Critic's Notebook: Fifty Shades of Sex at Sundance

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival


Straight, gay, adulterous, orgiastic, athletic, analyzed and agonized over: Almost everybody onscreen at Sundance this year seems to be doing it. Is American film finally shedding its Puritanism?

There’s no polite way to say it: When it comes to sex, the American movie industry is — and long has been — a big old prude.

Studios, audiences and of course the MPAA, with its Draconian rating system, barely blink at bloody murder, but get convulsively squeamish at the sight of an exposed nipple. Films from Brokeback Mountain to Blue Valentine, Eyes Wide Shut to Monster’s Ball stirred controversy because of their sexual content — though if one compares those works to Y Tu Mama Tambien, Blue Is the Warmest Color or any number of foreign imports that raise temperatures and eyebrows in art house theaters across the country, it’s clear where we stand. Gone are the days of Last Tango in Paris or American Gigolo, when a major American star might show some skin in an erotically charged movie with broad appeal. Even the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey, an adaptation of the best-seller about bondage, was somehow tamed to an R rating.

While indies historically have offered more — pardon the word choice — fertile ground than studios for filmmakers exploring sexual themes, even they, mindful of the dreaded NC-17 rating that limits theatrical exposure and social acceptability, tend to err on the side of caution.

But this year at Sundance, in one of the 2015 edition’s defining trends, sex and sexuality have been conspicuously present in the American selections. Straight, gay, adulterous, orgiastic, athletic, analyzed and agonized over — almost everybody onscreen here seems to be doing it, and festival-goers have been gasping and guffawing in delight. As Carrie Bradshaw, the heroine of a landmark cable TV series that put sex in the spotlight, would say: I couldn’t help but wonder — is American film finally starting to shed its nagging Puritanism?

That question is unanswerable on the basis of four days of movies. But sexually frank cable shows — going back to Sex and the City and continuing with Girls, Shameless, the Duplass brothers’ new Togetherness and others — clearly have had a liberating effect on the indie world when it comes to depictions of sex, as has the financial potential of VOD (which provides an alternative route, sans MPAA, to widespread viewability).

Read more Critic's Notebook: At Sundance 2015, Ladies First

The first jolt here came opening night, as audiences beheld Hope Annabelle Greggory (Melissa Rauch), the acid-tongued anti-heroine of Bryan Buckley’s The Bronze, literally tumbling into bed with a fellow former gymnast, a conniving hunk played by Sebastian Stan. Aided by a fancy bit of stunt work and body doubling, the two somersault around the room, flipping each other into suggestive configurations, mounting and dismounting, flexing, stretching and squeezing as they grunt in sporty satisfaction. It’s a startlingly funny sequence — the film’s naughty piece de resistance — and was swiftly anointed “most hilarious sex scene ever” online.

Though reminiscent of the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker spoofs, the scene’s unabashed slapstick vulgarity also owes much to the comedies of Judd Apatow, Todd Phillips or the Farrelly brothers. Those movies, with their abundance of (sometimes very funny) penis/vagina jokes and masturbation/sex gags, in many ways play like products of long-repressed men giddily unburdening their ids. But as the already legendary scene in The Bronze made clear, their bawdiness has also upped the creative ante for comic portrayals of sex on film. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a matter of taste.

Read more 'The Bronze': Sundance Review

A day later, Patrick Brice’s The Overnight offered further proof that Sundance 2015 has sex on the brain. Following a sweet married couple (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) who befriend a worldlier, weirder twosome (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche) over the course of dinner, drinks and more (spoiler alert!), the movie is a sweet mash-up of Paul Mazursky’s seminal Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, French bedroom farce and — again — Apatowian raunch.

But like The Bronze, it also pushes the representation of sex and sexuality in surprising ways. When the two couples’ booze-soaked soiree turns to skinny dipping, we learn that Scott’s character, Alex, is deeply insecure about the size of his penis — especially in light of the fact that Schwartzman’s character, Kurt, has no qualms about flaunting his, um, generous endowment. After Alex gets a pep talk from Kurt and downs a few more whiskeys, the two men are soon dancing around naked — the actors sporting very different prostheses — in a sequence that, with its heady mix of embarrassment, empowerment and sheer ridiculousness, feels unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Somewhat predictably, Scott (who’s terrific in the film) felt it necessary to remind viewers during the post-screening Q&A session that it was just a prosthesis (We get it, bro). But The Overnight deserves credit for tackling the ultimate masculine taboo — anxiety over penis size — with humor and heart. It also touches on another subject American movies generally prefer to ignore: the fluidity of male sexuality. As the film enters its final stretch, the budding connection between Alex and Kurt takes center stage, culminating in an encounter of surprising tenderness and eroticism that subtly deepens the story’s implications.

