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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Little Death (Blu-ray)
The Little Death (Blu-ray)
Magnolia Home Entertainment // Unrated // October 13, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted November 17, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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The Film:

Sexual fetishes can be tough to talk about for a number of reasons, from sharing that intimate and potentially embarrassing aspect of one's preferences with another person to the psychology behind why they actually prefer something a little different in the first place. It's an element of human behavior that rarely gets touched upon in a down-to-earth fashion through the movies: they're typically limited to plot devices in brazen thrillers -- voyeurism in Body Double; witnessing accidents in Crash -- or as the catalysts for budding romances in comedies and dramas -- BDSM in Secretary -- instead of how they often emerge between people in already committed relationships under relatively ordinary circumstances. Josh Lawson initially embraces this purity of discovering and divulging kinks with loved ones in his indie film The Little Death, striking a balance between the ordinariness of perverse fantasies and fondness with elevated situations that also poke fun at and normalize them. Turns out, it's more successful at situational foreplay than reaching genuine climactic ends, but there's enough to admire in how the film stimulates thought and levity along the way to keep going.

Told in something of a connected vignette style, The Little Death -- derived from a French expression for orgasm, "la petite mort" -- predominately follows the lives of four couples across a city in Australia, each of whom are experiencing one of the partner's fetishes in different ways. Some of them are made aware of the other's desires, such as Maeve's (Bojana Novakovic ) proposal for her gentle boyfriend, Paul (writer/director Lawson himself), to rape her, and the marriage-saving roleplaying going on between Dan (Damon Herriman) and Evie (Kate Mulvany). Others attempt to figure out their peculiarities unbeknownst to their partner, from a stressed businessman's (Alan Dukes) enjoyment of his wife's (Lisa McCune) attractive qualities while she sleeps to what happens when a frustrated woman, Rowena (Kate Box), learns that she gets sexual gratification from seeing her husband (Patrick Brammall) cry. For variety, Lawson also folds a fifth kink into the mix involving phone sex, as well as a somewhat darker and creepier element involving a sharp-dressed man (Kym Gyngell) who goes door-to-door between all their houses, creating a very loose bonding agent between them all.

The intimacy in how writer/director Lawson introduces and navigates the discovery of these fetishes tends to be the most rousing element of The Little Death, focused on the explicit and implicit apprehension in exploring them with a loved one. As with most multiple-story movies, some scenarios are more successful than others as they progress beyond their core premise. Maeve's boundary-pushing desire to be forcefully taken reaches an emotional outlook on the discomfort and necessary devotion that surrounds her troubling fantasy, while the lengths that Rowena will go to milk tears out of her husband taps into a warped vein of comedy that's amusing ... up to a point. On the flipside, the bizarre extent of Dan's growing obsession with becoming other people through roleplaying weakens the earnest conflicts of identity and confidence first introduced by the scenario, while the surefire steps taken by the awkward businessman to continue his nagging wife's drowsiness force that entire angle to become the film's dead weight.

Splendid chemistry between all the couples -- both during sensual moments and amid conflicts -- are either capably propped up or undermined by Lawson's good-intentioned, courageous, yet ultimately uneven writing. His maturity in avoiding obvious punchlines and an almost complete lack of exposed skin in a film committed to sexual kinks is highly commendable, rarely featuring moments of overt titillation in respect to the sincere side of the conversation he's having with the audience about the topic(s). To brand The Little Death a comedy might be a bit mistaken, though: while there's some humor and mirthful awkwardness involved throughout, very little of it comes without serious overtones that, more often than not, suppress the laughs instead of succeeding as a kind of black comedy, whether it's the manipulation involved in making a grieving man continue to cry or the tactics employed by a hapless, married somnophiliac with an unsympathetic wife. The upfront nature of the film's initial ideas further deflates whenever the fetishists overstep certain boundaries with their groan-worthy scheming.

Lawson also doesn't reach the sincerest of outcomes with his narrative threads in The Little Death, suppressing the potency of his script's convictions through finales that revel in over-the-top embellishments and underscore some aspect of deceptive avoidance in each of 'em. Guardedness might be a genuine part of dealing with these situations, but the film sends mixed signals about liking unconventional things and the candor involved in trying to express them, not letting any of these couples work out the kinks in their kinks without having to rely on some kind of dishonesty once all's said and done. Granted, a few of these people really don't deserve any kind of encouraging resolutions because of the way they've conducted themselves, succumbing to delusion and obsession in some pretty inexcusable -- borderline illegal! -- ways that manifest as cautionary tales about going too far. While this makes for thought-provoking material that's bound to spark conversations about the nature of their passions and their miscommunication, it also tampers with the overall messages originally conveyed by Lawson, something that's pretty important once the amusement factor takes a back seat.

