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Sex and the (Park) City: Considering An Atypically Sexual Sundance Film Festival

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire January 26, 2013 at 12:52PM

Sex and the Sundance Film Festival is not a new equation. In fact, sex and this Sundance Film Festival isn't a new equation. It's been a talking point since before the festival even started.
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"Admittedly, having an affair with your friend’s son while she simultaneously has an affair with yours is a 'complex' relationship," the Sutherland Institute noted, "not to mention indecent, immoral, and potentially illegal, depending on the boys’ ages."

Robin Weigert in "Concussion"
Robin Weigert in "Concussion"

If the folks at the Sutherland Institute had actually seen "Two Mothers" before attacking Sundance's 2013 program, they could have added one genuinely warranted adjective to their little laundry list: Atrocious. "Mothers" is a gloriously wasted opportunity to explore a fascinating sexual and emotional dynamic, instead opting -- apparently unintentionally -- to become Sundance 2013's most-likely-to-succeed as a camp classic.

But "Two Mothers" introduces a trend present throughout the festival's program, one thankfully much more admirable in other examples. "Mothers" deals with intergenerational sexual relationships between older women and their younger partners. It's also directed by a woman. All of the above can also be said about three other films at Sundance: Liz W. Garcia’s "The Lifeguard," Hannah Fidell's "A Teacher" and Stacie Passon's "Concussion." 

Each directed by a first-time filmmaker, this trio of films do what "Two Mothers" fails to even attempt in using a female lense to explore complex female characters and their sexual relationships with younger partners. "The Lifeguard" follows Leigh (Kirsten Bell), a 29-year-old who moves back to her hometown only to find herself in an intense sexual relationship with a hot 16-year-old; "A Teacher" depicts an unstable high school English teacher (Lindsay Burge) whose having sex with one of her students; "Concussion" presents us with a fortysomething housewife (Robin Weigert) who begins a double life of lesbian prostitution behind the backs of her wife and kids.

Don't just call them cougars (though with "Two Mothers," go right ahead). In very different ways, each of these filmmakers use their first features to give us female protagonists that use -- to various levels of self-destruction -- their younger sex partners to attempt to push them through life crises (a quarter-life crisis in "Lifeguard," a mid-life crisis in "Concussion," and a full-on mental breakdown in "A Teacher"). They are complex character studies above all else, utilizing inter-generational sex to give their narratives a unique sense of humanity.

"I think maybe sexuality is being repositioned to where I think it actually belongs," "Concussion" actress Robin Weigert told Indiewire earlier the festival when discussing the common themes her film shared with others. "Which is at the center of a person instead of being something titillating -- what we do to get off or whatever. It's being re-understood as what it really is. Which is a fundamental, human aspect. And that's what I think these movies are addressing. I don't think they're salacious -- at least the ones I've seen."

"Don Jon's Addiction"
"Don Jon's Addiction"

The multi-generational sexual relationship does get one view through a male gaze in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Don Jon's Addiction." The film finds Gordon-Levitt portraying a thirty-ish New Jersey player (nicknamed Don Jon) who has a serious addiction to online pornography that's keeping him from any sort of meaningful romantic relationship. Enter Julianne Moore, a fifty-ish woman who shows Don Jon that sex isn't just about self-pleasure.

Though much more (intentionally) comedic than any of the aforementioned examples, "Don Jon's Addiction" is just as insightful. Gordon-Levitt proves himself very capable of giving us a narrative that takes on gender roles and hetero-male sexuality in an accessible but intelligent manner.

It also is a film that blurs together the two dominant unique themes regarding sexuality at Sundance this year: Multi-generational relationships and pornography. 

Easily the most disappointing of those films was the latest from Michael Winterbottom, who came to the festival eight years ago with a much more admirable and sexually explicit film, 2005's "9 Songs." This time he presents "The Look of Love," one of two biopics of porn industry icons. "Love" stars Winterbottom regular Steve Coogan as porn emperor Paul Raymond, and features a lot of nudity (though almost exclusively female). But it's generally a vapid, familiar narrative of the rise and fall of a once-successful man that will likely -- and deservedly -- be forgotten soon after Sundance comes and goes (though it was picked up for US release via IFC Films).

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (who came to Sundance a few years back with their first narrative feature "Howl," also about the aforementioned Allen Ginsberg) gave the festival its other porn biopic in "Lovelace," the story of "Deep Throat" star Linda Boreman (aka Linda Lovelace, played in the film by Amanda Seyfriend), who led a hardly enviable life after becoming one of the first porn stars to become a household name when "Throat" became a full-on sensation in the early 1970s. More tame than "The Look and Love," "Lovelace" is also much more commendable in its non-exploitative look at its subject, presenting a feminist narrative somewhat in line with the female-directed films noted earlier.

"Ironicallly, ['Deep Throat'] was the first pornographic film that even approached the idea that women might want to get sexually gratified," "Lovelace" co-director Friedman told Indiewire. "It's about satisfying a man, but the plot is really about a woman trying to find her own sense of sexual gratification."

This article is related to: Sundance Film Festival, Interior. Leather Bar., James Franco , Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Concussion, Two Mothers, The Lifeguard, Lovelace, Kink





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