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A Sex Comedy for the Sexually Active: The Little Death

At time of writing, it’s a few weeks to the start of the 63rd BFI London Film Festival, which much to my horror will be my 20th consecutive LFF. One of the pleasures of the festival is discovering little-seen, unremarked gems from filmmakers, and often in genres, that wouldn’t usually appeal. When less film-obsessed friends (yes, I do associate with a few) ask, post-LFF, what they should watch, The Little Death is one I always mention even though it screened back in 2014. It remains stubbornly obscure, which is a tragedy. Not only is it one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, it’s also a rarity in modern cinema; a comedy about sex aimed at adults.

The title is a reference to the French expression La petite mort, the idea that an orgasm can be both blissful and melancholic. The film delivers both in spades through an interconnected portmanteau plot, following several couples in a well-to-do Sydney suburb. Paul (writer/director Josh Lawson) and his girlfriend Maeve (Bojana Novakovic) are exploring a particular unconventional fantasy; Dan (Damon Herriman) and Evie (Kate Mulvany) try roleplay to enliven their struggling marriage; Rowena (Kate Box) and Richard (Patrick Brammall) are trying for a baby, while Phil (Alan Dukes) wants anything but disdain from his disapproving wife Maureen (Lisa McCune).

What sets the film apart is how it explores these otherwise trite themes. Each thread centres around a different fetish, the inference being that behind closed doors, everyone has their kinks; even (or rather especially) in ‘nice’ neighbourhoods. The dark secret Maeve has always hidden is a rape fantasy. Dan and Evie’s roleplay gets out of hand when she offhandedly says he’s good enough to be a real actor. Unfortunately for Dan, Evie isn’t turned on by his sudden penchant for cashmere scarves, elaborate set building or libido-destroying character embellishments (“You’re trying to turn me on by telling me you’ve sexually assaulted a man?!” “It’s called having a backstory, Evie!”). Meanwhile, Rowena and Richard’s mechanical, timetabled-to-ovulation pregnancy sex isn’t working for anyone. Until such time  that Richard’s father dies, and Rowena finds she’s sent into orgasmic bliss at the sight of her husband crying. She engineers ever-more upsetting events just to get off, which goes about as well as you’d expect.

Then there’s Phil. Oh, Phil.

The darkest strand in an already jet-black comedy begins when shrewish Maureen accidentally swallows a couple of sleeping pills. Phil realises that he very much enjoys the company of his wife when she isn’t belittling him. He begins drugging her so that they can spend time together (candlelit dinners, romantic ‘walks’) without a constant stream of abuse. Their marriage becomes idyllic just as long as Maureen is unconscious.

The Phil/Maureen arc is the best example of The Little Death’s refusal to give easy answers. What Phil is doing is utterly reprehensible, and for some viewers will set off trigger-warning klaxons that drown out any potential laughter. Phil is the closest the film has to an angry basement Incel. In another subplot, a sex offender (Kim Gyngell) is forced to inform the neighbours that he’s moved into the area. To soften the blow he hands out lovingly handmade Gollywog cookies. Most of the street are too distracted or wrapped up in their own problems to care, or even notice. Phil on the other hand, ignores the sex offender bit in favour of wistfully reminiscing about how you don’t get racist cookies any more because of political correctness. And yet, when his scheme is uncovered, Phil’s heartache is honestly moving (“She listens to me. She’s nice to me. She doesn’t make me feel like the only thing stopping her from being happy IS me.”).

Phil’s story isn’t the only one in The Little Death that pushes far beyond good taste in its quest for laughs. Paul’s attempts to fulfil Maeve’s fantasy become ever more elaborate and beyond the pale. The first time I saw the film I wasn’t alone in watching in horror through my fingers, wondering if Lawson and co. had taken one dark turn too far. Thankfully, though tap-dancing on the razor’s edge of oh-God-no humour, they manage – just – to land on the right side. Lawson is smart enough to know that the joke is only funny when it’s on the perpetrator; the ‘victim’ of the gag invariably comes out on top, if perhaps emotionally scarred.

