The Little Death
Sex has always been part of the movies, and lately we’ve seen more and more exploration of the wide landscape of human sexual behavior on the screen. Unfortunately, most movies that directly address sexual subject matter are pretty awful, as we saw earlier this year in Fifty Shades of Grey. But in The Little Death, Australian writer/director Josh Lawson trades in cheap romance-novel prose for something more like children giggling over those “purity tests” that were forwarded around high schools and colleges back in the early days of the internet. It’s no less awful, but at least the cast resemble actual human beings more than anatomically-correct cardboard cutouts.
In order to tackle a wider variety of kink, the movie follows five couples in Sydney, each dealing with some fantasy or another. Paul and Maeve (Lawson and Bojana Novakovic) start off the opening scene with Maeve’s toes in Paul’s mouth. Foot fetish? well yes, but it’s only once we cut to their afterglow that Maeve wants Paul to “rape” her. And instead of having an actual discussion about what exactly that means to her, possibly leading up to a farcical treatment like the one in Choke — a movie involving kinky sex that was actually funny — Paul shuts the discussion down only to try to fulfill it later in about the dumbest way possible.
Maybe Lawson just regards anything that requires more than a few seconds of discussion as categorically unsexy. When Evie and Dan (Kate Mulvany and Damon Herriman) take a marriage counselor’s suggestion to try roleplay to spice up their sex lives, Dan gets really into the acting. He takes acting classes and sets up ever more elaborate scenes and costumes and staging until Evie just can’t take any more of it.
Simpler fetishes — though still unusual — also make their disastrous appearances. Rowena (Kate Box) finds that she gets turned on seeing her husband, Richard (Patrick Brammall), cry. It happens first after his father’s funeral, but soon she’s faking cancer and even a dognapping to get her fix.
Meanwhile Phil (Alan Dukes) gets off on seeing his wife, Maureen (Lisa McCune), asleep, and he gets hold of some powerful sleeping pills to knock her out every night. Of course, unlike the situation with Paul and Maeve this is an actual rape, and yet it’s played off totally for laughs about poor schlubby Phil and his frigid wife who’s really (not really) to blame in the first place.
It’s not like Lawson doesn’t realize that sex crimes are a thing. The totally extraneous running thread between these stories is Steve (Kim Gyngell), who goes door to door with homemade cookies to break the ice before announcing himself as a registered sex offender. On the other hand, we never do find out just what Steve’s crime was, because what does it matter? sex crimes are all just a big joke anyway, right? Oh, and those cookies are painted up as gollywogs, which may not be quite so outrageously offensive in Australia as they are here in America, but for the purposes of an international release still comes off as remarkably tone deaf. There’s not even a purpose for it besides a bad joke when Dan answers Steve’s knock while wearing a Confederate army uniform.
Which leaves as almost an afterthought — much as they are in the movie — Monica and Sam (Erin James and T.J. Power). There’s not even a fetish here; Monica works at a video relay service where deaf people like Sam skype in and sign for her to translate to a regular telephone line. The twist here is that Sam wants to call a phone sex line, which I’d be surprised if an actual VRS allowed. Still, it’s the closest thing the movie offers to a funny, if short, story.
None of the other four stories really get the time they need to breathe. No couple really talks to each other about what they want — Lawson doesn’t think talking is sexy or funny, I guess — and everyone who tries to get what they want ends in ridicule and failure. Because, ha ha, people whose desires aren’t perfectly “normal” are ridiculous and don’t deserve happy endings. Never mind that open and honest conversation could solve each and every one of these “problems” and make literally everyone in the movie happier in the long run.
But The Little Death is relentlessly mean-spirited. It’s not invested in any happiness but the cheap laughter of the comfortable majority, and not interested in coming to any real understanding of the people it mocks. There will be plenty of movies that will deal honestly and respectfully with the disparate expressions of human sexuality, but this movie is not one of them.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.