The Little Death directly wrestles with men’s anxiety over satisfying women sexually. Most conventional relationship films are driven by this torment, but in an abstract, willy-nilly, subterranean fashion that often subtly blames the woman for the problem. Action films, empowering bro movies, slob comedies, rom-coms (even many of those pitched at female audiences)—all of these are traditionally driven by a fear of women, which is the fear of failing to please them. Macho balderdash, or its insidious twin, self-pitying “sensitivity,” are often cries for help, and The Little Death occasionally acknowledges this despair with a tenderness and depth of empathy that stand in stark contrast to the sitcom hijinks that often pave the way for these revelatory moments. The film is perched uneasily on a fence separating a rote comic sketch film from something weirder, stranger, and less engaged with offering reassuring domestic homilies.
Director Josh Lawson follows several couples as they weather the ruts forged from several years’ of togetherness. Most of the characters are attractive and appear to be comfortably moneyed, but they yearn to sate more than conventional sexual appetites. The stories in the film all pivot on a partner revealing a sexual fetish that pulls the other into something of an emotional tailspin. Tellingly, the men are always on the defensive, regardless of who has the fetish. Maeve (Bojana Novakovic) tells Paul (Lawson) she wants to be raped, sending the latter on a farcical quest to convince her when the time comes that the violation is “real.” It’s a nervy premise, particularly as Lawson uses it: as a metaphor for a man’s poignant eagerness to show his partner something new in the bedroom, which culminates in an attempted faux-rape scene that’s played for laughs. But the ending represents a failure of nerve, turning the sketch into a routine comedy of marriage. Another episode almost veers into chilly Roman Polanski territory, featuring a woman (Kate Box) who discovers that she gets off on watching her husband cry, which spurs a variety of surprisingly ghastly manipulations with implications that Lawson wisely allows to hang in the air, with a conclusion that’s reminiscent of an O. Henry story.
The best, most consistent story comes on comparatively casually, allowing the kinks at its center to only gradually come into view. Dan (Damon Herriman) and Evie (Kate Mulvany) try sexual role-play at the behest of their therapist to open up routes of communication between them, and it goes smashingly well—at first. Evie, flush with orgasmic bliss, says that Dan should’ve maybe been an actor. Making the mistake of taking a post-coital sentiment literally, Dan becomes obsessed with the role-plays as performance art, reducing the sex element to a point that Evie becomes irrelevant to the fantasy. This is a striking metaphor for detachment, evoking someone lost in themselves amid their own emotional detritus, and it climaxes with Evie asking her husband where the Dan she once knew went. He replies, in a haunting, self-hating proclamation that could be adapted to describe the hang-ups fueling many male machinations: “Fuck Dan. I can do better than Dan.”
The film’s title is a translation of the French phrase la petite mort, which is a famous idiom for orgasm. Lawson’s anecdotes correspondingly revolve around the intersection between the phrase’s literal and figurative meanings, which highlight the thin line dividing pleasure and pain, life and death, sex and…what? Abstinence? Emotional desolation? A resigned disengagement from a hallmark of connection and life? The film is about the pain of sex as an act so intensely subjective as to be impossible to experience with another person in a manner befitting personal expectation, and how that truth can come to color any preexisting insecurities like a biological mood ring. Men are the film’s focus, because they still bear the social brunt of “hunter/gatherer/provider/supreme fornicator,” no matter what progressive pretenses we currently make to the contrary. Men also enjoy this often unflattering emphasis because Lawson is a man, and one feels as if he might be working through something personal here.
The Little Death isn’t lacking for ambition, then, but it’s stiflingly thematic. These resonances, with some notable exceptions, feel diagrammed rather than dramatized, and there’s a prolonged meet-cute near the end of the film, between a deaf man and an attractive female sign-language interpreter, so lamely contrived that it could’ve been air-lifted out of Love Actually. It’s also unforgivably timid for a film as concerned with sex as this one is to rely on the usual, meaningless cinematic grammar for the act itself: the ellipses that jump from broadly staged foreplay to sweaty cool-down, as well as the traditional punchline of watching a man pitifully, eagerly hump away at a woman while on top of her, his back to the camera. To watch The Little Death is to be reminded once again that sex is still the great uncharted sea for cinema. Lawson dips his toe into the water, checking its temperature, but he doesn’t dive in.