Though most of the film interweaves plots and characters, the final vignette is a single story. Monica (Erin James) is a hearing-impaired worker at a phone service for the deaf. Users call in over skype, and she interprets their sign language to the person on the other end of the phone. Enter Sam (TJ Power), a lonely young guy who wants to call a sex chat line. Monica is entirely unprepared to relay what she’s hearing from chat line worker Sonya (Genevieve Hegney), who is sorting laundry and changing a baby while moaning orgasmically. This section, which leads to the film’s only real instance of genuine romance, is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

The talented ensemble is a big reason why The Little Death stays on the rails. It’s not surprising that Lawson and Novakovic have made successful inroads to American TV and film, while Damon Herriman just played Charles Manson in both Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Netflix’s true-crime series Mindhunter.

I think the reason The Little Death stands out in the twenty first century is because it centres on the sex lives of adults – actual adults, not Seth Rogen manchildren who unfeasibly win the hearts of Hollywood starlets from an entirely different strata of attractiveness. This genre grew out of the 1980s, the endless parade of what Tom Hanks once described as the-guys-who-can’t-get-laid movies. Made to appeal to horny adolescents, any actual meditations on sex were swept aside in favour of cheerful dorks both onscreen and off trying to see some bouncing cheerleader tits. For those of us in the UK, even this was preferable to 1970s Robin Askwith, humping future soap actresses on the kitchen linoleum to the accompaniment of a kazoo orchestra. Or the Italian equivalent, where Alvaro Vitali and friends went to extreme lengths to watch Edwige Fenech having a shower. In all honesty I can’t really argue with the last one.

Instead, The Little Death owes more to the previous decades’ bedroom farces than Porky’s; at least if Pillow Talk or Sex and the Single Girl had involved an elaborate rape joke. The film doesn’t rely on nudity or dick/pie interfaces to keep viewers’ attention. The film’s appeal, apart from the fact that it’s really fucking funny, is how disturbingly familiar it is. Anyone who has been with a partner for a long time will know that sometimes sex becomes rote. Attempts to ‘spice things up’ rarely go to plan – no sexy French maid fantasy has ever survived the donning of some polyester horror from Ann Summers, and that velvet wingback chair in your hotel room probably isn’t as stable as it looks. Sex is, on occasion, a damn nuisance, and The Little Death embraces this idea like a life partner in libido-killing feety cat pyjamas.

The Little Death got a very limited release in the US, but can be found on DVD and blu-ray. In the UK its ultimate fate was even worse, being retitled with the dreadful ‘A Funny Kind of Love’ and getting scant release at all. That said, it can be streamed on Amazon Prime as of September 2019. It’s worth seeking out, even if you do have to white-knuckle in disbelief through a couple of scenes before Lawson lets you off the hook. Treasure it as the dark gem it is; a sex comedy for people who’ve actually had sex.

About Dave Thomas

Dave Thomas's path was laid out when his grandparents allowed him to stay up late watching Hammer horror films on TV. Already a Star Wars nut, he hit puberty at the exact moment pre-cert home video arrived in the UK. It was all downhill from the day an uncomprehending babysitter left him alone with a copy of Deathstalker; he's still rendered helpless at the thought of Lana Clarkson waving a wooden broadsword. Dave's love of weird films eventually led him to the BFI, where he's a Patron and regular supporter; find him in the bar after screenings loudly decrying the lack of a Bruno Mattei season. An occasional film reviewer and podcaster, he's guested on The Fiasco Brothers Watch a Movie, BERGCAST (the all-Quatermass podcast) and the BMovieCast, and contributed reviews to Teleport-City.com. Dave's wrote 'Hammer Films: Back From the Dead' for the MovieWiz Academy, part of a series of "where to start with…" ebooks available for Kindle. Dave dreams of giving up work to follow his true passion; dividing his vast DVD collection into increasingly pedantic sections. He lives in Hertfordshire, England with his wife, cats and collection of hideous shirts.

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