Directed by: Josh Lawson; Runtime: 98 minutes
Sexual fetishes can be tough to talk about for a number of reasons, from sharing that intimate and potentially embarrassing aspect of one's preferences with another person to the psychology behind why they actually prefer something a little different in the first place. It's an element of human behavior that rarely gets touched upon in a down-to-earth fashion through the movies: they're typically limited to plot devices in brazen thrillers -- voyeurism in Body Double; witnessing accidents in Crash -- or as the catalysts for budding romances in comedies and dramas -- BDSM in Secretary -- instead of how they often emerge between people in already committed relationships under relatively ordinary circumstances. Josh Lawson initially embraces this purity of discovering and divulging kinks with loved ones in his indie film The Little Death, striking a balance between the ordinariness of perverse fantasies and fondness with elevated situations that also poke fun at and normalize them. Turns out, it's more successful at situational foreplay than reaching genuine climactic ends, but there's enough to admire in how the film stimulates thought and levity along the way to keep going.
Told in something of a connected vignette style, The Little Death -- derived from a French expression for orgasm, "la petite mort" -- predominately follows the lives of four couples across a city in Australia, each of whom are experiencing one of the partner's fetishes in different ways. Some of them are made aware of the other's desires, such as Maeve's (Bojana Novakovic ) proposal for her gentle boyfriend, Paul (writer/director Lawson himself), to rape her, and the marriage-saving roleplaying going on between Dan (Damon Herriman) and Evie (Kate Mulvany). Others attempt to figure out their peculiarities unbeknownst to their partner, from a stressed businessman's (Alan Dukes) enjoyment of his wife's (Lisa McCune) attractive qualities while she sleeps to what happens when a frustrated woman, Rowena (Kate Box), learns that she gets sexual gratification from seeing her husband (Patrick Brammall) cry. For variety, Lawson also folds a fifth kink into the mix involving phone sex, as well as a somewhat darker and creepier element involving a sharp-dressed man (Kym Gyngell) who goes door-to-door between all their houses, creating a very loose bonding agent between them all.
The intimacy in how writer/director Lawson introduces and navigates the discovery of these fetishes tends to be the most rousing element of The Little Death, focused on the explicit and implicit apprehension in exploring them with a loved one. As with most multiple-story movies, some scenarios are more successful than others as they progress beyond their core premise. Maeve's boundary-pushing desire to be forcefully taken reaches an emotional outlook on the discomfort and necessary devotion that surrounds her troubling fantasy, while the lengths that Rowena will go to milk tears out of her husband taps into a warped vein of comedy that's amusing ... up to a point. On the flipside, the bizarre extent of Dan's growing obsession with becoming other people through roleplaying weakens the earnest conflicts of identity and confidence first introduced by the scenario, while the surefire steps taken by the awkward businessman to continue his nagging wife's drowsiness force that entire angle to become the film's dead weight.
Splendid chemistry between all the couples -- both during sensual moments and amid conflicts -- are either capably propped up or undermined by Lawson's good-intentioned, courageous, yet ultimately uneven writing. His maturity in avoiding obvious punchlines and an almost complete lack of exposed skin in a film committed to sexual kinks is highly commendable, rarely featuring moments of overt titillation in respect to the sincere side of the conversation he's having with the audience about the topic(s). To brand The Little Death a comedy might be a bit mistaken, though: while there's some humor and mirthful awkwardness involved throughout, very little of it comes without serious overtones that, more often than not, suppress the laughs instead of succeeding as a kind of black comedy, whether it's the manipulation involved in making a grieving man continue to cry or the tactics employed by a hapless, married somnophiliac with an unsympathetic wife. The upfront nature of the film's initial ideas further deflates whenever the fetishists overstep certain boundaries with their groan-worthy scheming.
Lawson also doesn't reach the sincerest of outcomes with his narrative threads in The Little Death, suppressing the potency of his script's convictions through finales that revel in over-the-top embellishments and underscore some aspect of deceptive avoidance in each of 'em. Guardedness might be a genuine part of dealing with these situations, but the film sends mixed signals about liking unconventional things and the candor involved in trying to express them, not letting any of these couples work out the kinks in their kinks without having to rely on some kind of dishonesty once all's said and done. Granted, a few of these people really don't deserve any kind of encouraging resolutions because of the way they've conducted themselves, succumbing to delusion and obsession in some pretty inexcusable -- borderline illegal! -- ways that manifest as cautionary tales about going too far. While this makes for thought-provoking material that's bound to spark conversations about the nature of their passions and their miscommunication, it also tampers with the overall messages originally conveyed by Lawson, something that's pretty important once the amusement factor takes a back seat.
Remember, there are actually five stories going on in The Little Death, the last one which arrives near at the end -- despite a brief taste of the characters about a half-hour in -- and only really loosely connects to the rest of subject matter. Filed under "telephone scatalogica", or pleasure gained from making obscene phone calls, the final vignette involves Monica, a phone-call relay operator for the deaf (via webcam), and a first-time client who expresses an interest in calling an adult chat line. What results is a rather funny and charming depiction of the complications you'd expect from the situation, driven by a pair of delightful performances hinged on expressions and gestures; however, since it doesn't involve either a couple or much of an account of a fetish like the others, this final piece also feels out-of-place amid the rest of the stories. Josh Lawson probably bent his own established rules by including this instead of letting it stand as its own short film or something, but it allows The Little Death to end on an honest and (mostly) optimistic note after a series of conflicted depictions of sexuality, so it's easy to forgive.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 11/17/2015