Remember, there are actually five stories going on in The Little Death, the last one which arrives near at the end -- despite a brief taste of the characters about a half-hour in -- and only really loosely connects to the rest of subject matter. Filed under "telephone scatalogica", or pleasure gained from making obscene phone calls, the final vignette involves Monica, a phone-call relay operator for the deaf (via webcam), and a first-time client who expresses an interest in calling an adult chat line. What results is a rather funny and charming depiction of the complications you'd expect from the situation, driven by a pair of delightful performances hinged on expressions and gestures; however, since it doesn't involve either a couple or much of an account of a fetish like the others, this final piece also feels out-of-place amid the rest of the stories. Josh Lawson probably bent his own established rules by including this instead of letting it stand as its own short film or something, but it allows The Little Death to end on an honest and (mostly) optimistic note after a series of conflicted depictions of sexuality, so it's easy to forgive.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

The name of the game in The Little Death is intimacy, equally conveyed in the restrained palette and the tightness of close-ups, to which Magnolia Home Entertainment capably preserves the simple, unpretentious beauty of the photography with their 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC digital transfer. Skin textures, hair follicles, and clothing textiles muster pleasing fine details throughout, while the subtle warmth of skin tones and the careful usage of color -- teal sweaters, orange prisoner jumpsuits, reddish-brown logs and strokes of green paint -- telegraph inviting shades wherever necessary. Contrast levels are generally satisfying, keeping black levels respectably dark considering the lighting style but constantly aware of the underlying details, with only a few moments of wishy-washy gray levels during brighter sequences. Sharp lines, appealing depth, and a fluid range of motion with only hints of digital flatness make the delicateness of the cinematography look rather strong through this Blu-ray transfer.

As expected, there isn't a lot to the sound aspects of The Little Death outside of conversations and supportive music, which are handled with plenty of care in the DTS-HD Master Audio track. The rear channels are almost entirely dedicated to the soundtrack, with any other sound effects constrained rather tightly to the center and front speakers, yielding a very small collection of harsher effects -- the shatter of a bottle, the breaking of a wooden door latch, the sizzle of a light and the chirping of a fire alarm -- that project serviceable effects. Smaller sounds are relatively satisfying, such as the flutter of a videochat invitation on a computer and the subtle slaps from sign-language gestures. More than anything, the range of intensity and emotions found in the dialogue are splendidly preserved throughout the film, always natural and free of distortion. English, Spanish, and French optional subtitle are available.

Special Features:

A pair of featurettes lead the way for The Little Death, starting off with A Little Look at the Story, Casting, and Directing (9:59, 16x9 HD), which tells the story of how Josh Lawson conceptualized the story and molded the tone with time. Liberal usage of clips from the film chops that runtime down pretty significantly, but the brief insights provided by the cast and crew about their attraction to the project makes for a satisfying watch. Inside the Cast and Characters (11:03, 16x9) goes a bit deeper with all the performers and their perceptions of the characters, evenly spaced out and discerning between more conservatively-placed scenes from the film. Magnolia have also included a candid, interesting Interview with Josh Lawson (16:13, 16x9 HD), where he discusses incorporating and selecting the different kinks featured into the film, trying to not be mean-spirited and focusing on monogamy, and the film's life at festivals. We've also got a Theatrical Trailer (2:31, 16x9 HD).

Final Thoughts:

Josh Lawson takes an earnest, carefully-planned approach towards sexual fetishes in his indie flick The Little Death, devising four stories about couples dealing with somewhat abnormal kinks and the repercussions that stem from over-indulgence and miscommunication. Billed as a comedy, the film errs more towards a buoyant attitude than actual laughs, taking the topic seriously yet not so seriously where it can't poke fun at the discovery and scheming involved in feeding one's proclivities. The ways Lawson establishes and initially progresses through his scenarios work better than the destinations they arrive at, though, some naturally playing a bit better than others in the vignette-esque film, yielding a lukewarm degree of amusement and a jumble of contradictory themes that obscure some of its point. Well worth a Rental for the quirky yet sincere performances, the questions their relationships will spark, and the fifth, somewhat-detached story about a deaf man and his interpreter calling a phone sex line ... but it all could've been funnier and more meaningful.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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