A ribald Aussie anthology that proves to be mildly amusing and frustratingly sloppy.
The Little Death
Carnal desire is on everyone’s mind in Josh Lawson’s directorial debut The Little Death. Deriving its title from a French euphemism for orgasm, the film is a sex comedy anthology telling five loosely connected stories of fetishism and dysfunction. Both male and female perspectives are voiced, and the kinks range from quirky to disturbing. The topic lends itself to the potential for a biting satire on selfishness, sexual dishonesty and the consequences these things yield, but The Little Death is not heavily concerned with these things. It’s a trifle of shallow pleasures, unfortunately, let down by one too many tired gags and a series of contrived, somewhat clumsily assembled plots.
The film wastes no time wrestling the audience from its comfort zone with an opening scene in which a woman hesitantly confesses about a long-held rape fantasy. The tension is broken when her boyfriend humorously mishears the admission, and the sequence sets the tone for a comedy of blunt words balanced out by charming misunderstandings and exaggerations. Masochism soon gives way to roleplay tested out by a couple experiencing communication problems. Suggested by a relationship counselor, the practice helps reinvigorate their bedroom encounters, but the husband starts to take the acting too seriously after an offhand compliment. Elsewhere, a woman manipulates her significant other for the arousal brought on by his tears, a family man is stimulated by his abrasive wife’s “sleeping beauty” state, and a signing tele-interpreter mediates a lonely deaf man’s call to an impatient phone sex worker.
Lawson’s intentions are a bit tricky to pinpoint. While much of The Little Death is content to coast on bubbly kinkiness and wacky complications, it occasionally takes a turn into darker territory, with a handful of morally questionable character decisions posed as playful, and a pair of uncharacteristically brutal conclusions. At the same time, it strains for blushes and raised eyebrows by courting tabooed subject matter while also infusing unearned romantic sentiments in an attempt to stir sympathy for terribly repulsive and single-minded characters. The confusion leads to mixed feelings and a slightly inconsistent tone, but there are bigger issues threatening to tear down what starts out as mildly enjoyable, amusing fluff.
The greatest shortcoming of The Little Death is its structurally problematic script. To call an anthology “episodic” wouldn’t be so much of a put down as it would be a simple descriptor of the genre’s trappings, but the trouble with Lawson’s film is that it doesn’t fully commit to that format. Each tale is largely isolated to its own figures and events, but a few characters briefly cross into other stories for no discernible reason. A sense of the broader community is never established, and these peripheral characters wind up looking out of place, especially when Lawson goes for a bewildering Crash-style intertwining of narratives toward the end (one that doesn’t even include all the plot strands).
As it is, the individual segments are insubstantial. Held together by little more than sexually fueled scenarios and a whiff of relationship drama, there’s an absence of significant forward movement or development in these stories. They come off as extended situational skits with tacked on conclusions instead of complete arcs with a beginning, middle and end. Despite the looseness of it all, there is still a feeling of over-complication and a logically flawed progression. A pair of unnecessary subplots—one concerning a dead relative and the other a lost dog—only lead to neat conveniences, and an ill-conceived “neighborhood perv” character pops in and out of the film as a predictable distraction. Each extraneous addition adds a shot of black humor but fails to be very productive in the long run.
But all is not lost, as the film’s cast is a consistently dependable saving grace. Befuddled reactions are natural, plainspoken naughtiness is nicely timed, and each couple is compellingly genuine. It certainly helps that the actors have a good deal of wryly funny dialogue to work with, and almost everyone plays off each other well. A hint of staged direction and an irritating predilection for overly insistent music threatens to derail the cast’s work but doesn’t fully wash away the goodwill that the performers engender for the film.
In what is mostly a mediocre experience, The Little Death strikes gold for an entire 15-minute sequence toward the end. It’s the deaf interpreter story and, unlike the other segments, it plays out over the course of a single scene. The scenario carries the potential for something uncomfortable and raunchy, but it surprisingly isn’t either of these things. Sex talk ensues, of course, but the affair becomes sweet and endearingly offbeat in a way that nothing else in the film really matches. The scene is compact, has a degree of edginess, and has a fun, simple concept. It’s an outlier, but it’s a delightful one.
Those seeking out a titillating comedy may be enticed by The Little Death’s various bawdy premises, but will likely end up disappointed by a quintet of plots that only go skin deep. It’s an unambitious film, and one that plays it relatively safe when it comes to the physical act so little should be expected. Even taking its meager goals into account, the film falls short of the mark. It would be a gross overstatement to view it as an unsightly stain on the rich tapestry of a storied genre, though. The memory of it merely drifts away. The Little Death is a one-time fling that has its moments but ultimately fades by the light of the morning after.