SXSW Film Review – The Little Death
The Little Death
When it comes to sex, everyone has preferences. Each person has things that turn them on more than others. Often for most, those proclivities are pretty tame. A certain touch or a certain position or simply the particular looks of a given partner might be all it takes to get someone’s engine going. However, there are desires that are still perfectly normal but fall outside the usual discussion of conservative society. While pretty much every aspect of consensual sex is really okay and often wonderful for people, the truth is that sharing fantasies that are seen as strange can be difficult or embarrassing. It’s that rub of desire versus embarrassment that is the basis of the comedy The Little Death.
This Australian film profiles a number of couples whose lives loosely intersect at various points. Generally though, each set of people are kept to their own particular stories. Opening with a shot of a guy sucking his girlfriend’s toes and assuming we are about to see the profile of a foot fetish, we quickly find out that is a misdirect. His girlfriend shyly admits to a rape fantasy. While she would like him to do it, she would like it to be convincing enough that she at least momentarily thinks it’s someone else. He spends the rest of the film struggling to find a way to make this happen for her despite his not having a clue how to make this realistically happen.
Meanwhile, another couple is having deep relationship problems and are undergoing couple’s therapy. Following a suggestion from one of their sessions, they try role playing. It works out great the first time around and really reinvigorates their love life. What’s really funny is that the guy ends up getting progressively more obsessed with the acting part of the role playing than the sex itself. He keeps inventing increasingly elaborate scenarios where he plays a doctor diagnosing her with Hep C (she quickly tells him Hepatitis isn’t sexy) or an American Civil War general scene or a prison and corrections officer scene with elaborate jail set dressing in their house.
Another storyline has a married couple trying to conceive having a disconnect. Not surprisingly, their mechanical lovemaking isn’t giving her orgasms. When her husband hears his father has died, she is surprised to find out the sight of tears streaming down his face turns her on. In probably the funniest storyline in the film, she tries to find new ways to produce tears from him. Whether it’s her repeatedly bringing up his dad or faking that their dog has run away or suggesting that they eat onions several times a week, she’s quite happy to finally have found satisfaction. Amongst the best jokes in the movie, when she comes home suggestively telling him she rented them a couple of movies sounding like she’s got porn to share, she takes out the DVDs to give him the option of Sophie’s Choice or Philadelphia.
Saddest amongst these tales is a middle aged married man whose wife seems quite cold. He discovers he’s turned on whenever she’s asleep. Though it is getting him in trouble at work for falling asleep on the job, he ends up repeatedly drugging his wife so she will sleep extra hard and he can stay up all night with her unconscious. For him, it’s not all about sex. Sometimes he will just cuddle or watch TV with her. He’s looking for someone to share his life without judgement.
The Little Death feels like a missed opportunity. It plays mostly like a sitcom and is more interested in being clever then moving. It plays a bit like Woody Allen lite. Allen’s films often deal with multiple characters and their cross purposes in relationships. However, when he’s at his best, Allen’s characters are complex and moving. There’s genuine pathos. Meanwhile in this film, some of the jokes land. And while there is a resonant core of sadness in a lot of these stories, none of them really shake you to the core. In other words, a movie that is dealing with sexual mores should feel at least somewhat dangerous. This movie is pretty safe.
When you watch terrific cringe comedy like the British Office, even though you are laughing, it can also make you squirm. David Brendt on that show was uncomfortably inappropriate and it really added to the impact of that show. The Little Death is dealing with strange fetishes, unhappy couples missing each other’s signals, and some genuinely bad behavior. And yet it doesn’t push any boundaries. There is a great idea for a movie here that has merely produced a likeable movie. It ends up being a sex version of Love Actually.
It might parenthetically be pointed out that in the world of this movie kinkiness is strictly the purview of heterosexual white couples. A movie that’s supposed to address kinks that are off the beaten path might have included at least some example of anything outside of a gender norm that featured a minority of any kind. Lack of diversity is nothing new for movies. But given the subject matter it really might have helped.
The Little Death shouldn’t be totally condemned. It is genuinely funny at times. The actors are good, and it is refreshing to see a film at least attempt to deal with grown up sex without labeling people with deviant behavior. But just because some of these couples end their stories deeply dissatisfied and sad doesn’t mean the movie is particularly deep. More insight could have made a merely good movie a potentially great one.