Looking for Love By Christian Monggard

in 24th Reykjavik International Film Festival

by Christian Monggaard

Richard Corliss of Time Magazine wrote something very true at the end of his recent, positive review of John Cameron Mitchell’s delightful Shortbus : ”Most people laugh and cry; most people have sex, occasionally at the same time. Sex isn’t divorced from our own emotional biographies; it’s an inextricable part of it.”

Shortbus , which was one of the best films in competition at this year’s Reykjavik International Film Festival, is a revelation. John Cameron Mitchell is not the first director to use explicit sex scenes in a film – Catherine Breillat, Lars von Trier, Patrice Chéreau have all done it before – but Shortbus is the first film, I have seen, where the sex is a natural part of the story and the characters’ lives, not an intellectual or cinematic gimmick used to provoke or shock the audience.

Mitchell starts out with a big bang – he knows that that is what the audience expects to see – and then he turns down the volume and lets us experience the characters, who are very much like most people, and who treat sex with, as Ty Burr wrote in his review in the Boston Globe , ”yearning, guilt, humour, delight, horniness, shallowness, profundity.” (It is only a good thing that so many American critics have embraced a film, which is having a rough time in the theatres over there because of the frank and honest way it deals with sex.)

Also, Shortbus and Mitchell have something important to say about a country, America, seized by fear and intolerance after 9/11. In the film, that takes place in New York, we meet a string of seemingly very different characters, who are struggling with some of the same problems when it comes to expressing emotions, finding love and enjoying sex. Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) is a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm. Her husband Rob (Raphael Barker) finds sex with her boring and goes to see a dominatrix, Severin (Lindsay Beamish), who is afraid of getting too close to another human being and uses her whip as a means of connecting with others. A gay couple, James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (P J. DeBoy), who have been together for several years, are not as happy as they appear and they come to Sofia for help and realize she could also need some guidance.

They all end up at the sex club/commune/cabaret Shortbus established and run by the flamboyant Justin Bond (played by real life drag star Justin Bond). There is room for everybody at Shortbus – even a disillusioned, former New York mayor and, back then, closeted homosexual, who failed to do anything about AIDS– and Justin tries to teach Sofia how to free herself and get the orgasm she needs. Sex isn’t the only way to happiness in John Cameron Mitchell’s universe, but certainly sex – as Richard Corliss puts it – has a lot to do with who we are and how we respond to each other emotionally.

In a world short on inter-cultural understanding and big on fear and hate, Justin Bond’s Shortbus becomes a haven, a Utopia, where everything is permitted, especially just being human, conflicted and confused. Mitchell, who previously directed and starred in the brilliant and somewhat similar glam rock-drama Hedwig and the Angry Inch, tells his stories with a great sense of humour – there is a fantastic scene in the film where three gay men sing the American national anthem in, to put it mildly, a very unorthodox and ultimately hilarious way – a rare understanding of what it means to be human – and some beautiful music from Yo La Tengo.

Most of the actors are amateurs who responded to an open casting call for people willing to have sex in front of the camera. During a long rehearsal period Mitchell developed the story and the characters of Shortbus with his actors, pairing them according to whom was attracted to whom. The result is remarkable and a quite a few of the non-professional actors deliver very touching and believable performances. At one point, Justin Bond says about Shortbus, the club: ”It’s like the ’60s, just with less hope.” I see what he means, nevertheless I left John Cameron Mitchell’s film feeling uplifted, hopeful and certain that as long as we have filmmakers like Mitchell and films like Shortbus there is still the promise of a (bright) future ahead.