"I'll make sure its just you in the crowd doin' tricks you never seen // And I bet that I can make you believe in love and sex and magic." - Ciara & Justin Timberlake, Love Sex Magic (2009)
A number of films selected for the international programmes in this year's London Short Film Festival approach love, sex and desire and in unusual and interesting ways, twisting familiar arrangements or delving into unexpected ones. The best of these either find fresh ways to reinterpret the ordinary (deconstructing a breakup, animating first love), or dive brazenly into the genuinely unusual (transgressive desires or inter-special relations). Others play things straighter - small sojourns in which bodies clash, hearts pound and minds meet.
“Give it time, you’ll get over it” says an offscreen voice in Céline Devaux’s delightfully sour You Will Be Fine, offering platitudes of little use to the hopelessly bereaved lead Jean, as he examines his breakup in the wake of its total collapse. “You should do yoga, I'm telling you. First relationship, young love, its tough.” Tough indeed, as displayed in this smartly constructed, transfixingly bitter relationship drama that mixes live action filmmaking and animation techniques to great effect. As Jean and ex-partner Mathilde battle it out desperately, Devaux inserts animated inter-titles (at first static, but quickly increasing abstract and mobile) to visualise aspects of their relationship’s more tranquil past and turbulent present. After a while these woodcut style drawings start to invade the frame, appearing as scratchy bubbles of black dancing over the filmed footage; fractures to match the tension generated by the intelligent sound design (mounting drums, layered vocal recordings, and low mixed ambient sounds) that directs an increasing strangulated mood. As the tension hits fever pitch, soon comes a realisation of the futility of it all. Things are so embittered, it's already over. The war isn't just lost, it was doomed from the start. “It's like you love someone else,” Mathilde says in a resigned tone, “the person you imagined when we met.”
Another animation hybrid, though this time fusing documentary audio with fully-animated visuals, Diane Obomsawin's soft, sweet I Like Girls tells the stories of a few girls coming to realise that they are gay. Drawn as anthropomorphic cartoon creatures with long, sleek human bodies and small, frumpy animal bobbleheads, the tales provided by Obomsawin's interviewees are suitably abstracted from their very real origins into something more surreal. Floating, sprawling animal sagas subdivided by the (human) name of their teller, this representational distance between the told story and its animated version allows for a freedom and comfort from the subject in description (or rather, remembrance, as most stories are early ones, first loves, first fondles and fumbles, and first realisations); and an ingenuity in the visual approach for the animator shaping them into pictorial narratives. Obomsawin, a staple of Montreal's underground comics scene who began animating in the 1990s, here draws out an alternate coming of age to that usually seen, one that is stumbling and sensual, recognisable but also removed.
Christos Massalas’s mild and peculiar Copa Loca offers a pleasant, quirk-laden distraction, colourful and carefully composed but a little frivolous in feel. At its centre is Paulina, a girl who, the narrator announces, "cares for everyone, and everyone cares about her.” Cutting first to a scene of her fucking a man in a field, then quickly again to her being pressed up against a fence by a different fellow, Massala makes clear the intended meaning of this statement. Paulina loves freely, and gives her love away the same way, without any shame on her part or judgement from the director. The short doesn't go any particular place from here, darting between a disarming series of interludes following Paulina's half-detached, half-carefree mid-summer adventures until they reach some kind of climax. By the end, Copa Loca is a functional, if somewhat generic character portrait made more interesting through the uniqueness of its setting, a deserted, depopulated holiday Greek resort and water park, a lonely maze of flumes and slides with no-one around to travel along them.
Desire surfaces differently in Jan Soldat's Protocols, suppressed almost through necessity. A documentary portrait of three anonymous men with an unusual shared sexual proclivity, Soldat opens the film by asking his first participant to "introduce [himself] and [his] fantasy." "Being fattened, inspected, and eaten," the man replies flatly, after supplying some brief biographical information. Playing as a kind of reverse Caniba - an experimental portrait of notorious Issei Sagawa that features similarly to-the-point, to-camera interviews, with an obvious and crucial difference in consent and perspective - Soldat interviews three men whose deepest, darkest desire is to be "slaughtered" and eaten. Respectful, curious, and only occasionally sardonic, the tension in Soldat's film arrives not from questioning the legitimacy of this interest - even though the legality is an issue, especially if they chose to push it as far as they wish, the only person being harmed, in theory, is them - but in the danger that is inherent, essential even. What does it mean to wish to not just be maimed, cut and beaten, but actually eaten alive? "Other fetishes have it easier." Undoubtably so.
A more gentle type of longing emerges in Latifa Said's Wasteland, an austere film depicting a brief, developing relationship (of sorts) between a sex worker and a new client. In a nonspecific city, an anonymous local woman and a immigrant of unknown origin meet in a bar, beginning a tentative, protracted romantic engagement that eventually turns transactional. Filmed in high contrast black and white and staged as a series of long, mobile exterior takes and fixed interior perspectives, Wasteland is made up like something from an early Bela Tarr film, a facade of crumbling walls, rain sodden streets and dank, dingy bars that project a sense of impending doom in all directions. Yet, despite first impressions, this is not a piece of miserabilia. As the man's stumbling, stunted desire emerges, it is welcomed by a patient woman with an understanding that exists as almost entirely nonverbal, and seems almost unconscious. A connection is made, a distanced bridged, and something communicated through a protracted glance and a long-wished-for embrace. "I want you to teach me," he says, and the scene fades.
The most outlier depiction of love, sex and everything in between is in Yann Gonzalez' Islands, an extremely compelling, precisely and expertly directed half hour piece that its maker describes as an "erotic maze of love and desire." In the utterly entrancing opening scene, a long take in which a couple begin to have sex almost laughably passionately, the scene shot and lit to resemble a 1980s commercial, too perfect and pristine, too much, too soon. After a few minutes, the camera pans out to introduce a third partner who enters and joins seamlessly, a man-beast who seems to have entirely shed his skin, a dry mass of red-pink ligamenture and sinewy muscle, his monstrosity somehow just as weird-perfect as his human partners' normality. As weird a ménage à trois as could be imagined, Gonzalez and his performers treat proceedings as if they were perfectly regular, the woman stroking the monster's throbbing skinless penis whilst her partner watches unperturbed. From here, matters proceed into stranger territory still, a constantly eroticised, rigidly constructed dream-nightmare of unbound sensuality that skirts through the unconscious, sitting somewhere between Jonathan Glazer and David Lynch, yet less familiar and predictable than that suggests. Much of it is hard to make any sense of, but all proves compelling. Surreal but equally, serene.