Review: The fetish fables of 'The Little Death' score

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

I come to praise the portmanteau.

Anthologies, omnibuses, whatever you want to call them: Those cinematic conglomerations of disconnected or slightly interwoven stories are what I'm talking about. As a storytelling tradition, it stretches back beyond "The Canterbury Tales," and runs through "Pulp Fiction." The latest is "The Little Death," an Australian series of sex fetish fables.

The portmanteau is often good fun because it's happily free of conventional structure. Many great directors have tried their hand in them, from Francis Ford Coppola ("New York Stories") to Robert Altman ("Short Cuts," ''Nashville"), and Roberto Rossellini ("L'Amore") to Eric Rohmer ("Six in Paris").

When portmanteaus work, they have an internal rhythm of their own, like the time zone-skipping clocks of Jim Jarmusch's "Night on Earth." Hopscotching from tale to tale, they can feel like dreams (Powell and Pressburger's mesmerizing "Tales of Hoffman") or mimic day-dreamed nightmares (Preston Sturges' hysterical "Unfaithfully Yours"). In others, the poetic brevity of their tales (Wayne Wong and Paul Auster's "Smoke") take on the feeling of a good short story collection.

Lately, anthologies have seemingly grown in popularity on all kinds of screens, including TV's "True Detective" and "Black Mirror," and the Argentinian, Oscar-nominated movie of extreme revenge vignettes, "Wild Tales." The current appeal probably owes something to our digitally scrambled minds; author Alissa Quart dubbed multi-linear movies "hyperlink cinema."

One of the most remarkable recent entries was Leos Carax's electrically zany romp "Holy Motors." Carax said his tale of an actor who reinvents himself scene to scene throughout a day in Paris was really about human relationships in the age of the Internet.

"The Little Death," while frequently funny and sometimes perhaps offensive in the darkness of its humor, has the misfortune of following the recent release of Roy Andersson's "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence." The deadpan existentialism of Anderson's Scandinavian humor, spread out across dozens of absurdist short scenes, makes "The Little Death" look downright sitcomish.

That's not such a bad thing. Australian writer-director Josh Lawson's slickly made debut is a collection of stories about Aussie suburbanite couples and the trouble that comes from either pursuing or hiding an unusual sexual desire.

One woman (Kate box) gets off on her husband (Patrick Brammall) crying, and goes to great lengths to get him weepy, including fake kidnapping his dog. At his father's funeral, she can barely contain herself.

The role-playing recommended by a therapist to a couple (Kate Mulvany and Damon Herriman of "Justified") brings on an unlikely epiphany for the boyfriend: He's an actor. Soon, he's dressing as a Southern Civil War general and criticizing his girlfriend for breaking character.

Another woman (Bojana Novakovic) wants her boyfriend (Lawson) to rape her. He initially misunderstands, thinking she asked him to "rate her." ''Babe, you're a 10!" he responds.

This story line, along with another chapter dealing with a husband aroused by his sleeping wife, will surely lose some viewers who would rather not see even pretend rape made a punchline.

But the light, comic tone of "The Little Death," which takes its name from a nickname for orgasm, is generally free of judgment. Here is rueful empathy for those under the helpless sway of some very peculiar tastes. When a registered sex offender (Kim Gyngell) visits each couple (connected, it would seem, by the same Sydney neighborhood) to make his legally obliged introduction, he usually appears the less disturbed one.

And it ends with an unexpectedly sweet and largely uninterrupted tale about a video phone translating service for the deaf. A translator (Erin James) takes a call from a young deaf man (T. J. Power), who, through sign language, asks her to enable his phone-sex call. The scene is funny, raunchy and improbably tender — the combination that Lawson has been striving for.

Connection is illusive in the portmanteau. But in the last vignette of "The Little Death," the film finally scores.

"The Little Death," a Magnolia Pictures release, is unrated by the MPAA. The film's language, violence and sex would likely merit an R-rating. Running time: 97 minutes. Three stars out of four.


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