Toronto Film Review: ‘The Little Death’

Australian actor Josh Lawson writes, directs and appears in this middling ensemble comedy about the wacky sex lives of four suburban couples.

Sex festish comedy "The Little Death"

Four couples and their various kinky proclivities prove less intriguing than you might expect in “The Little Death,” a more sitcomish than subversive writing-directing debut from Australian actor Josh Lawson. Tracing a series of loosely connected sexcapades unfolding in and around the same suburb, this roundelay of carnal dysfunction strains for a fusion of sweetness and naughtiness that it only intermittently brings off, apart from one magically inspired final episode that explores the fascinating possibilities of phone sex for the deaf. The well-cast effort opens Sept. 25 in Oz, following its international launch at Toronto, and despite the somewhat uncomfortable use of rape as a plot device, the film’s verbally and visually tame approach might help it find some limited action offshore.

As demonstrated by John Waters’ much more crudely assaultive sex comedy “A Dirty Shame” (2004), the possibility that your neighbors are harboring all manner of disturbing fetishes is not automatically grounds for nonstop hilarity. Still, Lawson is clearly aiming for a milder, more intimate and dialogue-driven brand of domestic comedy with a dollop more sophistication (as evidenced by the French double entendre for “orgasm” that supplies the film’s title) as he cuts among four couples whose moribund sex lives could stand to be rejuvenated by a little experimentation.

For Maeve (Bojana Novakovic), that means being raped by her sweet if commitment-phobic b.f., Paul (Lawson), in such a way that she doesn’t necessarily realize it’s him. The logistical dangers of this proposition aside, it does raise the provocative question of whether such a fantasy could ever really be fulfilled, given the impossibility of really wanting something done against your will. In any event, Paul finds out the difficulty of such a feat as he tries to surprise Maeve while dressed as a masked attacker, with unsurprisingly messy results.

The subject of rape rears its head to even creepier effect in the case of Phil (Alan Dukes) and Maureen (Lisa McCune), an older couple stuck in an unhappy marriage. Paul yearns to rekindle the intimacy he once shared with his wife before she became an overbearing scold, something that can only be managed, apparently, when Maureen accidentally takes his sleeping pills and is knocked out cold one night, allowing Paul to have his way with her at last. Before long he’s slipping her mickeys on a nightly basis. While the film tries to spin their “dates” in a sweetly romantic direction, there’s no denying the faintly disturbing way it dodges the issue of consent, while coming dangerously close to suggesting that the only good woman is a quiet one.

The most aimless of the film’s stories involves Evie (Kate Mulvany) and Dane (Damon Herriman), who decide to spice up their lovelife with a little role-play fantasy. It works so well that Dane decides he wants to pursue a full-blown acting career; soon he’s fantasizing more about seeing his name in lights than anything else, and things quickly deflate from there. Rather more out-there is the strange experience of Rowena (Kate Box), who finds herself mightily aroused whenever her husband, Richard (Patrick Brammall), sheds a tear. Clearly afflicted with a full-blown case of dacryphilia (one of many bizarre sexual syndromes helpfully defined onscreen), she’s soon doing whatever she can to trigger the waterworks, whether it’s reminding Richard that his father just died or endangering the family dog.

Tying these four vignettes together is the occasional presence of Steve (Kim Gyngell), a registered sex offender who’s obliged to visit every couple and let them know he’s moved into the neighborhood. It’s a clever enough gag that quickly overstays its welcome, which is par for the course in a movie where the humor too often feels one-note and obvious, the edginess more self-congratulatory than anything else. The actors are all game and well paired, but flashes of chemistry and an appreciable level of production finesse (courtesy of d.p. Simon Chapman and composer Michael Yezerski) aren’t enough to bring the requisite charge to this flimsy, pseudo-provocative material.

And yet, “The Little Death” does have one terrific ace up its sleeve: a fifth story, almost completely unconnected to the others, featuring Monica (Erin James, a bit of a Sally Hawkins lookalike), who works at a Skype-like video service translating phone calls for the deaf. On a slow night, she winds up on a call with Sam (T.J. Power), only to find that he wants her to mediate his conversation with a phone-sex operator (Genevieve Hegney). What ensues is a perfectly timed, beautifully structured verbal and gestural farce that manages to be at once raucously funny, sweetly touching and genuinely romantic. Rife with awkwardness and miscommunication, and keenly attuned to the reality of what a mixed blessing technology can be, the story would work well as a stand-enough short; as such, it’s easily the most promising evidence here that Lawson the writer-director may yet have bigger and better things ahead of him.

Toronto Film Review: ‘The Little Death’

Reviewed at UTA, Los Angeles, Aug. 26, 2014. (In Sydney Film Festival; Toronto Film Festival — Discovery.) Running time: <strong>96 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Australia) An eOne Films, LevelK and See Pictures presentation, in association with Screen Australia, Night Kitchen Prods., Red Apple, Spectrum Films, Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, of a Ticket to Ride production. (International sales: LevelK, Copenhagen.) Produced by Jamie Hilton, Michael Petroni, Matt Reeder. Executive producers, Josh Pomeranz, Viv Scanu, Stephen Boyle, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross. Co-producers, Michael Pontin, Miranda Culley.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Josh Lawson. Camera (color, widescreen, Arri Alexa digital), Simon Chapman; editor, Christian Gazal; production designer, Xanthe Highfield; music, Michael Yezerski; music supervisor, Andrew Kotatko; art director, Carlos Zalapa; costume designer, Ingrid Weir; sound, Jules Ambroisine; sound designer, Sam Haywood; re-recording mixer, Sam Hayward; visual effects supervisor, Andrew Chapman; visual effects producer, Matt Lynch; visual effects, the Flock; stunt coordinator, Tony Lynch; line producer, Danni Janus; assistant director, Scott Lovelock; casting, Nikki Barrett.
  • With: Josh Lawson, Bojana Novakovic, Damon Herriman, Kate Mulvany, Kate Box, Patrick Brammall, Alan Dukes, Lisa McCune, Erin James, T.J. Power, Kim Gyngell, Lachy Hulme.