Monday, October 15, 2007

Monday Movie Review: Shortbus

Shortbus (2006) 10/10
Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), Severin (Lindsay Beamish), James (Paul Dawson), Jamie (PJ DeBoy), and their friends and lovers struggle to find pleasure, love, and connection in New York City. Written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell.

Let's start by acknowledging that this is a sexually explicit movie. As in, very. The opening sequence makes that abundantly clear, so that anyone uncomfortable with the sight of penetration, domination, and masturbation is going to turn the movie off in the first few minutes. The movie doesn't simply include sex; sex is its primary metaphor for communicating about its characters, and the main setting is the private sex club that gives the movie its title.

Sofia is a sex therapist ("I prefer the term 'couples counselor'"), the fact of which is the movie's greatest weakness. Sofia is "pre-orgasmic;" despite an active and athletic sex life, she has never had an orgasm, and she is lying to her husband about it. Her story is poignant, and indeed, forms the centerpiece of the movie. But I absolutely despise movies that give people professions as a prop, or a placeholder, or as ironic commentary. There is simply no way that Sofia is a sex therapist. It's not just that she's bad, and inappropriate, it's that she seems to have no education about sex at all. And I'm pretty sure that's a requirement. The unprofessional professional is an irritant whenever it shows up in films, never more so than here.

Despite that, I adored this movie. I was stunned by its beauty, by the delicacy with which people's needs and sorrows emerge, by the tenderness with which the film views their loneliness and desire.

In her first counseling session with "the Jamies" (actually James and Jamie), a gay couple considering exploring open relationships, Sofia has an outburst and reveals she is pre-orgasmic (wherein Jamie gets off one of the movie's funniest lines, reminding us that gay men really don't know all that much about female sexuality). Believing it will help her, the Jamies invite her to Shorbus, a sex club for misfits and people exploring the outré within themselves. There Sofia meets Severin, a "pro-domme" (professional dominatrix) who has never had a real relationship. The two form a friendship.

Meanwhile, the Jamies meet Ceth (Jay Brannan), but there is more troubling the relationship than any of them know.

I was trying to think of what movie Shortbus reminded me of, and I realized it was Bubble. The characters and events have absolutely nothing in common, but the tone, the authenticity, the simplicity of letting the characters just be themselves, and the overwhelming sense of truth and wonder are similar. Bubble, of course, uses ordinary life, mostly work. Shortbus uses sex, including kinky, unusual, and perverse sex, but that, too, is a part of life.

Shortbus is funny, touching, occasionally erotic, often sad, and extremely entertaining. It is such a remarkable achievement that I'm giving it 10 out of 10 despite its one irritating flaw. I recommend the "making of" feature included on the DVD as well, which gives a lot of insight into the complex problems of creating a sexually explicit feature film.

(Hard, thrusting cross-post)