If you like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, you’re probably going to like this film. If you don’t know what Hedwig and the Angry Inch is, go and watch it as soon as you can. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but it is delightfully irreverent and full of pathos and catchy tunes. Shortbus shares the same director, John Cameron Mitchell who also stars in Hedwig but takes a back seat, so to speak, in this one. Other than the credentials of Mitchell, all I knew about Shortbus was that it contained unsimulated sex! Yowza! That was a reason to watch it when the kids were safely in bed.
The ‘Shortbus’ is a New York nightclub where people can share music, film, social discourse and each other in any way they consensually choose. We get to know Sofia, a couples counsellor in a comfortable marriage who knows all the theory but has always faked her orgasms. We meet her clients, James and Jamie, who are trying to negotiate bringing a third person into their relationship. Severin is a dominatrix who seems to hate her job. All meet at the Shortbus and slowly we discover what is really behind each person’s unhappiness.
The most surprising thing about this film was that the sex was less shocking and less important to the story than I was expecting. I should have realised, it being John Cameron Mitchell and all, that there would be character development and a sincere narrative thread that confronted far more than the naked penises. What you begin to realise, is how alone each person is, how difficult it can be to be really honest about who you are and what you want. You see how hard it is to be really vulnerable with another person, particularly someone you love.
Although the story revolves around Sofia, it is James’s story that is the most moving. It took a while for me to realise what was happening but there were a few keys moments, both in the pool, where you could see through his eyes and understand his burden. There are gentle swipes at self-important intellectuals and there are some moments of farce, but these can be forgiven by the exuberance and ultimate joyfulness of the ending. You can spot John Cameron Mitchell in the orgy scene, you’ll recognise him if you’ve seen Hedwig or Girls (he plays Hannah’s unlikable agent). Apparently he and the crew took their gear off and participated in order for the actors to feel more comfortable.
What I took from this movie, other than an appreciation of the gorgeous diversity of the human body and the delights of sexual intimacy in many forms, was a recognition of the difficulty and loneliness of being truly individual, of not compromising who you are for the comfort of society and relationships.
Bechdel test – pass