Thursday, March 26, 2009

Reverend’s Reviews: Sex Without Borders

There’s no film subject more controversial than sex (well, ok, maybe violence). Two films opening this Friday in NYC and expanding to LA and other cities in April — Shall We Kiss? and American Swing — revel in discussions and depictions of sex. Although most of the sex shown is of the heterosexual variety, GLBT viewers can certainly glean wisdom from the lessons learned by these films’ protagonists.

Shall We Kiss?, from France, is the least potentially-offensive as well as the less successful of the two. Written and directed by Emmanuel Mouret (Change of Address), it starts out as a one-joke comedy that is indulged for far too long and, in the end, becomes a pat morality tale.

When Gabriel (the dreamy Michaël Cohen, no relation to Movie Dearest’s beloved Neil) meets the transportation-deprived Émilie (the beautiful Julie Gayet, who GLBT viewers might recognize from the 1999 film Confusion of Genders), he offers her a ride but not without ulterior motives. Gabriel hopes to gain a sexual tryst out of his generosity but will settle for a single kiss.

This provides Émilie the opportunity to enlighten Gabriel with a fact-based story detailing the destructive repercussions of even a relatively chaste and non-committal act as a kiss. She recounts the saga of Nicolas (played by Mouret) and Judith (acclaimed actress Virginie Ledoyen, largely wasted here), best friends who begin to have sex despite their involvement with other partners and eventually fall in love themselves.

Shall We Kiss? is too talky by far, and is directed and photographed (by Laurent Desmet) with no particular style. Mouret also utilizes canned classical music selections to repetitive, irritating effect. Despite an effective twist at the end between Émilie and Gabriel, the film is often a slog to get through.

American Swing, on the other hand, is a far more interesting and concise documentary about the positive and destructive effects of casual sex. It unveils the players behind the legendary NYC swingers’ club, Plato’s Retreat.

Established in 1977 by the sexually-insatiable (from all reports) Larry Levenson, the nightclub — originally a gay bathhouse, the Ansonia, where Bette Midler and Barry Manilow got their starts — was nationally renowned until the double-whammy of AIDS and tax evasion on Levenson’s part forced its closure in 1985. (As the film notes, the venue was the first non-gay sex club closed during the initial years of the AIDS crisis.)

Utilizing vintage home movie footage and contemporary interviews with such Plato’s Retreat regulars as feminist Helen Gurley Brown, comedian Buck Henry, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles and porn actor Ron Jeremy, co-producers/directors Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart reveal the good (previously-repressed women, especially, and men discovering their sexual selves), the bad (self-indulgence run amok and a frightful lack of social responsibility) and the ugly (drug abuse and STD’s of all genuses) of the sexual-liberation movement.

While the sexual freedom graphically shown in American Swing continues to have its appeal, Kaufman and Hart refuse — to their credit — to sugarcoat it. I encourage GLBT moviegoers to see the film and post your own reactions to it.

UPDATE: American Swing and Shall We Kiss? are now available on DVD from

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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