The Little Death

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<i>The Little Death</i>

Let’s be honest: Sometimes sex between committed couples can hit a rut, so there’s nothing wrong with mixing up the routine. But if one party decides to add a little spice, explore a kink or two without fully communicating to his or her partner, then things can get freaky—in and out of the sheets. At least that’s the premise of writer-director-actor Josh Lawson’s debut feature The Little Death.

With its title the literal English translation of French phrase la petite mort—a euphemism you can undoubtedly figure out on your own if you’re unacquainted—this “romp”-com explores the lengths that five suburban couples in Sydney will go to obtain the “big O.” Maeve (Bojana Novakovic) has become bored in the bedroom and confesses to her boyfriend Paul (Lawson) about her rape fantasy. She wants him to attack her when she least expects it—he wants to both please her and avoid sexual assault. Meanwhile, Phil (Alan Dukes) and Maureen (Lisa McCune)’s marriage has crumbled into a sea of bitterness. He’s a shell of his younger self, constantly derided and chastised by his wife. When she accidentally takes his sleeping pills one night, Phil discovers his somnophilia: arousal when watching a person sleep. In her unconscious state, Phil is able to talk to and rediscover the woman with whom he fell in love.

The Little Death is a cursory run through all manner of fixations and fetishes: Rowena (Kate Box) is a Dacryphiliac, in that she gains sexual pleasure in seeing her husband Richard (Patrick Brammall) cry; Evie and Dan (Kate Mulvany and Damon Herriman) role play; and Monica and Sam (Erin James and TJ Power) get their rocks off via telephone scatalogia, turned on from making obscene phone calls to strangers. The only singleton in the film is Steve (Kim Gyngell) a sex offender who must, by law, introduce himself to his new neighbors as such. He has a knack for approaching the couples at inopportune moments, so the presence of a sex offender in their midst barely registers.

This is apparently a comedy, and yet only a few of the characters’ exploits are even mildly humorous, such as Evie and Dan playing doctor-patient or Rowena capitalizing on her husband’s sadness, even lying to him about serious illness to get the most out of their love-making. Most situations are just uncomfortable to watch. Paul, who wants nothing more than to satisfy Maeve, is conflicted about essentially assaulting his girlfriend (because of course he is), and Lawson delivers a sweet, nuanced performance as a guy who will do anything to please his girlfriend, even if it disturbs him to the core. Likewise, Phil walks a fine line between caregiver and creep. We pity him because both he and his marriage have devolved, but drugging someone without their consent or knowledge is despicable. Lawson tries to keep the audience from judging Phil’s actions too harshly by showing him dressing her in lingerie and applying makeup so they can spoon and cuddle in bed. He’s not having sex with her (at least onscreen), so that mitigates the situation—sort of. Yet, Lawson’s attempts to lighten the heaviness of some of the storylines by keeping the dialogue and the sexual depictions quite chaste make for an obviously uneven tone throughout the film.

Rather than a true ensemble piece, The Little Death is a series of loosely connected theatrical vignettes: Some of the characters’ storylines overlap, but their relationships are inconsequential. Lawson’s script tries to tie up all loose ends with an interesting encounter between sex offender Steve and Monica—just when the film heightens its tension into the realm of something with anything to say about the treacherous terrain of sexuality, it delivers a stagy ending with a twist. Too bad Lawson couldn’t have sprinkled more excitement throughout the first two-thirds of the film.

In fact, The Little Death’s only truly funny moment comes during an encounter between Monica and Sam. She serves as a translator for the deaf at a video call center, and new customer Sam asks her to call a sex line for him. The situation—Monica offering a cleaned-up “translation” of the nasty things that Sam would like done to him, as well as the sex worker’s response—feels fresh and dynamic next to the well-tread, even boring, problems of the other, much better established couples. Though they’re only signing through their video screens, the chemistry between the two characters is palpable.

True to its assumed genre, The Little Death is reminder of how sex is an endlessly complicated human anomaly. Sometimes people can’t help but be turned on by things that others might deem improper. Like the film, we’re not casting judgment; it can just be difficult to watch some of this when the preferences aren’t your own. This difficulty—watching others indulge in behavior you would never dream of indulging on your own—the film mines for comedy, instead of encouraging viewers to reflect on their own indulgences. It’s pretty retroactive (not to mention a big turn-off) for a film that wants to be anything but.

Director: Josh Lawson
Writer: Josh Lawson
Starring: Josh Lawson, Bojana Novakovic, Damon Herriman, Kate Mulvany, Kate Box, Patrick Brammall, Alan Dukes, Lisa McCune, Erin James, TJ Power
Release Date: June 26, 2015

Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.