Movie Review: The Little Death

a little death 1

There’s a new game
We like to play you see
A game with added reality
You treat me like a dog
Get me down on my knees
We call it master and servant

Depeche Mode

If you’ve ever wondered what the neighbours across the road are up to when their curtains are drawn in the middle of the afternoon, THE LITTLE DEATH is just the film for you. Taken from the French slang for “orgasm”, this Australian, tongue-in-cheek (or toe-in-mouth, as the case would be here) film explores what some people might consider to be kinky sex.

Written and directed by Josh Lawson (Doug Guggenheim on TV’s HOUSE OF LIES), the story weaves together the sexploits of five suburban Sydney couples who are connected by a new neighbour who has just moved in. Instead of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, call this one “Desperate Couples”. Paul (played by Lawson) & Maeve are Couple #1 and they have been living together for five years. Paul has commitment issues and Maeve thinks that by throwing some gasoline on Paul’s fire, it will get him to move faster. What’s her brilliant idea, you ask? A rape fantasy that she wants Paul to fulfill… except that she doesn’t want to know if it’s him who is raping her. (That makes no sense, I know, but it’s a real, and apparently a very popular, fetish.) Couple #2, Dan & Evie, turn to role-playing as a way to recharge their relationship that has flat-lined. Couple #3, Rowena & Richard, have been trying to get pregnant. When Rowena discovers that she gets turned on by Richard’s tears, she pulls out all the stops to make him cry. Couple #4, Phil & Maureen, have been married the longest of the bunch and they’re probably only still together for the sake of the kids. When Phil accidentally drugs Maureen, he discovers his ideal mate has always been right under his roof. Couple #5, Monica & Sam, aren’t a couple just yet but we know they will be. They’re both deaf but Monica is quite capable of filling in any deficiencies that Sam may be experiencing because of his inability to hear.

There is a good case for saying that THE LITTLE DEATH is not about sex at all. Rather, it’s about relationships and how couples try to find a connection that works for them. (Whatever happened to love, honour and listening?) I can appreciate that there are different strokes for different folks but two, and possibly three, of the so-called connections in this film involve non-consensual sex. Where I come from, that’s called “rape”. Unless you’re a fan of Brock Turner, rape should not be a laughing matter. Director Lawson must have been aware that he was walking on very thin ice with the story about Phil and Maureen, as he only shows the man cuddling his wife and alludes to him dressing her up while she’s knocked out. Even so, the message still suggests that, for Paul at least, a good mate is not only a submissive mate but one who doesn’t even know she’s being submissive.

THE LITTLE DEATH was the Audience Award Winner at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, an event that is known for its edgy programming. Whether Hong Kong audiences will be as receptive, we’ll soon see. I watched the film in a room with six women and two other men, all local Chinese, and while they laughed, I cringed. Maybe rape is funny these days.

The film does have some good points, the greatest of them being its educational value. As each couple is introduced, we’re presented with the definition of their fetish. So, we get to learn words like “dacryphilia” and “somnophilia”, which may come in handy one day. (Phil’s fetish would be more correctly termed “narcophilia”, if you’re really interested.) Subject matter and controversial themes aside, the acting was quite good all around. The actors who played Dan and Evie seemed to be having the most fun with it. Perhaps the role-playing scenarios and their costumes added to their performances. The script, though, was rather uneven both in pacing and in tone, and the ending, though completely understandable (at least to me), was somewhat unsatisfying. As all the couples — and especially the new neighbour — ultimately discover, and just like the film’s title suggests, their new-found happiness might be amazingly fantastic but it is short-lived.

THE LITTLE DEATH is being screened as part of the “Let’s Talk About Sex” film series, hosted by MOViE MOViE and the General Education Unit of HKU.  For more information, please visit their website. There will be a post-film discussion of this film led by sex therapist and relationship counselor, Cynthia Ho (何慕詩), following its screening on June 18.

Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 29:35.)

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