-house of mirrors. Mitsuko and Taeko, we learn early on, were castmates in their high school’s lesbian production of “Romeo & Juliet” (an idea that prompts a typically direct line of Sono dialogue, when one of the characters declares: “This is a girl’s school — let’s fall in love with girls!”). The show, however, ended in tragedy even before it began, as the girls all got high on hazardous material they stole from their chemistry class, stood on the edge of the school’s roof, and decided to play a fun game of “last one to plummet into the parking lot wins.”

But Sono isn’t done blurring the line between art and agony. Enter: Shin (Mitsushima Shinnosuke), a bright-eyed dweeb who’s built like Adam Driver. When a pair of wannabe filmmakers discover Shin busking on the streets of Tokyo, they invite him to join their DIY collective. The boys have the scrappy energy that Sono himself has relied on for the last 30 years, they just lack his genius for generating story ideas. That is, until they meet Joe Murata, conclude that he must be the serial killer everyone’s talking about, and decide to make a micro-budget movie about his supposed exploits.

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