Australian cinema is nothing if not brave and brutally frank, a reflection of a national psyche that is, by and large, willing to tackle an issue rather than leave it happily unattended.
And while this narrative embracing of the elephant in the room often pays dividends, it can also result in films like The Little Death (the title derives from the French term for orgasm “La petite mort”) which promises titillation and the brave baring of sexually taboo subjects in equal measure, but which fails to leave much of an impression on either score.
Rather than the cheeky examination of sexual mores than the trailer promises, we are given instead a sometimes delightful, often awkward, occasionally even cringing look into the bedrooms of five Australia heterosexual couples, all of whom are using sex, to varying degrees, as a relationship bolsterer rather than a pleasurable pursuit in and of itself.
In that respect, The Little Death is a clever undertaking, advancing the idea that sex has ceased to be the simple, uncomplicated joining of one person with another, becoming in our modern well-informed “Just Google it!” age a minefield of fantasies, kinky activities, role plays and barely-articulated psychological impetuses.
There’s nothing wrong with these sexual manifestations, of course – the human race has proved itself sexually inventive and adventurous since ancient times with little ill-effect; the problem is that modern couples feel an almost communal pressure to not only be aware of all the non-vanilla sexual extras but to try them out, even when one of the partners isn’t necessarily that way inclined.
In a healthy relationship, this pursuit of sexual experimentation would merely be a blip on the bedroom radar, but in the lives of the couples featured in the Josh Lawson-penned and directed The Little Death, they become loaded guns, aimed at the heads of emotionally-fragile participants, many of whom are unwittingly in the death throes of their couplings and trying to paper them over with ever more daring sexual stunts, with unforeseen deleterious results.
It’s all fairly serious stuff and to be fair, Josh Lawson does his best to give these issues their due weight, examining the way in which sex has come to be the panacea of modern relationship ills, rather than an enjoyably passionate, and pressure-free, outworking of them.
Unfortunately mixed in with the fairly sober examinations of couples struggling to bridge the emotional gulfs between them with sex in all its myriad forms, are sight gags and oddly out of place one-liners, and even the presence of an older, slightly creepy man Steve (Kim Gyngell) who links all the couple together as he walks from house to house in the street they all share, introducing himself as their new neighbour and smoothing his legally-obligated announcement as a registered sex offender with boxes of politically-incorrect golliwog biscuits.
These cheek-by-jowl disparate elements, which often co-exist in the one scene, only serve to create jarring tonal and thematic shifts which leach any fun out of the humour the jokes may have generated or trivialise the serious dramatic gravitas Lawson is clearly also aiming for.
Take Richard (Patrick Brammall) and Rowena (Kate Box), a loving couple who have been trying for three years to have a baby, religiously having intercourse on the days on which Rowena is ovulating, sadly with no pregnancy forthcoming.
Rowena is exhausted by the process but in a relationship marked by Richard’s happy obliviousness and her timidity to broach even the mildest of subjects, this baby making ennui is never raised, subsumed, at least by Rowena in the pursuit of sexual arousal triggered by her partner’s crying.
Known as Dacryphilia, it finds expression in Rowen’s endless, and guilt-ridden attempts to get stoic Richard to break down in tears, first from the death of his father, then the engineered disappearance of their dog Roxane, and her false admission of a cancer diagnosis.
It’s played for laughs but in the end simply ends up as vaguely weird, twisted and kind of cruel, with Rowena coming across as some sort of selfishly deviant, manipulative person – in her defence she is aware that what she is doing is wrong but seems powerless to do anything about it – who is willing to hurt the man she loves and sabotage her relationship in the pursuit of satisfying her own desires.
The key issue of course is that their relationship isn’t as healthy as it seems, and so instead of a full and frank discussion of the issues confronting them, which a full-functional relationship would naturally default to, both partners choose their own ways of getting what they need, none of which do either of them any real favours.
It’s the same for Dan (Damon Herriman) and Evie (Kate Mulvany) who, at the suggestion of their therapist who believes they have “communication issues”, are encouraged to try roleplaying as a means of enlivening their moribund marriage.
It isn’t the solution of course since what directly ails them is an inability to talk with any meaningful purpose to each other rather any problems in the bedroom (the latter is an outworking of their relationship malaise rather the root of it), and while the roleplaying is amusing especially as Dan increasingly treats it as a selfish artistic pursuit in and of itself rather the possible salvation of their relationship, it soon becomes oddly discordant, symptomatic of a film that isn’t sure if it wants to be thigh-slappingly humourous or deeply insightful.
Much the same applies to Maureen (Lisa McCune) and Phil (Alan Dukes) whose marriage died long ago in bitterness and recrimination – she appears to blames him for their dead in the water existence – but which lives on, weirdly enough, in Phil’s nocturnal explorations of Somnophilia (being aroused by a sleeping person) where he drugs his wife with heavy duty sleeping pills, using her inert form to play out a series of sweetly romantic scenarios, a clear sign of the emotional paucity between them.
It is deeply troubling and sadly touching that their relationship’s glory days now exist only in this watered-down fantasy world in which one half of the partnership isn’t even conscious to participate but this is almost lost in The Little Death‘s unwillingness to let go of its propensity to try to generate laughs and nod sagely and with knowing understanding at the same time.
The only happy couples – one of which is barely nascent at best by the film’s end – are Paul (Josh Lawson) and Maeve (Bojana Novakovic) who communicate freely and openly, are clearly devoted to each other even as Paul struggles, in understandable discomfort with Maeve’s rape fantasy, and Sam (T. J. Power), a deaf graphic novelist who has an unexpectedly profound connection with the interpreter, Monica (Erin James) as she translates his trouble-plagued online tryst he wants to have with a sex worker.
In a movie that struggles to form a coherent voice, it is the sweet innocence and unexpected connection of Sam and Monica that leaves the most indelible impression, much like the two pornography film stand-ins in Love Actually who feel in love simulating sexual acts while lighting and camera angles were set up, simply because of the unambiguous purity of the emotions expressed.
It is not enough to save The Little Death, which though entertaining in parts, and possessed of some genuinely moving and/or very funny scenes, never quite knows what it wants to say or how say it, an affliction which burdens the film right up its extraordinarily odd, and almost disturbingly dark and out of sync with everything before it ending.