Sex with Strangers

(Joe and Harry Gantz, USA, 2002)


Any couples considering getting into – or out of – the sexual 'swinging' scene need urgently to see Sex with Strangers, a gruelling and eye-opening documentary on the American experience in this field.

This vidéo-vérité piece, shot on digital, takes us into the open-book lives of seven swingers. Only two of them, James and Theresa, seem as happy with their lifestyle at the end as at the start. Perhaps this is because they drive from place to place in a 'mobile pleasure palace', hence avoiding messy complications in any one spot of habitation.

Shannon and Gerard, who have a small child, seem at the outset almost as into it as James and Theresa. But once Gerard starts receiving 'one four three' messages on his pager – that's code for 'I love you' – from his latest dalliance, Shannon begins feeling some old-fashioned emotions of possessiveness.

But the stars of this documentary are undoubtedly Calvin, Sara and Julie, twentysomethings who are worth their own soap opera on a pay TV adult channel. Sara engages in all kinds of sex with Julie for Calvin's sake, but breaks down every time that he expresses slightly more affection towards this 'other woman'.

The swinging scene seems, in short, like a living hell. Directors Joe and Harry Gantz film have total access to their subjects' lives (even in the sex clubs) but withdraw from openly commenting on the flagrant contradictions underlying this milieu.

For example, why do the men seem mainly to benefit from this lifestyle? Why do almost all the women seem miserable? While female bisexuality is encouraged, why is male gayness so furiously repressed? And what about a sociological examination of these swingers, including mainstream society's opinion of their subculture – another grim topic hinted at only in the final credits?

No one could claim Sex with Strangers as a brilliantly made documentary, but it is compelling viewing. In one stunning scene – Calvin's unfussy marriage to Sara, with Julie looking on as the one and only bridesmaid – the real-life tension is more intensely theatrical than in any fictional mise en scène. For this spectacle alone, the movie is worth catching and savouring.

© Adrian Martin June 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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