When I first saw John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus at the Toronto International Film Festival, I presumed I would need to defend it. I imagined that the acrobatic and, in some cases, jaw-droppingly silly sex scenes would have people up in arms. Especially when so much of the hoisting and flipping and moaning was being done by our very own Sook-Yin Lee.
As it turned out, I was wrong. The critical reception the film received at TIFF was almost universally positive. I was shocked. Have we really come this far? Yes, I guess we have.
What everyone has acknowledged is that Shortbus is an intelligent and sensitive look at love and lust. It’s about the sex, but it’s not really about the sex. The most graphic scenes (where the deeply depressed James (Paul Dawson) yogically ejaculates into his own mouth, for example) are all front-ended. This a) allows us to adapt to the peculiarities of the viewing experience and b) reveals the extremes to which Mitchell’s characters go in their sad struggle to feel. The sex isn’t meant to arouse you necessarily; it’s meant to show how unhappy or incomplete its participants are. This isn’t to say that the director is in any way judging the acts. He’s clearly having a ball. But the characters in Shortbus are all seekers. As silly as it may sound, they’re all just looking for love.
James is in a wonderful relationship with his obnoxiously chipper boyfriend Jamie (PJ DeBoy), but feels empty inside. When they sit down with their sex therapist to talk about it, they discover that therapist, Sofia (Lee), isn’t so happy herself. It seems that Sofia has never had an orgasm. She’s done it every which way imaginable, but she’s never quite been able to make herself come. In an attempt to help her out, Jamie and James bring Sofia to Shortbus, a New York sex and cabaret club hosted by the fantastically camp Justin Bond. Here, Sofia meets Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix who feels wholly disassociated and yearns to experience something real. Whilesick of theatre she refuses to tell anyone her real name. Here, Sofia and Severin begin a relationship to help achieve mutual thaw. Meanwhile, James, contemplating suicide, recruits someone who might provide his boyfriend with solace.
The film’s script was created during a long rehearsal period in which Mitchell worked with the first-time actors to discuss their own sexual histories. Its improvised elements, combined with a verité shooting style (and the fact that none of the sex is simulated) lend Shortbus the feel of a seedy documentary. While this doesn’t quite jive with the transparently pre-scripted journey that Sofia takes, we’re willing to excuse Mitchell. Films are hard to end. And if he strays into the sentimental, at least he’s doing it to celebrate a truth that goes often goes unacknowledged in our porn-saturated age: sex without love (at least for yourself) is empty indeed.
Shortbus is now playing at the Cumberland, 159 Cumberland St.