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Shortbus Review

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New York sex therapist Sofia (Lee) has never had an orgasm, and is introduced to the Shortbus parties, where art and orgies go hand in hand. Meanwhile, her clients Jamie and James are debating on whether to bring a third party into the ailing relationship.

★★★★★

Hedwig And The Angry Inch writer-director John Cameron Mitchell opts for another cheerful celebration of polysexuality in this drama set in contemporary New York. Casting likeable unknowns prepared — nay, eager — to have sex and masturbate on camera, he depicts an urban subculture in which guilt-free, multi-partner sex frequently equals emotional liberation — and a welcome distraction from America’s post-9/11 political climate. One elderly gay orgy spectator even turns out to be a former mayor of New York. “It’s like the ’60s, only with less hope,” explains the orgy’s mistress of ceremonies (drag queen Justin Bond) as he leads Sofia around his apartment full of writhing bodies. The politics are soon laid aside for comedy: “For a minute there, I thought that man didn’t have an arm,” he comments.

While it’s very explicit, Shortbus is more than just a cheap thrill. Despite being first-timers or bit-part actors, most of the cast bring authenticity to their characters (and their sex scenes — all the orgasms are real). Sex parties here are not as dark, dangerous and thrilling as Hollywood might have them: they’re bright and fun. The depiction of group sex as a solution for everything is both simplistic and idealistic, however, and some subplots are underdeveloped. Sofia’s relationship with her husband isn’t fully explored; it’s implied that everything will be magically resolved when she finally achieves an orgasm. Some of the improvised conversations about sexual liberation feel pointed, as does the character of Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix with intimacy issues.

There’s still plenty of enjoyable humour, though, and an unexpected poignancy running through the film’s later scenes involving stand-out actors Paul Dawson and Jay Brannan. Like Romance and Intimacy, this opens up the debate about the line between pornography and drama: explicit sex features heavily, but isn’t eroticised. But unlike most of European cinema’s hardcore explorations, Shortbus does it with a big fat smile on its face — and a dig at the experimental arthouse scene (“I find the more boring [the films] are, the more intelligent people think they are for watching them,” says the Shortbus mistress of his in-house film festival). And where else could you see a gay threesome during which, bored with the silence, they start humming the American national anthem where the sun doesn’t shine?

A gleefully subversive but over-simplistic rude little indie that’s starting to gain cult status.