Phil on Film Index

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Review - Shortbus

This is a promise to anyone who dares to see Shortbus - if you can stick with the film beyond the opening ten minutes you’ll be treated to one of the most extraordinary and memorable cinematic experiences of the year. Those opening ten minutes, however, will be a very stern test of most viewers’ sensibilities. The film opens with a rapid sequence comprising of the following activities: a man alone in an apartment strenuously trying to perform fellatio on himself, a man and a women engaged in vigorous and athletic sex in a variety of positions, and another young man who is being whipped by a dominatrix. Nothing is left to the imagination in these scenes, there is no careful blocking or attempts to hide the characters’ genitals; it’s just real, unfiltered sex delivered in a breathless montage. Two of the encounters end in an onscreen ejaculation, and while they come many viewers may be tempted to go.

I’ve never seen anything quite like Shortbus. Sex in the movies is nothing new, and hardcore sex has become more and more prevalent in cinema over recent years - with Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy and Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs breaking new ground in English-language films, while Catherine Breillat has led the way for a variety of international directors who wish to include erections and penetration in their stories - but Shortbus is a very different proposition to those pictures. While most of the previous movies to feature explicit sex have been pretty grim, joyless affairs, John Cameron Mitchell’s new film is an explosion of joy; an exuberant celebration of love, sex and humanity.

So what is Shortbus? Well, the title comes from a New York club which offers a place for all outsiders to go if they wish to relax, enjoy a spot of music, some conversation, or just partake in a full-on orgy. Two of the regulars are James and Jamie (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy), a gay couple who are generally considered the most perfect pairing around. However, their relationship has entered a slightly rockier patch than usual; with James has suggesting they should start experiencing sex with different partners, and he seems increasingly distant as he obsessively compiles a film of his life. They visit Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who has problems of her own, specifically the fact that she has never experienced an orgasm. She defines the term as pre-orgasmic (“does that mean you’re about to have one?”, asks a bemused Jamie), and when her new clients hear about this they instantly recommend a visit to their favourite hangout.

The club is presided over by Justin Bond (playing himself), the “mistress of Shortbus”, and he takes her on a guided tour of the establishment. She temporarily seems transfixed by a particular couple in the orgy room, and eventually she ends up in a room full of lesbians who are fascinated by her condition. Here she also meets Severin (Lindsay Beamish), the dominatrix from the opening sequence who has to suffer the obsessive attention of an annoying client and has never had a proper human relationship.

These are the characters whose quest for love and fulfilment will form the basis of Shortbus’ central narrative, and it’s that narrative which is the film’s major achievement. Instead of writing a screenplay, Mitchell and his cast worked together for two years prior to filming, improvising their characters and storylines, and their efforts have produced a gem. Each character is distinctive and fully realised, and the unfailingly honest performances from the actors in these roles instantly grab our interest and sympathy. Dawson brings real emotion to his part as the enigmatic James, particularly in the later stages, and DeBoy plays Jamie as a lovable dope. Sook-Yin Lee and Lindsay Beamish excel too as the major female characters, but it’s Justin Bond who gives the real scene-stealing turn. He has a monopoly on the film’s best lines, a couple of which occur while he’s watching an orgy - “it’s just like the 60’s, only with less hope” or “oh thank goodness, for a second I thought that man had one arm” - and he has some terrifically bitchy one-liners, with my favourite being “these bitches eat ass and suck cock all day long, and when they turn up at the buffet they claim they’re vegan”.

As is the nature of these things, the collaborative approach of the film’s creation does threaten to make it feel a little shapeless at times, but the characters and their situations are so engaging it’s a pleasure to follow them wherever the meandering story goes. Mitchell - who made the fine German transsexual musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2001- has a real lightness of touch and an excellent ability to judge his film’s tone. He never allows Shortbus to spill over into camp excess, he handles the comic scenes with tremendous aplomb (a slapstick scene involving a remote-controlled vibrator is priceless) and he segues into emotional sequences without skipping a beat. The film is beautifully made too; with gorgeous animated shots of New York providing delightful interludes and giving the picture an almost fairytale feel.

But it’s the sex, obviously, that will get most of the attention when Shortbus comes up for discussion. The film has been described as a pornographic romantic comedy, but I don’t think that’s completely accurate. It certainly does do the romantic comedy aspects better than any of the genre’s offerings I’ve seen in years, but this film is definitely not porn. The sex in Shortbus doesn’t try to titillate or arouse the audience; it’s simply sex depicted in an open and natural way. In truth, the film is hardly ever erotic, because Mitchell’s concern is for his characters and his story above all else, and he makes the sex scenes an integral part of the narrative, with each one important for our understanding of the characters and their emotional journey. The sex depicted in Shortbus is funny and sad, passionate and lonely; it’s just completely real, in every sense of the word.

What a great film this is. A hilarious, thrilling and wonderfully uplifting piece of work which genuinely took my breath away. Some people certainly will be repelled by the frankness of the film’s sexual encounters (and the more patriotic American viewers may dislike the film’s rendition of The Star Spangled Banner), but this truly is one of the most generous and moral films of the year. It has a simple message, asking us to love each other for who we are, but it’s one that bears repeating, and rarely has it been displayed in such an exhilarating way. The film exhibits a wonderful sense of inclusivity in every scene as it builds to a climax which can only be described as orgasmic. John Cameron Mitchell has rewritten the rules of sex in cinema, and his sensational party is one to which everyone is invited. Just get on the Shortbus.