By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“There are a lot of things you can do with sex,” Mitchell told his audience after a recent screening. “It’s more than just despair.” It sure is: Sex in Shortbus is redemptive, affirming, silly and even wholesome. What it is not, however, is erotic. For that you need shame. Or danger. Or at least a thunderstorm of the sort that soaked Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Match Point.
Iwas 10 or 11 years old when my mother, ill-advisedly, or maybe just wanting company at the movies, took me to see David Lean’s 1970 epic Ryan’s Daughter, a retooling of Madame Bovary set in Dingle, Ireland, post–World War I. Watching it again now feels like the first time, but for two things: John Mills’ Oscar-winning performance as Michael, and a flash of Sarah Miles’ breast when the wounded Major Doryan (Christopher Jones) pulls Rosy Ryan (Miles) off her horse and has his way with her in the glade. It is the earliest memory I have of arousal at the movies, and I’m still convinced that, even at 10, I would not have felt it were Rosy not married and the major not off-limits.
In those ensuing adolescent years of birth control and free love, my friends and I would observe more movie sex, including the famous butter scene (we snuck into Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris in 1973) and sex with broken glass and strawberry jam (Mom inexplicably took us to see Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974), but these were stories of power, not stolen passion; tales of detached sex between nameless neighbors (Tango) and the undeniable passion of a concentration-camp survivor for her former captor (Night Porter) confused us more than they turned us on. Tellingly, those films and their defining scenes come off as stilted and ironic today; post–Madonna and John Waters’ mainstream success, sex in the movies has come so far that sometimes the most titillating choice is to not let the protagonists get naked at all. It may have been frustrating when Johansson and Bill Murray parted at the end of Lost in Translation, but a consummated tryst couldn’t possibly have worked to the advantage of any viewer’s libido.
Nor do any of the encounters in Shortbus — which is not, in the end, a bad thing. Mitchell might care as much about horniness as he does about compassion, but by refusing to make one a hostage of the other, he frees his characters to battle over something other than sex. And if the movie doesn’t inspire you to go home and get it on so much as it fills you with love for all humanity, perhaps Mitchell has achieved a higher good: Sex, as we’ve learned in the last quarter of a century, comes easy. It’s love that’s hard.
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