Crying out for strange little sex comedy
The Little Death (MA15+) Limited release Wish I was Here (M) Limited release
Tis an Australian comedy about sexual perversions, written and directed by Josh Lawson. It’s rather an odd title for a comedy, but The Little Death is rather an odd film. Its title comes from the French expression la petite mort, a colloquial term for the orgasm. I disliked it at first, but gradually it grew on me and in the end it comes off nicely. And, as with most orgasms, the climax is the best part. I apologise for using such language in a respectable newspaper, but in a film about orgasms, reviewers have little choice.
Lawson is best known for some much admired short films and his TV work as a writer and actor. He began writing The Little Death six years ago in Los Angeles. A first-rate Australian cast plays five Sydney couples with bizarre sexual tastes and fantasies. I knew about masochism and phone sex — who doesn’t? But what about somnophilia — “sexual arousal from watching a person sleep” (as my press kit helpfully explains)? Or dacryphilia — “sexual pleasure in seeing someone cry”? Perhaps Lawson invented them for the movie.
We begin with Paul (played by Lawson) and Maeve (Bojana Navakovic), an attractive middle-class couple who seem wholly content in their relationship. Paul is surprised when
The Little Death Maeve confesses that she fantasises about being the victim of a violent sex attack and asks Paul to rape her. After some conventional lovemaking Paul tenderly confides to Maeve that she’s “10 out of 10”. “Not rate me, rape me,” Maeve replies, rather indignantly. It’s the film’s first “joke” — not a great one, and typical of the general standard of verbal humour. There are unfortunate consequences when Maeve stipulates that the attack on her must take place without warning and without her knowing that Paul is the rapist. Can it really be rape if the victim requests it? A difficult question.
There are moments in The Little Death when the atmosphere is uncomfortably threatening and unpleasant. But this is a pretty weird comedy, an impression confirmed when we encounter Dan and Evie (Damon Herriman and Kate Mulvany). A sex therapist has recommended they try a little role-playing to spark up their relationship, leading Dan to take secret acting les- sons, dress up as a tough cop and film their bedroom encounters as if this were another sequel to Paranormal Activity.
It was that dacryphilia business that got me in. Rowena (Kate Box) and Richard (Patrick Brammall) are desperate for a child but their sex life is in decline. Then Rowena finds herself aroused when Richard cries on receiving bad news. So tears are the answer! And if that means chopping up onions and watching sad movies together, so be it. For Richard it means pretending he has cancer or pretending he doesn’t have cancer, eliciting tears of anguish followed by tears of relief. Silly, tasteless and heavy-handed? All that, I suppose. But funny, too.
Too often the film feels like a string of selfcontained vignettes existing in separate compartments. But Lawson reserves his best until last, when the film achieves a depth of resonance and poignancy that seem to belong in a different movie. Monica (Erin James) works for a video call service interpreting sign language for the deaf. When the job requires her to phone a sex hotline and interpret the caller’s wishes for the guidance of the phone provider, it looks like the beginnings of a beautiful friendship. Comic ingenuity and emotional poise are neatly blended in a sequence that leaves us wishing for more. The Little Death is bold, brave and original. And parts of it are great. Shame about that title. TEN years ago, when he was 29, Zach Braff wrote, directed and starred in a successful comedy, Garden State, in which he played a mixedup Jewish guy, a minor Hollywood star who returns to his home town for his mother’s funeral. In his new film, he plays Aidan, a mixed-up Jewish husband, a struggling actor, whose father is dying of cancer in Los Angeles. Once again Braff has given us a rich and charmingly eccentric comedy.
Things aren’t going well for Aidan. He misses out on a part in Othello and there aren’t too many takers for his acting lessons. Comedy slots aren’t coming his way, despite his proficiency with funny accents. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) holds down a boring office job to make ends meet at home and is on antidepressants. When Aidan’s father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) is diagnosed with a fatal illness and can no longer help pay for the education of his grandchildren, Aidan has to turn his hand to home-schooling. The children are resentful and rebellious, and Aidan’s deadbeat brother Noah (Josh Gad) refuses to visit his dying father on his deathbed. “Doesn’t God believe in my pursuit of happiness?” asks Aidan of his rabbi. “No,” the rabbi replies, “that’s the Declaration of Independence ... God wants you to care for your family.”
As Aidan, Graff combines depth of insight with an endearing naivety, and the rest of the cast could hardly be better. This is one of those comedies in which laughs spring from delicate moods of intimacy and shared understanding, with love never far away. It’s also among the most visually distinctive films I’ve seen this year, giving it an oddly dreamlike flavour, in which the odd Jewish joke goes over more easily. Why can’t Aidan, a Jew, get a job in Hollywood, a friend wants to know: “I thought the Jews were running Hollywood?” I’m not sure if that was ever true, but on the strength of his work so far, I’d be happy for Braff to run some part of it.
Josh Lawson and Bojana Novakovic in Australian comedy