The Little Death is an Australian comedy concerning five hetero couples (or potential couple in one case), whose relationships become defined by their fetishes. Though the lives of some of these characters intertwine through the setup of them living in the same neighbourhood, the film is more anthology feature than network narrative in that the stories basically act as shorts that we jump in and out of for 95 minutes – and one of them runs uninterrupted for the final 20. Writer-director Josh Lawson even introduces each plot thread with a title card akin to what you might find in a more traditional anthology feature. This isn’t so much The ABCs of Sex, but the title of recent Argentinean anthology Wild Tales wouldn’t be out of place if re-applied to The Little Death.
Lawson definitely tries to be wild, anyway. His film is relatively experimental in terms of its structure and theoretically risqué in content, but a lot of it plays more like rote sitcom than scathing taboo breaker. The characters are all white and middle class, many of the punch-lines are too obviously telegraphed, a couple of performers deliver lines like they’re expecting a laugh track to follow, and the film ultimately feels too cutesy even during its nastier diversions. To riff again on another movie title, it’s almost like Richard Curtis’ Fuck Actually.
Those aforementioned title cards contain dictionary definitions of the fetishes in question. There’s a married couple (Lawson and Bojana Novakovic) that attempts to address and accommodate the wife’s rape fantasies; a husband (Alan Dukes) who prefers the company of his perpetually displeased wife (Lisa McCune) when she’s asleep; a deaf man (T.J. Power) who calls sex hotlines through a sign language intermediary (Erin James); a couple (Damon Herriman and Kate Mulvany) that experiment with role-play scenarios at the recommendation of a therapist, only for the man to start treating his acting prowess as more important than the sex; and a woman (Kate Box) dealing with dacryphilia, in which she is only aroused by the tears of her husband (Patrick Brammall). There’s also a new neighbour (Kym Gyngell) who pops up in all the shorts, lavishing the residents with homemade cookies made to look like the controversial golliwog doll designs, and then saying he’s legally obligated to inform them he’s a registered sex offender. Obviously.
Though much of the film fires blanks, laughs do come from a couple of vignettes. The tear fetish storyline, for example, sees Box’s character go to increasingly ridiculous lengths to turn on her husband’s waterworks. Like much of the film, the skit feels overstretched, but a couple of the methods are inspired, such as putting up pictures of her recently deceased father-in-law around their home.
The final segment concerning the Skype video translator and her deaf client is, by far, the film’s highlight, achieving a level of real sweetness amid the smut. This one storyline is where The Little Death actually feels like a genuine celebration of sexual dysfunction, as opposed to the hopeless, largely sex-negative portraits surrounding it. It’s a shame, then, that Lawson immediately follows it with a car crash of an ending, in more ways than one. As is the case for many of his characters, the climax is pitiful.
— Josh Slater-Williams