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The Little Death

aka A Funny Kind of Love

D: Josh Lawson / 96m

Cast: Bojana Novakovic, Josh Lawson, Damon Herriman, Kate Mulvany, Kate Box, Patrick Brammall, Alan Dukes, Lisa McCune, Erin James, TJ Power, Kim Gyngell, Lachy Hulme, Genevieve Hegney

What do sexual masochism, roleplay fetishism, dacryphilia, somnophilia, and telephone scatalogia all have in common? Well, the answer is, they’re all sexual impulses, and they’re all used by Josh Lawson in his feature debut as writer/director to look at five different relationships – some of which interconnect – and how these sexual obsessions can affect how people behave.

First up we have Paul (Lawson) and Maeve (Novakovic). Maeve wants to be raped, which sounds awful, but it’s a fantasy she’s always had, and she wants Paul to help her play out her fantasy. Paul is initially aghast, but he loves Maeve so much he decides he’ll do it. There’s only one proviso: Maeve doesn’t want to know when or where it’s going to happen. Paul’s first attempt is less than successful, but he tries again, but with completely unexpected results.

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Then there’s Dan (Herriman) and Evie (Mulvany). We first meet them in couples’ therapy, where it’s clear they’re not communicating properly with each other. The therapist suggests they try some roleplay; when they do, Evie can’t quite take it seriously enough for Dan but the sex is incredible and afterwards, Evie compliments Dan on his roleplaying. This leads to Dan taking the whole thing way too seriously, and his commitment to “acting” begins to threaten their marriage.

The third couple is Richard (Brammall) and Rowena (Box). They’re trying to have a baby but nothing’s working, and sex has become perfunctory. Rowena is advised by her doctor that she and Richard should try and time their orgasms to happen at the same time, thus increasing their chances of conception. But she and Richard never get a chance to try this out; Richard learns that his father has died, and when he breaks down in tears, Rowena discovers she’s turned on by the sight of his crying (this is dacryphilia). They have sex right then and Rowena becomes addicted to the intensity it provides, and she starts to engineer circumstances where Richard is made upset enough to cry… and Rowena can experience more orgasms.

All these couples live in the same street, as do Phil (Dukes) and Maureen (McCune). Phil’s compulsion is watching his wife while she sleeps (somnophilia). But Maureen is cold and abusive toward him, while at work his long nights spent watching her means he finds it hard to stay awake during the day. His boss (Hulme) gives him some strong sedatives to help with his sleeping problem, but Maureen unwittingly takes them. Now Phil can indulge his obsession to hisnheart’s content as he makes sure Maureen takes the sedatives each night. But it doesn’t help his case at work, and it doesn’t help either when Maureen accuses him of having an affair.

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Lastly, there’s Monica (James) and Sam (Power), who aren’t a couple, but who do meet – and connect – in the unlikeliest of cirumstances. Monica works at a video relay company that helps deaf individuals make telephone calls to other people via their computers. Sam uses sign language to tell Monica what to say to the other person, and Monica signs back their replies. When Sam connects one evening, Monica is surprised to learn that he wants to connect to a telephone sex line. Her discomfort at having to repeat what Sam and the sex worker (Hegney) are saying makes it all the more awkward, but through it all there’s a hint of mutual attraction there.

All five stories, and a sixth involving Steve (Gyngell) – about whom little should be said other than that he has his own sexual predisposition – are funny, romantic, poignant, sometimes sad, sometimes dramatic, ocasionally outrageous, but always pertinent and credible. Lawson shows he has a keen ear (and eye) for the more absurd aspects of sexual behaviour, and he doesn’t hesitate to confound audience expectations by having three of the five stories end badly. This isn’t a standard rom-com where everyone is united or reunited in the last five minutes and they all live happily ever after. Instead, Lawson’s script makes it clear that compromise is a large part of everyday relationships, and that sins of omission can be just as devastating as outright lies (two characters never confess their compulsions, or the way in which they’ve manipulated their partners).

So there’s a strong dramatic element to each story, but Lawson layers each story with a fantastic amount of comedy (though Phil and Maureen’s tale, of necessity, is more sad and depressing than the rest), and there are moments where the viewer will be laughing out loud at the antics, and dialogue, played out on screen (this is likely to be the only time in a movie where you’ll hear the line, “How’s your cervical mucus – okay?”). Lawson is also astute at teasing out the subtleties and self-imposed dilemmas that come with modern day relationships, and there are plenty of times where his confidence in his own observations and his own script leave the viewer not knowing whether to laugh or grimace. When Rowena tells Richard a massive, horrible lie to get him to cry, it’s funny and deplorable at the same time, and Lawson’s fearlessness with the narrative means that both reactions are entirely acceptable; you can laugh and you can feel repelled.

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Lawson is backed up by a great cast who all enter into the spirit of things with gusto, though special mention has to go to Herriman as the acting-obsessed Dan, whose idea of roleplay morphs from straightforward policeman interrogating helpless female suspect, and with no costumes used other than their own clothing, to kitting out his and Evie’s garage to house a prison set so he can play a jailbird about to have sex with a prison guard (Evie) – but not before he tells her he’s inside for sexually assaulting a man (it’s called having a backstory). Herriman as Dan is wonderfully unaware of anything else going on in his life, and his narrow, self-absorbed thinking is a constant source of humour. A joy to watch as well are James’s reactions to the comments made by Sam and the sex worker, her wide-eyed dismay and prudish distaste testing her professionalism at every turn. And there’s Gyngell as Steve, popping up here and there, often at the wrong time, but guaranteed to make the viewer laugh once his own “backstory” is revealed.

There’s a feeling that this is a movie that could only have come out of Australia. It’s brash, it’s sweet-natured, it’s romantic yet not idealistic, and it has bags of charm. You can imagine an American remake trying hard to be more gross or unnecessarily explicit (for a movie that’s ostensibly about sex there’s no nudity at all), and it would probably fumble the more serious strands that run through it all, but thankfully that’s unlikely to happen. Lawson advances the various stories by switching back and forth between them, though Monica and Sam’s story does occupy most of the last twenty minutes, its single location and textured narrative requiring a lengthier time on screen than the other stories. This does make the movie feel a little lopsided, and there’s a final scene that connects four of the stories in an unexpected and not wholly satisfying way, but by then the viewer will be more than happy to forgive Lawson his attempt at what might be regarded as closure. With a great soundtrack and score by Michael Yezerski that isn’t just there to provide musical cues or augment each of the character’s feelings or emotions, Lawson has made an entertaining and unexpectedly clever movie that packs an equally unexpected emotional punch as well.

Rating: 8/10 – movies from Down Under are still proving to be a little underwhelming, but The Little Death is definitely not one of them, combining as it does passion, wit and style to tremendous effect; mixing drama and comedy with heart makes for a small but terrific movie, and one that rewards the viewer over and over again.