Of all the explicit exertions on display in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, perhaps the most naked is a scene between two women wearing towels. One is a sex therapist (“couples counselor,” she likes to correct), the other a surly dominatrix. The dominatrix, who calls herself Severin, is trying to be real with the sex therapist and disclose her real name. She can’t even say it; she has to write it on a scrap of paper. Yet she has no problem whipping the bare asses of men she doesn’t know. Of course not. One act requires her to be vulnerable, the other doesn’t.

Chockablock with sex acts hetero and homo, Shortbus isn’t really about sex. It’s about intimacy and honesty, and how those things thrive — or don’t — in post-9/11 New York. Mitchell, whose dazzling 2001 debut Hedwig and the Angry Inch dissected gender, approaches Shortbus as a Whartonesque inquiry into the mores and manners of the nonstop city. Its structure is episodic, its style grainy and indie, but underneath its shock-the-mundanes surface there’s the old universal story about finding one’s own path. Mitchell is shaping up to be the premier lateral inspirational artist, telling stories about working through personal demons without resorting to Hollywood tropes.

The central figure is Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee, who had a hilarious bit role in Hedwig), the aforementioned sex therapist. Sofia has a ferociously amorous sex life with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker), but she considers herself “pre-orgasmic” — she’s never had the Big O. (That she uses the term “pre-orgasmic” and not “anorgasmic” testifies to her — and the movie’s — essential guarded optimism.) While treating couple James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy), who are considering an open relationship, Sofia learns of a sex club called Shortbus, presided over by Justin Bond playing his incomparable self. People young and old, fat and thin, gyrate in the backgrounds of shots, dressed up or undressed, sharing this space of acceptance. Sofia is terrified, but meets the aforementioned Severin (Lindsay Beamish), who flays her devoted slaves but yearns to be an artist.

Anyone renting Shortbus hoping for stroke material will be disappointed — it’s the most unerotic-by-design sexually explicit film since 1980’s Cafe Flesh. Like David Cronenberg in Crash, Mitchell uses the sex as a shorthand. Solo or with Rob, Sofia lunges at sex, straining to achieve the elusive orgasm. The morose James videotapes himself in various onanistic poses, then cries afterward. James and Jamie engage in a three-way with model Ceth (Jay Brennan), amusing themselves with the awkwardness of the positioning, at one point launching into a not-to-be-forgotten rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

There’s considerable wit in Mitchell’s doodling; he even proves adept at a bit of slapstick involving a vibrating egg. As in Hedwig, Mitchell attends seriously to the characters’ despair but is too much the entertainer to drown us in it. Once again, he sends us out happy with an upbeat number — “In the End” (“We all get it in the end”), accompanied by a random marching band. Shortbus flips through varying moods with overall success, fleshing out the characters who show flesh. Sofia seems mesmerized by a couple (credited as “Beautiful Couple”) who have free, happy sex — the woman keeps looking up at Sofia during coitus and offering her the warmest smile seen in movies in years. (The actress is Shanti Carson; look her up on IMDb and tell me I’m wrong.) That smile is Shortbus‘ defining image: Forget all this stuff and just enjoy it, honey.

Whenever possible, Mitchell avoids cliché; a stalker type (Peter Stickles) following James around just wants James and Jamie to stay together forever — he doesn’t want to insert himself into the fray. A retired mayor (Alan Mandell), who may or may not be a stand-in for Ed Koch, speaks gently but firmly for the need for forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness. There’s a lot of self-help language bouncing around — Sofia is always “owning” her responses to things instead of just having them — but Mitchell’s point is that at some point language breaks down and the physical and the spiritual take over. I bet Shortbus would please a lot of the people who’d be afraid of its sexual openness. Don’t be afraid, Mitchell is saying; just dive in.

Explore posts in the same categories: art-house, comedy, cult, drama, one of the year's best, porn

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