Halfway through Sophie Fiennes’s Pervert’s Guide To Cinema, philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that pornography is as conservative as any other genre. Most films are free to depict emotional realism, but are limited to sexual artifice. Pornography suffers from the opposite constraints. Shortbus, with its graphic scenes of un-simulated sex, plays as if writer/director John Cameron Mitchell saw an early cut of Fiennes’s film and took Žižek’s words as a challenge. One critic called it “Manhatten with moneyshots,” and he wasn’t far off.
Most of Shortbus’s buzz is the result of its very (very) graphic sex scenes, which are understandably difficult to ignore. Mitchell films every permutation of ever combination, be it multi-partner, single-partner or solitary. An all-male threesome is of particular interest not just for its audacity, but for the stunning logistics of its blowjob triangle (not to mention the stirring tossed-salad rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”). But I assure you it’s all very tasteful, or at least as tasteful as this material can be.
Shortbus is nothing if not direct, with Mitchell frontloading the action, kicking things off with the best opening montage since Magnolia. It serves not only as a mission statement for the depravity to ensue, but introduces his colorful cast of characters: a gay couple considering an open relationship, the peeping-tom who’s obsessed with them, a dominatrix who’s never had a romantic relationship and, in the film’s best performance, Sook-Yin Lee as a pre-orgasmic sex therapist. Over the next 100-minutes, Mitchell pushes his characters out of their comfort zones (and the audience’s), and the results are hilarious, campy, heartbreaking, emotionally generous, and ultimately quite touching.
And that’s the thing about Shortbus. Behind its shocking veneer and rebel posturing lies an aching, wounded heart. What else would you expect from the creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch?