Sexuality and “the silver screen” have had a rather storied and controversial relationship. Be it the rise of pornography to the constant give and pull between filmmakers, studios and a public never quite sure about how they themselves feel with regards to the discussion or portrayal of sexuality in a visual medium, cinema and sex go hand in hand given the medium’s visual nature, but rarely do we get real discussions about sex in a given picture. And hell, even if we do, it’s often manipulative, or the sex itself is turned into something cartoonish or melodramatic, turning it into something to be lusted after instead of something seen as truly beautiful.
Enter Shortbus. From Hedwig And The Angry Inch writer/director John Cameron Mitchell, the film attempts to paint a decidedly different picture of sex, sexuality and everything that goes with it. Telling a series of stories about various sexually and emotionally hindered adults in New York, the film introduces us to people like, ostensibly our lead here, Sofia, a couple’s therapist still looking for her first orgasm. Her and her husband open the film as part of a rather explicit, but oddly moving, montage where we see them try various elaborate sexual positions, but apparently to no real avail. Of her clients, we become privy to one relationship, that being the one between James and Jamie, a gay couple going on five years in their relationship. These two have their own respective issues, as they are set to experiment by bringing a third member into the relationship, and rounding out the series of stories we follow is Severin, a dominatrix with the inability to get more than skin deep emotionally. All taking place in or around a party known as “Shortbus,” the picture is not shy about its use of truly explicit sex, but it’s also not shy in portraying this sex as something both beautiful and brazenly resonant.
While the film is a far deeper and more intellectually stimulating piece than most give it credit for, it is hard to start a real conversation about this film without first digging through the film’s use of “real” sex. Originally a lightning rod for this reason when it hit the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006, the film does use sex in a real and palpable manner, showing anything and everything one could possibly imagine seeing. However, instead of simply settling for this titillating use of sexuality or instead of becoming something overtly explicit, this is not only life affirming and beautiful, but itself becomes as important to the film’s narrative and themes as one could imagine.
That’s where the real beauty in this film lies. Writer/director John Cameron Mitchell turns this film from something that could be seen as nothing more than a shock director’s attempt at showing the world how chaste it is, into something that tells this chaste world that it’s okay to be a bit shocked, but get rid of the fear. Set in a dreamscape resembling New York (the city itself only really comes into view during animated miniature sequences hinting itself at the film’s playful tone, but it does feel like a decidedly New York picture. 9/11 hands heavy over the proceedings, a melancholic comedy/drama that takes these fears and ideas being discussed following that tragedy and instead of mining it for xenophobia or some sort of faux documentary action picture, Mitchell’s picture turns them into the source for one of the funniest and most heart wrenching comedies of this generation.
The film also has a raw energy to it that itself comes almost entirely from Mitchell and his cast. Teaming up with his actors to come up with each of these respective stories, the film has a looseness to it, a freewheeling energy and vitality to it that may bring to light a few rough edges (PJ DeBoy’s performance feels a bit out of step with the rest of the cast), but ultimately turns the film into something truly resembling a Mike Leigh picture. If Mike Leigh had a thing for inventive ways to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.” The photography here is gorgeous, with superb work from DP Frank G. DeMarco and with a score from Yo La Tengo, this film turns from what could be nothing more than an exploitative bit of controversy bait into an intimate meditation on modern love that just so happens to be unafraid to show human sexuality as something to be embraced instead of locked behind a closed door.
Performance wise, the film is almost universally superb. Sook Yin-Lee stars here as Sofia, and her performance really helps ground the picture. A film where the premise sounds like a late night HBO comedy miniseries (think In Treatment but less clothes), it is her performance that turns the film into a palpable and tactile piece of human storytelling. Her journey of discovery is paved with various entrancing characters, be it Dawson’s filmmaker Jamie or the real heart and soul of this picture, Lindsay Beamish’s Severin, all of whom add a great deal of depth, realism and relatability to a picture that most people scoff at when reading a logline. With a show-stopping performance at the end by the ever magnetic Justin Bond (whose performance of “Everybody Gets It In The End” is arguably one of the most life-affirming moments in film history), this is a film that needs to be seen and a story that needs to be told. Too bad it has seemingly become forgotten amongst the series of masterpieces that would come just a year later.
A DVD is currently out of print (selling for $100 on Amazon), so a Blu-ray release would be a welcome upgrade. The film is bewilderingly gorgeous aesthetically, and a new transfer would most certainly be welcome. Yo La Tengo’s score could also use a bit of love, and with Mitchell sadly not a part of The Criterion Collection yet, we could really get a great introduction to the director here. Give us a commentary for the film, maybe a retrospective on the making of it with the cast and crew, a discussion of post-9/11 American pop culture and Hell, while you’re at it, finally give us a good way to watch the Indie Sex miniseries IFC backed a handful of years ago. However, whatever you do, just someone give us this masterpiece on home video. It deserves the love and respect.