The Little Death – Josh Lawson and the quirky Aussie film. (Film review)

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I said to some friends a couple of weeks ago, after I had seen The Little Death, “Oh, you might really like this film. It’s cute, quirky and really quite funny.” A good friend turned to me and said “What Australian film isn’t cute quirky and really quite funny?” and I repeat this mini episode here because it highlights what is great and what is wrong with The Little Death, a rather lovely film about relationship sex behind closed doors. While it is a brave concept that tackles complex and interesting sexual subject matter, it shy’s away from engaging with any of the topics it brings to the table with depth. taboos such as female rape fantasy, sexual fetish in females and sex offenders legally obliged to inform their neighborhood of their criminal status, the film stays “cute, quirky and really quite funny” all the way through, which takes it from potential greatness into a coy affair, something that a risqué film should never do, even if it starts out that way for comedic purposes. Problematically, the film becomes a one trick pony until the very end when a clip between a hearing and speech impaired man and his online translator phoning a sex line for him livens up the film and leaves it on a genuine high. This scene is, hands down, one of the best depictions of sex I’ve seen in a film and singlehandedly makes the film noteworthy, not to mention worth seeing. But for a film that had a lot of time and energy put into it, is beautifully acted and well made, it’s a crying shame that the script lets itself down with this lack of sophistication that Australian’s see a little too often in our films.

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Surely the first lesson, if you’re going to talk about sex baby, is to watch a shit load of French films – an allusion the title instantly creates, unfortunately in this case because it never lives up to its promise. The French can do sex – including the shamefully underrated Adoration, a 2013 Australian film which was an excellent example of the meeting of French Laissez faire and Australian She’ll-be-right-mate dealing with the topic of sexual taboo –  in all its manifestations, in film like no other country, necessarily sparking it out of the suburban bashful complacency one needs to eclipse if it is referenced. Even if your script is about dacryphilia or a man who drugs his wife to sleep in order to have sex with her each night, unless you engage with what makes us uncomfortable, you signpost the prude and The Little Death brings very interesting sexual subject matter to the fore, only to run from it when the really complicated questions arise. One of the reasons the final scene between the hearing impaired couple works so well, is that it is the initiates moment, where as every other couple has been in the relationship for a long time and is exploring sex inside monogamy. It doesn’t matter how many times we tell ourselves sex is just sex, it becomes very dull to watch when emotional complexity is missing, and Josh Lawson’s message seems to be sex can break you up or hold you together, but that is entirely dependent on fulfillment, when our experience of sex in relationship is more complex. The couples who can’t make their sex life compatible with their fetish have only the choice of separate or get brownie points for trying. Lawson seems to have chosen couples who don’t speak to each other, one of the most irritating problems in relationship films. Even the relationship where the couple have long since stopped loving each other, and the husband suddenly discovers he is drawn to his wife when she is asleep, begs the question, why didn’t he see this much earlier in the relationship?

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With all of this, The Little Death is an enjoyable watch, and even if “cute, quirky and really quite funny” is the other film Australians make besides extreme violence, this one is beautifully made. Josh Lawson and Bojana Novakovic are Paul and Maeve, as couple trying to find a way to spice things up by indulging in her sado masochistic fantasies of being raped. Alan Dukes and Lisa McCune are Phil and Maureen in a particularly well performed couple dealing with the breakdown of a marriage intersecting with the discovery of somnophilia, sexual arousal from watching a person sleeping. Kate Mulvany and Damon Herriman are very funny as Evie and Dan who bring role play into their relationship at the suggestion of a therapist, only to then have to deal with Dan taking it all too far and imagining himself a bit of a Jack Nicholson. Kate Box and Patrick Brammall are Rowena and Richard, a couple dealing with dacryphilia, or sexual arousal from watching someone cry. Erin James and TJ Power are Monica and Sam, the hearing impaired couple dealing with telephone scatalogia. Immediately obvious is the hetero-normative bias in the film as well, another “taboo” made all the more obvious by its absence, and a sign of a lack of sophistication. Kim Gyngell is Steve a wonderful role as a golliwog biscuit making sex offender trying not to get his neighbors off side. Gyngell’s role is one of the most interesting, because it embraces a darkness toward the end that the rest of the film sorely lacks, and because it is so well performed, his inner conflict is plastered all over his face, making for a chilling denouement. His role and performance, coupled with that of Erin James and TJ Power are the stand outs in the film, that combine great writing with excellent performances to say something fresh and original.

For the most part, The Little Death is a warm, witty clever film that shows a great deal of promise for Josh Lawson’s future, if he sticks with making Australian films that work hard at breaking the mold.

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