GOING ALL THE WAY
SHORTBUS ★★★ Directed by John Cameron Mitchell. Starring Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish, PJ DeBoy, Raphael Barker, Peter Stickles Club, IFI, Dublin, 102 min IF YOU know anything about John Cameron Mitchell’s lubricious follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Itch, that singular gay musical from 2001, you will be aware that it contains scenes of actual sexual intercourse.
Mitchell has pointed out that previous cinematic representations of The Whole Enchilada – think of the grubby, unhappy fumblings in musty apartments we didn’t enjoy in Intimacy and 9 Songs – have tended to be accompanied by cold, puritanical showers of guilt and misery (this is art, not porn, you see). Mitchell, by contrast, wants to show the sexual act as a source of joy and fulfilment.
Sure enough, the opening sequence of Shortbus, in which we are transported around Manhattan to discover a number of characters hard at it, does buzz with good humour. The man trying to do to himself what is usually done by another may have a strained relationship with his absent boyfriend, but he seems temporarily content in his experiments. The dominatrix appears to be carrying out her duties to the client’s satisfaction. The straight couple certainly make happy noises as they crash about the place.
Whether the audience will have quite so much fun will depend greatly on the broadness of their minds and the extent of their inclinations towards sexual voyeurism.
That damp jamboree over, the film resolves itself into a lively downtown soap opera. Several related stories weave their way about the city, before twining together at the sex club that lends the film its title. The gay couple expands to a menage à trois as a way of bringing excitement back into their rela- tionship. A Chinese-Canadian therapist tries to discover why she can never reach orgasm. The dominatrix reveals that she has taken the professional title Severin as a replacement for a given name that matches that of a popular celebrity.
Making imaginative use of a gorgeous little model of Manhattan and drawing respectable performances from a largely inexperienced cast, Mitchell enables Shortbus to generate impressive quantities of warmth and humanity. But the sheer narcissism of Mitchell’s heroes, all of whom do to themselves figuratively what that auto-eroticist does literally, fast becomes hard to bear. Smugness flows out of every exposed bohemian orifice and the characters’ inability to see past their trifling sexual hangups is ultimately rather frustrating.Would it kill them to read a book or watch a bit of telly?
A decent bit of off-kilter entertainment for all that.