The Little Death – writer/director Josh Lawson‘s reference to the French euphemism for an orgasm – is a sex comedy that’s trying to be edgy. The last one of those I saw was Jake Kasdan‘s Sex Tape, which was such a colossal failure at both edginess and human relationships that it made me wonder if American cinema actually understands how people are fucking these days. But as ever, foreign cinema seems happy to pick up the slack, with everything from raunchy ensemble comedies like Young People Fucking to dark, fringe-straddling dalliances like Lars von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac. The Little Death has the most in common with the former film, as its script firmly sits in stylized, over-the-top Comedy World. But like the latter, it also has a vicious streak. While the writing and pace of the film had occasional issues, the acting is stellar, and the jagged edge and gleeful darkness of the film places it most closely in the realm of Todd Solondz.
The film focuses on several couples in a Sydney neighborhood, each with an odd paraphilia that is briefly defined on-screen as one of the partners reveals it. The film tosses out a red herring in the opening scene, which features Paul (Lawson) gingerly sucking on the toes of his girlfriend Maeve (Bojana Novakovic). This vanilla foot fetish quickly gives way for Maeve to reveal that her greatest fantasy is for Paul to…um…rape her. A recurring interruption in the film features a new neighbor, Steve (Kim Gyngell), dropping by some homemade golliwog cookies, before revealing to his often distracted neighbors that federal law requires him to notify them that he is a convicted sex offender. This gag is a solid reference for the film’s relationship with its most vulgar and offensive content – it teases it just enough to make the audience squirm, then either cuts to a new scene, or veers back into safer territory. But I mean that as a compliment – the film balances its tone remarkably well while dealing with these matters.
Most of the paraphilias worked nicely both narratively and as comedy routines – and each of the couples (save one) had convincing history and chemistry with one another. Kate Box is particularly strong as Rowena, the woman who discovers that she is sexually aroused by the sight of her husband (Patrick Brammal) crying – known as dacryphilia. She discovers this on the occasion of his father’s death, and spends the rest of the film trying to subtly induce him to tears again. Box is diabolical in the role, and the inner turmoil of her abusive drive toward earthquaking orgasm is spelled out on her face with each new scheme. She knows she shouldn’t be doing this, but finds justification in her previous sexual dissatisfaction. The root of comedy is often miscommunication, and for most of these couples, the miscommunication is chronic both in and out of their sex lives. The only couple speaking honestly about their innermost desires are the rape fantasists mentioned above, and even they can’t have a forthright discussion about whether or not they want to get married. This is a theme that the film visits repeatedly between the sex jokes, and in most cases, it works well.
But the most problematic story was surely that of the long-married couple of Phil and Maureen (Alan Dukes and Lisa McCune). I say problematic mainly because of how narratively uncomfortable Phil’s particular kink really was. He’s aroused by the sight of his wife soundly sleeping, which places him firmly in the same territory as Dylan Baker in Happiness, where any attempt to act on his desire would involve raping someone. But this story wasn’t problematic for making me squirm (which was surely the point), but rather because the majority of their interactions featured one of them sound asleep. So while the payoff of this sequence is suitably uncomfortable and well-acted, there wasn’t really enough credible history between these two characters to even buy them collectively as a failing marriage.
The other struggling married couple, Evie and Dan (Kate Mulvany and Damon Herriman), are an absolute delight with their over-the-top role-playing fetishism. The scenario itself starts out ridiculous and only becomes more so as the film goes on, but Mulvany and Herriman so thoroughly commit to their various roles (Doctor and Patient, Cop and Witness, etc.), as well as to their meta-roles of reluctant wife and secretly-capable-thespian husband that this scenario remains entertaining even as it strains credulity. The last couple, twenty-somethings Monica and Sam (Erin James and T.J. Power), plays out a raunchy, adorable love story that involves Skype, sign language, graphic novels, and a phone sex line. There’s nothing I can say to sell this sequence that’s not in the description above, except that both actors’ performances are outstanding (including James, who is making her acting debut in this film), and this sequence was easily the most disconnected from the rest of the film. It could’ve been lifted out as a short without affecting the other couples, all of whom seem to at least be living in the same neighborhood. But that’s a minor complaint that has more to do with the overall pacing of the film – a few of the sequences felt slightly deprived of screentime (it’s possible Phil and Maureen could’ve been punched up with a few extra minutes). But by and large, the stories work well on their own nonetheless, and Monica and Sam are surely the film at its most heartfelt and touching.
Looking back, I realize that – like a scheming birth control saboteur – I’m poking a great many holes in this film. And that’s despite enjoying nearly all of it. But a sex comedy is a rare thing, and one that features people who know how to act (and joke, and make fake whoopee) like genuine human beings is apparently even rarer. The Little Death strove for a small, proud genre that is all but dead in mainstream American cinema, even if it’s clinging to life in foreign and independent circles. And the film stands proudly on its own, even if its dick may occasionally be hanging out.
FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10