What could be ‘better than sex’? I’m not sure that Better Than Sex (Jonathan Teplitzky, 2000) really wants to answer this question: the title is a provocation, a tease, a come-on. It’s also a sign that the film is trying to have things both ways. On the one hand sex in its own right – casual sex, sex with ‘no strings attached’ – is seen from the outset as great, desirable, no problem. Moreover the promise of sex – specifically, the spectacle of David Wenham and Susie Porter getting it on – is undoubtedly the film’s major selling point. Yet for all the happy hedonism on display, a different message is (at least in theory) built into the plot structure. As in the recent French movie A Pornographic Affair (Fredric Fonteyn, 1999) both audience and the characters are initially enticed by the lure of the purely sexual, the ‘pornographic.’ Eventually, however, they’re made to concede that while a fully adult relationship may begin with sex, it must eventually move on to something ‘better than sex,’ more profound and long-lasting. (Interestingly, this idea almost exactly reverses the premise of Susie Porter’s last film, Feeling Sexy [Davida Allen, 1999] where Porter played a woman struggling to reconcile the responsibilities of a loving marriage with her desire for sexual adventure.)
The story couldn’t be simpler. Girl meets guy at a party, they like the look of each other, she invites him to stay over at her trendy warehouse apartment. She’s Cynthia, a sometime dressmaker; he’s Josh, a wildlife photographer based in London. Both are attractive, funny, sexually confident, with no plans to marry or settle down any time soon. He’s leaving the country in a few days, so there’s no chance this casual affair will lead to anything serious. They prove to be compatible in and out of bed, he stays over another night, gradually they start talking. One of Cynthia’s friends arrives, blatantly flirts with Josh, and leaves (unfortunately) as soon as the situation starts to get more interesting. Josh and Cynthia fight, make up, have sex, joke around, have more sex, recount their life histories, and have sex again.
All this is treated very lightly. Teplitzky, whose previous directorial experience has been mainly in music videos and commercials, studiously avoids the kind of theatrical tension we might expect in a movie set in and around a single apartment. The apartment itself has little of the potentially oppressive solidity of a stage set: since there are no interior walls, new spaces can be created or partitioned off from each other with the opening and closing of a curtain. Another of Teplitzky’s tactics for breaking up the space of the apartment is announced in the initial credits sequence, consisting of a series of shallow-focus close-ups of various objects scattered round Cynthia’s bedroom: discarded clothes, coat hangers, the wrapper of a used condom. The space is fragmentary, open-ended; the imagery is processed, easy to read. It’s a sequence typical of Teplitzky, who can rarely resist cutting away from the dramatic meat of a scene to make a visual joke or directorial interjection – as if he were constantly worrying that viewers might get bored with just watching two people alone in a room.
A similar need to divert the audience at every instant seems to motivate the film’s incessant stream of chatter. Cynthia and Josh comment on the action in voiceover throughout, even during the sex scenes themselves (this often has an intentionally comic, deflating effect, in the manner of a TV sitcom – as when we hear Josh mentally reciting a shopping list in a vain attempt to stop himself reaching orgasm too soon). We also cut periodically to shots of the pair reminiscing (separately) to camera about the progress of their relationship. As if this weren’t enough, sprinkled through the film are brief clips of various other people (nominally Josh and Cynthia’s friends) talking to the camera about their sex lives. The implied questions they’re answering are the kind that might pop up in a lifestyle show or a magazine survey. How do you feel about oral sex? What noises do you make when you come? It’s presumably this kind of material that has already led one reviewer to describe Better Than Sex as similar to ‘reading Cosmopolitan for ninety minutes.’
Fair comment, perhaps, but the implied putdown deserves some scrutiny: what exactly is so bad about Cosmopolitan? The problem isn’t with the busy, shallow style or the chatty sexual detail as such, but the way they defeat the film’s desire to function as a ‘romantic comedy’ in the old sense. For in one way or another romantic comedy is about the kind of love that turns everything upside down, breaking through the mundane conventions of ordinary life – and despite the title’s claim that Josh and Cynthia discover something that’s ‘better than sex’ as they’ve known it, ultimately this film is not very interested in persuading us to see their affair as any kind of existential, life-changing encounter.
For apart from a few practical problems of time and space, there’s no obvious reason for Josh and Cynthia not to get together from the beginning. They’re not required to defy society, to give up an earlier lover or a cherished dream; they needn’t seriously change their approach to life. Simply put, the script lacks drama, and it never really gets around to telling us what makes Josh and Cynthia’s relationship significantly different from other relationships they’ve had in the past. Worst of all are its attempts at romantic whimsy – especially the crusty Greek taxi-driver who not only spends all her time lurking outside Cynthia’s apartment, but magically knows about everything that’s going on inside. (Is she a habitual voyeur? Is she casing the joint in preparation for a future robbery?)
The truth is that while this is indeed a movie about sex, it’s not really about sex as any kind of transcendent, revelatory experience; it’s about sex as lifestyle. It’s about sex as a fascinating topic that can be discussed endlessly and frankly (as it is in Cosmopolitan): the morning after Cynthia and Josh first sleep together, we’re treated to a daisy-chain montage of telephone calls as the rumour spreads amongst their friends. This is the real project of Better Than Sex, beyond its rather thin storyline: rethinking the way Australian cinema talks about sex, bringing it up-to-date with the manners and practices of the real world, or at least the world of Sydney yuppies. It’s his strength as well as his limitation that Teplitzky identifies himself with this milieu and convinces you he knows it from the inside. While there’s a certain amount of satire in his approach, generally he tries to make his characters and their environment seem stylish and appealing, and at this limited task he succeeds surprisingly well.
Most of the credit for this has to go to the actors, who are perfectly cast: Porter is able to deliver dialogue about blow-jobs and vibrators without a trace of coyness or embarrassment, and she has just the blend of warmth and toughness the script requires. (She also gets the sharpest lines: ‘You don’t know what some men are like! I let them fuck me, and then somehow they get to think I like them.’) Similarly, the droll underplaying of David Wenham continues to provide a reasonably good solution to the eternal difficulty of portraying intelligent, attractive Australian men who are neither boorish ockers nor pathetic dags. One sign of the script’s contemporary good faith is that Cynthia and Josh are carefully permitted equal sexual strength and autonomy: a genuine effort is made to show their relationship from both perspectives, allowing the viewer to see either, or both, as sexually desirable. In its skilled seduction of the audience, the film is not unlike an advertisement, but as such it could be very successful: I wouldn’t be surprised if its overseas release, a few months after the Olympics, supplied a noticeable further boost to levels of immigration to Australia.