Five strong sketch-comedy ideas make up Australian actor Josh Lawson’s directorial debut, The Little Death, but that doesn’t mean they add up to a strong movie. It must have seemed to Lawson as if they might, since all five involve sexual fetishes. (The film’s title refers to the French term for an orgasm.) He even managed to come up with a clever unifying device, in the form of a middle-aged man named Steve (Kim Gyngell) who spends the movie knocking on doors to inform his neighbors that he’s a registered sex offender. (In a touch that may seem a tad bizarre to American viewers, Steve attempts to distract them from this announcement with nostalgic racism, offering them homemade golliwog cookies. It works repeatedly.) Despite these efforts, however, The Little Death never feels remotely of a piece, and is likely to find its proper audience months from now when the individual sketches show up on YouTube.
Let’s just break them down one at a time, then.
The goofiest one: With their sex life in a rut, Dan (Damon Herriman) and Evie (Kate Mulvany) take the advice of their therapist to spice things up with some naughty role-playing. It works, but Dan soon gets way too heavily into character, prioritizing emotional truth over sexiness. It’s easy to picture Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig in this scenario, but the joke starts getting repetitive well before the conclusion, and like so many actual Saturday Night Live sketches, this one has no ending at all. It just suddenly stops.
The nerviest one: Maeve (Bojana Novakovic) confesses to Paul (Lawson) that she fantasizes about being raped. Wanting desperately to please her, Paul tries to come up with a way to provide the genuine fear for her safety she claims to desire; predictably, this does not go well. It’s pretty damn hard to make even simulated rape funny, and Lawson isn’t equal to the task. On the other hand, this sketch echoes The Duke Of Burgundy in its heartfelt exploration of a couple who love each other but have different kinks (Paul is into feet), and it takes its premise seriously enough to make one crave a dramatic treatment.
The weirdest one: Apparently, there really is such a thing as dacryphilia, which involves being turned on by tears. Once Rowena (Kate Box) stumbles onto her fetish, she becomes obsessed with making Richard (Patrick Brammall) cry, whether by bringing Sophie’s Choice home on DVD or by constantly reminding him of his father’s recent death. Lawson milks some painful laughs from this one, while simultaneously digging into the destructive emotional manipulation that infects many relationships.
The ickiest one: Phil (Alan Dukes) discovers that he’s only sexually attracted to wife Maureen (Lisa McCune) when she’s asleep, and begins heavily sedating her so that he can cuddle with her unconscious form. Lawson doesn’t go so far as to show Phil actually raping Maureen, but this disturbing story does skate right up to the point of suggesting that women are much more pleasant company when they don’t talk, providing Phil with a sincere monologue that seems designed to inspire empathy. Why he doesn’t just get a divorce and an inflatable sex doll, since that’s what he seems to want, is a question never answered.
The best one: It’s no coincidence that The Little Death’s highlight is the one sketch that plays out unbroken almost from start to finish, rather than being intercut with the others. (It also serves as the grand finale, though Lawson makes a pathetic last-ditch attempt to tie it to some of the other tales.) Working at her job as a telephone interpreter for the deaf (via Skype), Monica (Erin James) fields a call from Sam (T.J. Power), who asks her to dial a phone-sex line for him. The resulting three-way conversation, with Monica acting as intermediary between Sam and a harried phone-sex operator, is by turns hilarious, discomfiting, and absurdly touching, and would likely have won multiple awards had it toured the festival circuit as a stand-alone short. Cramming it alongside these other shorts, with their wildly disparate tones, does it a disservice, and doesn’t do the other material any favors, either. Everything in The Little Death is worth watching. Just not necessarily in this contrived configuration.