Shortbus (ThinkFilm, NR)

Justin Bond plays an infinitely quotable a character as to have appeared in a recent film ("I used to want to change the world; now I just want to leave the room with a little dignity").

 

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For a while there, there was a lot of talk about how the Europeans were trying to integrate real, hardcore sex into otherwise respectable movies, most notably in films such as Catherine Breillat's Romance (1999), Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy (2001), and, most recently, Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs (2004). It's actually becoming a common enough practice in some parts of the world the trend isn't really getting talked about much anymore, but that was all set to change once an American filmmaker picked up the trend. The first major American filmmaker to attempt it in recent years is John Cameron Mitchell (of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fame), and when he put out his well-publicized casting call for actors willing to have sex on film a few years back, myself and many others had many justifiable concerns regarding the project. Sure, Hedwig is a borderline masterpiece, but is its director talented enough to tackle as touchy a subject a subject as hardcore sex without making a fool of himself?

The resulting film, Shortbus, was one of the most talked about films at the hype machine Cannes Film Festival this year. Of course it was bound to be—it has sex in it, remember?—but for reasons beyond just the obvious. The main one is that, regardless of whether one likes the film or not, most would agree that Mitchell actually pulled off the goal at hand: to integrate sex into a film as realistically as it is integrated into real life. Whereas the films coming out of Europe tended to be about the sex in them, Shortbus is about the lives of the people having the sex.

Shortbus takes its name from a salon the characters of the film attend, where people meet to talk some and have sex a lot. The film follows a number of different characters—chief among them are James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (P.J. DeBoy), two lovers thinking about opening up their relationship; Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex counselor who herself has never had an orgasm; and Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a professional dominatrix who has a wall around herself in all other aspects of life—who all cross paths for various reasons at the Shortbus salon, which is led by the most interesting character in the film, Justin Bond (who plays himself, at least more or less), as infinitely quotable a character as to have appeared in a recent film ("I used to want to change the world; now I just want to leave the room with a little dignity").

Sure, there are aspects of the film that could use a little tuning up—the computerized New York skyline the film keeps returning to that so many found endearing at Cannes but really just took me out of the reality of the movie, and Sook-Yin Lee, who has the most important role, is pretty seriously uneven—but the majority of the film works as well as one could hope. Dawson and DeBoy are both real finds (Dawson especially; I bet it was pretty hard to find a good actor who is as bendy as he is), and we've already discussed the brilliance that is Bond. But really, the fact that it would seem that this film is "about" sex and winds up being a lighthearted comedy that has sex integrated in it in the most natural way maybe ever seen in a non-pornographic movie (hell, even in a pornographic movie; I don't know why I'm excluding those as if they are accurate representations of people's lives) is something that any other filmmaker interested in the subject would do well to study.

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