The Australian comedy “The Little Death” begins with a shot of a woman in bed asking her boyfriend a startling question. “I want you to rape me,” she says. He’s horrified, but she explains that it’s a fantasy she’s long harbored and outlines specific instructions for him. This leads to a scene later in the story that’s so alarming it caused audiences to walk out of the movie’s premiere at the Sydney Film Festival in June.
The film’s writer-director-star Josh Lawson is prepared for a similar response when “The Little Death” screens at the Toronto Film Festival this week. Lawson, the actor who plays Doug on Showtime’s “House of Lies,” got the idea for his movie — a series of six vignettes (a la “Love Actually”) about couples with various sexual fetishes — from a dinner party conversation several years ago.
“One of the girls there confessed to have a rape fantasy,” Lawson says. “I was really thrown by that. I had never heard anyone talk about it so candidly.” He started researching case studies and interviewing women he found in online chat rooms. “It was surprisingly common,” he maintains. “A lot of women said it was difficult for them to talk to their partners, because they were embarrassed by it.”
The director understands that some people may be offended by a scene where the boyfriend character (who he plays) poses as a rapist and violently attacks his girlfriend (Bojana Novakovic) in a dark setting. “I never wrote it to be offensive,” says Lawson, who is making his directorial debut. “I don’t think it’s trivializing rape at all. I think I’m doing the opposite. We do it respectfully, and we do it out of love. The character’s motivations are genuine and sweet.” He says that in test screenings, women responded to the film better than men.
Lawson added it wasn’t easy to secure financing for his indie (“sex is the last taboo”), which is why he spent eight years trying to make it. He shot the film last August in Sydney over 20 days. “The Little Death” also looks at other fetishes, although they aren’t as controversial as the rape scene. In one of the story lines, a woman is turned on by her husband’s tears. And there’s a couple that tries to rekindle their marriage through roleplay. But the tone of the film, which doesn’t feature any nudity, is more similar to a Richard Curtis romantic comedy than a Lars von Trier melodrama.
“The relationships are the cake of the film and the fetishes are the icing,” Lawson says. He was relieved that his mom liked the movie, but his girlfriend hasn’t seen it yet. “It could be a dealbreaker,” he says. “She could hate it.”
“The Little Death” premieres in Toronto on Sept. 5 at the Scotiabank Theatre. UTA and Level K are handling domestic rights, with the latter selling the project to overseas territories.
What do you think, ONTD? Do you buy the director's explanation? Or is it going too far?