Rating: (5 out of 5) [Critic’s Pick!] Thursday, 10/12/2006, 7:30 PM Feature presentation, $15 at Lincoln Theatre
IT’S NO UNDERSTATEMENT to claim Shortbus as the boldest, most daring and challenging film Reel Affirmations has ever had the honor to open with. John Cameron Mitchell’s artistic romp through New York’s hipster world of sex and salons is already controversial for its use of hardcore sex (both gay and straight), but the movie transcends basic lasciviousness, becoming in the process a surprisingly tender treatise on the fluid nature of connections and love. All at once it leaves you feeling warm and alive, revives your faith in maverick filmmaking, and imprints itself on your memory in a way few contemporary movies seem capable of.
The narrative path concerns the intersecting lives of several New Yorkers who, post-9/11, are seeking meaning in their lives and relationships. To that end, they attend weekly gatherings at an anything-goes salon called Shortbus. At first glance, it seems like a modern-day Plato’s Retreat — particularly the orgy room — but the venue also serves as a place for sharing ideas, art and memories. (One especially poignant moment involves a prolonged monologue by an Ed Koch lookalike, who talks wistfully of his days as Mayor of New York.)
The free-form plot follows a gay couple, both named Jamie, who are on the verge of separating and who take in a third to spice things up; an uptight sex-therapist who has never had an orgasm; and a dominatrix named Severin who appears to be disgusted with both herself and her job.
The cast, comprised largely of unknowns, is sensational. Newcomers PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson are pitch-perfect as the two Jamies, Sook-Yin Lee is delightful as the sexually arrested therapist, and Justin Bond (of Kiki and Herb) is masterful as the Shortbus host, holding court with royal elegance. Peter Sickles gives a strong, striking performance as a shy voyeur, his character growing well beyond its initial creepy bounds. And Lindsay Beamish allows a quiet, almost imperceptible vulnerability to seep into Severin’s abrasive edges.
As for the explicit sex, Mitchell delves right into it from the start — the semen flows, the penetration is genuine. No glossy Hollywood frottage here, it’s the real down-and-dirty deed. But while the sexual acts are critical to the storyline, they ultimately don’t overwhelm it. Several of the carnal moments — including a balls-to-the-chin gay three-way and a bit with a vibrating vaginal egg — are as funny as they are titillating. But by the movie’s end, the prurient nature of sex has become inconsequential, replaced by a deeper, more lasting emotion, a feeling of love, of acceptance, of unyielding communal bliss.
Shortbus is an extraordinary achievement for Mitchell, whose previous film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, became a cult fave. Here, the director taps into a ’70s cinematic esthetic — Shortbus has the feel of something of great value, where information is being imparted by way of art. And in today’s cookie-cutter world of filmmaking, that’s nothing short of revelatory. And it’s no understatement to claim Shortbus as one of the most important films of the year, let alone the decade. — Randy Shulman
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