Read more 'The Overnight': Sundance Review

Another selection that wrestles honorably with issues of male sexuality is The D Train, the directorial debut of writing partners Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel. One of the bolder American comedies I’ve seen in a while, the film turns on the brief friendship between Dan (Jack Black), a pudgy, 40-ish try-hard whose claim to fame is being chair of his high school alumni committee, and Oliver (James Marsden), a shallow hipster stud from Dan’s graduating class who’s now an actor in L.A. When Dan and Oliver reconnect (Dan is trying to convince Oliver to attend their upcoming reunion) — spoiler alert! — the two end up having drunken sex.

Though the scenario sounds farfetched — Dan is married with two kids, and Oliver is the kind of gorgeous specimen of bad boy that can have his pick of the lot — Black and Marsden are so attuned to their characters’ respective brands of neediness that it works. We don’t see much (a kiss and a few sweaty pumps), but anyone expecting this to be yet another comedy using a shock homosexual encounter to score gross-out laughs is in for a surprise; building on groundwork laid by films like Chuck & Buck, Superbad and Humpday, The D Train puts the homoerotic subtext of the “bromance” genre front and center with bracing bluntness.

Read more 'The D Train': Sundance Review

The film’s second half walks a tightrope between satire and sincerity, focusing on the aftermath of the one-night stand as Dan “catches feelings” and panics about what that might mean. Rather astonishingly, The D Train transitions from a slick odd-couple comedy into a smart study of the mysteries of sexuality, the sometimes-blurry lines between male admiration and attraction and the different things sex means to different people. Dan isn’t gay, but he’s human, and the filmmakers recognize that desire can surge in unexpected directions and then come crashing back upon us like a tidal wave. For a culture in which heterosexual men use expressions like “man crush” and “man date” to satirize their affection for or intimacy with others of their own gender, The D Train feels like a brave step forward.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is another movie here that felt like progress in its handling of sex. Based on a graphic novel about a 15-year-old (breakout star Bel Powley) who begins an affair with her mother’s handsome lunk of a boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard), Marielle Heller’s debut film is a master class in how to turn provocative, potentially alienating material into a vibrant crowd-pleaser. There is seriously sexy stuff in the movie, much of it transgressive, and Heller makes palpable the sickening, glorious, all-consuming force that is a young woman’s discovery of her erotic appetites. Yet The Diary of a Teenage Girl has wide appeal, thanks in large part to the delicate tone the filmmaker strikes — both deeply empathetic and pointed without turning savage — and her immensely likeable cast, as well as the warmth of her visual style.

If Diary explores the pleasure and pain of giving in to desire, Leslye Headland’s Sleeping With Other People focuses on deprivation. An erratic but ultimately winning comedy about two head cases, Jake and Lainey (Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie), who fall in love but, for not-entirely-convincing reasons, abstain from sealing the deal or even dating, the movie was described by its writer-director as “When Harry Met Sally with assholes.”

Read more 'Sleeping With Other People': Sundance Review

As in that film, sex in Sleeping With Other People is seen as a corrupting force, something to be avoided — rather than embraced — for the sake of sanity and stability. It’s a typically American conceit (when’s the last time people in a French film kept their paws off each other for the greater good?). What’s not typical, however, is how consistently and explicitly the would-be lovers’ dense, rapid-fire repartee revolves around sex. Jake and Lainey slip into a perversely intimate friendship in which essentially all they do is turn each other on, tiptoeing right up to the big first kiss and then backing away. In a scene that was almost as breathlessly rehashed after the screening as the coital acrobatics in The Bronze, Jake uses an empty bottle to demonstrate how Lainey can best pleasure herself (don’t ask).

It doesn’t take a rom-com scholar to know how it all turns out. Suffice it to say that this particular director seems to believe that sex and sexuality are powerful things, and resistance is futile. Judging by Sundance 2015, American cinema may be on its way to the same conclusion.