I first heard about writer/director/producer/editor Zach Clark’s Modern Love Is Automatic from fellow Houser Steve Boone, who emailed to ask if I’d seen the SXSW 2009 hit about a nurse who becomes a dominatrix. I hadn’t—though I’ve seen the real life version of medical professionals moonlighting as pro doms more times than I care to count. So I made a mental note to see it, then promptly missed its theatrical release at the reRun Gastropub Theater. And like so many other flicks that sadly fall off my radar, this breath-of-fresh-air gem likely would have been confined to my dusty must-see list had it not been that Modern Love Is Automatic is opening this year’s Pornfilmfestival Berlin, where my own short, The Story of Ramb O, is having its world premiere. Thank heaven for kinky accidents.
Clark’s film stars a hilariously deadpan Melodie Sisk as Lorraine Schultz, a jaded twentysomething nurse who longs for more than a mainstream existence, and the endearing Maggie Ross as her roommate Adrian, an optimistic-to-the-point-of-delusional wannabe model. And this is the first thing Clark gets right: casting two indie actresses that can actually act and placing their blossoming oddball friendship, as tender as any love story, at the heart of his film. Respectfully, Lorraine’s desire to become a dom is not dwelt upon, sensationalized, nor psychologically picked apart. She’s simply a square peg trying to make her way in a round world, her interest in domination merely one facet of a fully realized character. In other words, Lorraine isn’t defined by her choice any more than most gay characters nowadays are defined by who they partner up with. Sure, this cleavage-revealing chick with the ever-present Jackie O sunglasses is a hottie (Sisk resembles a young Ellen Barkin), but she’s really no more titillating than Julianne Moore’s MILF Jules in The Kids Are All Right. Yes, these are the new faces of progress.
And the fact that Modern Love Is Automatic is an unabashed comedy (“Do you carry Shackled Monthly?” Lorraine drolly inquires at a fetish shop) reveals more about BDSM’s fun, childlike creative essence than does any realistic detail. Interestingly, the film, with its retro, hyper-colorful costume and production design—even the bathroom door at a funeral home is a striking aqua blue—resembles Anna Biller’s 2007 sexploitation mash note Viva, another sweet, irony-free comedy about a bored female finding her kink. Clark’s style is as weirdly surreal as David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which makes any quibble about S&M industry accuracy moot.
If anything, the film goes to great lengths to illustrate how Lorraine, who works as an independent mistress calling her own shots, and Adrian, who takes a “legitimate” job hawking mattresses (“It’s like stripping, kind of, but different. Here they can touch you and no one cares,” another mattress model explains) are both selling fantasy only Lorraine’s black market way is more honest and less sleazy. Indeed, Lorraine’s Achilles heel is the fact that, unlike her dangerously naïve roommate (who gets coerced—not forced, which makes it all the more believably disturbing—into doing things she’s not comfortable doing) she never allows herself to lose control. When asked if she wants to join the other nurses for a night of karaoke, Lorraine begs off, saying that she doesn’t have any songs to sing. Which eventually makes the film’s ending, in which Lorraine claims that her dominatrix phase didn’t change her, that it was no big deal, a big deal. With an imperceptible gradualness she’s become human, in turn humanizing the rest of us square pegs.
And this humanizing of sexuality in the face of its vast commercialization is also what Jennifer Lyon Bell and Murielle Scherre have set out to do with their featurette Des Jours Plus Belles Que La Nuit (a.k.a. Skin. Like. Sun). These proud pornographers were recently commissioned by a Belgian feminist festival to co-direct a sex film (just one more reason to love Europe), so the two promptly set about casting a real life hipster couple—tattoos and piercings included—and shot them making love in a bare European loft from the female half’s POV. The result is a fuck film more sweet natured than sexy, harkening back to that same youthful innocence and curiosity so crucial to the French New Wave.
The PornFilmFestival Berlin runs from October 28 to 31. For more information, click here.