With the full cooperation of the subjects themselves, “The Lifestyle” pulls back the curtain on the seldom-seen world of swingers — in this instance, thoroughly middle-class, middle-aged suburbanites who are into recreational group sex. Sympathetic, decidedly educational, often amusing and intermittently ultragraphic, this short feature docu is eminently promotable on the alternative specialized theatrical circuit as well as on video, and could snare a cable sale with some strategic snipping or obscuring of hard-core action.
Director David Schisgall worked on Errol Morris’ three most recent films, and his material and milieu are loaded with the potential for a Morris-like sidelong take on a “weird” subculture. But Schisgall’s obvious affection for his subjects mitigates against any untoward editorializing about what seems like an amazingly happy bunch of people. For all the talk about sexual liberation over the last 40 years or so, these are men and women who have actually done something about it and, to hear them tell it, are much better off for it.
Vast majority of the film consists of commentary from 20 or so swingers — mostly straight, conventional, homely looking Mom and Pop types from Orange County, Calif., who just happen to be into orgies rather than bridge or bowling. Participants are roughly between 50 and 70 and, as one former Marine Latina puts it, “This type of lifestyle is for couples that have been together years, double-digit years, in fact.” One old lady admits, “We’re just sorry we didn’t know about this earlier. We’re making up for lost time.”
But it’s no secret that young, attractive swingers exist, and Schisgall might have found a way to address their absence from the film; most likely, they probably just didn’t want to be seen on-camera. As it is, these generally out-of-shape, often fat and slow-moving fun-lovers getting it on is definitely a sight to behold, albeit one that many people might prefer to avoid.
Schisgall and lenser Peter Hawkins’ camera explores suburban enclaves that have been specially outfitted with padded group rooms, custom slings and chairs, and so on, for large-scale partying; goes on the road to seek out swingers across the country; and attends an annual Lifestyles convention where guests strut around in outrageous costumes (or lack of same), and where all manner of sexual paraphernalia is on display.
Along the way, some key questions are answered: Sex at the group bacchanals is by mutual consent only, with everyone free to say no; AIDS is considered a non-issue, given the social strata from which the swingers come and the taboo on male gay sex (it’s fine for women); and, yes, coming out to their kids about the lifestyle can be tricky.
What isn’t explained is why these people, who are so devoted to the pursuit of physical pleasure, take such poor care of their bodies, and why they share such uniformly tacky taste in clothes, furnishings and houses; the swinger aesthetic on view here is pure bad taste, to the point of being a turnoff.
An interesting subtext that might profitably have been explored in greater depth is politics. Except for the sexual component, the people here seem very conservative (several are former military), albeit of the libertarian stripe that is opposed to any government intrusion into personal behavior. Although they might agree on much else, the estimated three million U.S. swingers stand at the opposite end of the rightist spectrum from the religious fundamentalists and could, if they ever felt their rights were being threatened, represent a so-called swing vote, or opposition force, to self-anointed moral crusaders.
Tech qualities are good, but some of the talking goes on too long; even at 78 minutes, pic could use some minor pruning, especially in the concluding “one year later” update on several of the participants.