The Big O

It is obvious from the start that Shortbus does not fool around. It gets right down to business. The early scenes show a woman in a vigorous and real (not simulated) lovemaking with her husband. Her name is Sofia Lin, a sex therapist who loves sex and her husband. And yet, one big problem troubles her. She has yet to achieve an orgasm in her life. She feels guilty that she has to fake each time.

Her search for orgasm leads her to a place called Shortbus, a Brooklyn lair where a group of people come to satisfy their sexual appetites. At first, she participates as a voyeur, watching a group orgy with intense curiosity. She then partakes in sexual discussions, asking a group of women as to what orgasm feels like. One female describes it as shooting creative energy to the world and merging with other people’s energies. As expected, such artistic and poetic descriptions are ultimately mysterious to Sofia. You cannot adequately describe orgasm to the inexperienced. Orgasm is meant to be felt.

John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus is a movie about sex, but it is not a sexy movie. It attempts to be artistic and enlightening, rather than titillating. A viewer might appreciate the movie more if sex is thought of, not as a carnal desire, but as an indicator of emotional health. If you have emotional baggage, it will result in a poor sexual performance. In Sofia’s story, the reverse is also true. Her unsatisfactory sex becomes an additional baggage.

The rest of the Shortbus characters struggle with their own sexual hang-ups. Severin the dominatrix is so involved in the sexual world that she has difficulty connecting with reality. The problem is that she looks at the real world from the stance of a cold and distant artist. When she sees an old woman on her hands and knees along a gutter, she does not help. Severin takes a Polaroid picture instead. James and Jamie, a homosexual couple, look to sex as a solution to fix their relationship. They invite another cute boy to take part in their polyamorous experiment. To a point, the threesome succeeds, although it does not get rid of the initial problem.

What is great about the movie is that it tackles the taboo aspect of sex. It is unafraid to feature full frontal nudity, urination, masturbation, and various sexual positions. Yes, it is shocking to witness these in a movie, but come to think of it, why should we be afraid of them? Violence is so easily glorified these days. Why cannot a beautiful thing like sex be celebrated? It is a justified topic, which concerns most adults. In the film’s case though, it only seems to cater to women and gay circles. It would have been nice if straight men were included into the discussion.

For the open-minded viewer, I do not think Shortbus is too much of a challenge to watch. Most of the time, the movie is light and fun. Even the sex scenes are sometimes amusing. Still, Shortbus is not a smooth ride, as one would hope. There are bumps of melodrama and potholes of rehearsed dialogue. Its biggest obstacle can found towards the end. After the climax, the movie fades to black and uncertainty hangs in the dark. The following resolution plays a song, as if to dictate what the viewer is supposed to feel. It does not quite register convincingly. Although the ending clearly shows the final state of the characters, I was unsure of how the characters arrived in their respective conditions. The movie definitely took a shortcut. Like Sofia, Shortbus faked a happy ending.

Grade: B+

Jay Brannan, Justin Bond, Lindsay Beamish, Paul Dawson, Peter Stickles, PJ DeBoy, Raphael Barker, Sook-Yin Lee, Jasper James, Paul Stovall, Scott Matthew, Bitch, Daniela Sea, Shanti Carson, Adam Hardman, and Bradford Scobie
Screenplay by
John Cameron Mitchell
Directed by
John Cameron Mitchell
Not Rated