Cry­ing out for strange lit­tle sex com­edy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FILM REVIEWS - Evan Wil­liams

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

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