Early on in “S&M Sally,” Jamie (Michelle Ehlen, who also wrote, directed and edited the film) reveals herself to be not unlike a butch lesbian iteration of Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer. She’s rather sardonic, occasionally stutters recalling Singer’s nebbish-like elocution, and, most importantly, is ambivalent about her own anxieties and insecurities. It’s somewhat jarring how refreshing it is to see an honest and very funny character as forthright and flawed as Jamie, and even more so when one considers the state of romantic comedies in general, queer or otherwise. It’s a testament to Ms. Ehlen as an excellent writer that, through rather simple means and scenarios, she’s able to explore a kind of complexity not limited to gender, sexuality, etc. that few are able to do, including aspects of character and genre.
That much was present in Ehlen’s previous film “Heterosexual Jill”, both of which are part of her “Butch Jamie” trilogy, a triptych of cinematic satires on gender, sexuality, and, in the case of Sally, relationships. Romantic comedy and satire is, perhaps, a difficult concoction to do well, but Ehlen is able to draw people whose judgments, flaw, and vulnerabilities are real without letting those characters be reduced to those qualities.
In “S&M Sally,” Jamie, now with Jill (Jen McPherson), explores BDSM with reticence. From power dynamics to different tools, its allegorical nature is no more or less slick than the contract scene in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But, should we grant that film the benefit of comparison (a film that, for the record, I like), Sally does a rather miraculous job of examining BDSM with a respect that it is rarely granted in film. The comedy rests not on finding these acts, however foreign to Jamie or the audience they are, but on Jamie’s vacillation between closed mindedness, fascination, and anxiety. And yet, despite these rather flawed attitudes of Jamie, she’s never any less real, nor any kind of repugnant for having them. She is, as the nebbish comparison suggests, hesitant about new experiences, and just as much regarding to the pace of her relationship with Jill. McPherson is oft a force to be reckoned with, perhaps more adept than anyone at delivering Ehlen’s words, excepting Ms. Ehlen herself.
All the while, Jamie’s friends Lola (Shaela Cook) and David (Scott Keiji Takeda) become involved in a polyamorous relationship with Sebastian (Adrian Gonzalez), whose progressive stance regarding love catches David off guard. Lola, in comparison, almost seems to overcompensate with how on board she is with these ideas. She and David, who were rather diametrically opposed to one another in the previous film, again seem to compete for Sebastian’s affections, but it’s built upon what with Lola’s cognizance of the situation and David’s rejection of it.
Both of these storylines run parallel to one another, and there’s a bit of an impressiveness to the humor constructed around these people without it seeming caricaturish. It’d be especially rather difficult with Sebastian acting as radical queer, new ideology (to the film’s universe) and all. And while he primarily acts as a bit of a romantic/comedic MacGuffin, there’s not a reductive approach to him either.
Perhaps the thing that “Heterosexual Jill” lacked was a cogent style; it was shot in a rather sitcom-esque economic fashion, and while some of that remains in “S&M Sally,” it’s discernible that Ehlen has learned a bit to make her compositions more visually appealing. The introduction of a buzzword “taboo” subject invites this playful dynamic between dark and light and, of course, pleasure and pain.
In her own way. Ms. Ehlen is a bit of a radical filmmaker herself; maybe not as overtly in the vein of Gregg Araki or Chantal Akerman, but the nonchalance with which she is able to imbue ideas of sexual fluidity and power dynamics in amongst more “pedestrian” topics like relationships and the vulnerabilities that come with them. While other films, including queer ones, exist in binaries, that Ehlen’s don’t is, well, radical.