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TIFF: Sex, sex, sex

"Shortbus": "What is this thing called sex?"

TORONTO -- The camera soars over a wonderfully colorful handmade model of New York City, popping into one window after another. At the tip of Lower Manhattan is a blood-red scar with two square lesions: Ground Zero. "Shortbus," John Cameron Mitchell's feature follow-up to "Hedwig And The Angry Inch," takes place in a fantasy New York -- a place of sexual healing and forgiveness -- located not in any precise geographical zone or erogenous zone, but between two temporal landmarks: September 11, 2001, and the blackout of 2003. In between, through brownouts and breakdowns, Mitchell posits a place of healing and humor and light and lots and lots of sex.

I suppose it wouldn't be wrong to say "Shortbus," the most celebratory and least prurient of movies, is about sex as a metaphor, but I think that's looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope. (Speaking of which, voyeurism -- and therefore, cinema -- is an essential component; as our host, or Brothel Madame, Justin Bond says, welcoming a newcomer to his multi-chambered orgiastic party for the sexually gifted and challenged: "Everybody must participate. But don't be afraid to watch. Voyeurs are participants, too!") This really is a movie about sex -- and essentially a comic about sex (because nothing we do is more ridiculous or fraught with anxieties) -- but it's not sex as a stand-in for something else; it's sex as everything else that sex is.

There's full nudity and hardcore sex galore, but the movie's attitude toward all things sexual is less dirty than those twin beds in Rob and Laura Petrie's bedroom, precisely because nothing is prohibited, everything is permitted -- if you feel like it at the moment. Bond puts it this way: "It's like the sixties, but with less hope" -- a line that's already (and justifiably) become famous.

If you recall "The Story of Love" from "Hedwig," the myth about how people were originally split in two and spend their lives looking for their missing halves, then you get the idea. Whatever it is these people are looking for -- love, liberation, intimacy, orgasms -- it's about yearning to find some form of completion, or resolution, through sexual congress.

One couple -- two men named Jamie, although one has recently decided to switch back to James -- have become a unit in five years together, but James is depressed and slipping away. What narcissistic James needs is to open up and get well and truly f----d; and what desperate, clingy Jamie needs is James; but neither can give (or accept) what the other needs. Maybe there are trust issues, maybe there are boundary issues; the only thing for certain is that the cure involves sex. They take in Ceth, a sweet model in search of a mate, as a kind of relationship glue, as well as a buffer.

A sex therapist (she prefers the term "couples counsellor") feels incomplete in her marriage, and like a professional phony, because she's pre-orgasmic. ("Does that mean you're going to have one now?" asks a confused gay man.) The determination with which she pursues her orgasmic grail may be the funniest thing in the movie, because its her very determination that makes her goal unreachable. She ought to know: Sex is like baseball. Yes, it requires concentration, but if you think about it too much, you can't do it.

For the Elizabethans, an orgasm was a "little death," but it's also the essence of life. In "Shortbus," people are making the best with two backs -- or three or more backs, multiple legs and innumerable orifices -- because those little deaths create the illusion, at least, of staving off the Big Death. And that's life.

If it weren't for all the pansexual explicitness (including an Abstract Expressionist money shot), "Shortbus" might be just another one of those urban romantic roundelays that pass for "indie" films at Sundance. But by the end, when Justin Bond croons the anthemic "We All Get It in the End" in his marvelously rich voice, I thought of the musical ringmaster/raconeur of Max Ophuls' lovely "La Ronde," singing:

Round and round forever and ever We're riding on love's roundabout Rich or poor or foolish or clever Round we must go, year in, year out... Side by side, my darling, my dearest, Gaily we ride love's roundabout

(Let's not forget that "La Ronde" was made in 1950, but banned in the US as "immoral," so it didn't reach American theaters for another four or five years.)

"Shortbus" is camp, and it's absolutely in earnest; it's funny and it's sad -- and, in the end, it's indescribably sweet and generous and moving. There shouldn't be a dry eye in the house. And there may even be a wet seat or two, too. Talk about the "feel-good movie of the year."

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