Speaking of Sex

(John McNaughton, France/USA/Canada,


A certain kind of screwball farce – boisterous, full of outsize shouting, screaming, mugging, grimacing and gesticulating, sprinkled with the oft-dreaded ‘funny music’ (pizzicato strings, vibes, etc), and even a little of the infamous fast-motion Benny Hill Effect – is among the hardest things to do well on screen.


This is especially so if the comedy is essentially brittle, populated with characters who are completely unlovable, ridiculous and stupid. Comedy which does not move towards sentimental or psychological resolutions – or only as another joke – but is driven solely on its own tumbling, accumulating, head-long manic energy of outrageous plot and incident.


John McNaughton’s unsung – almost unknown – Speaking of Sex is one of my favourite films in this difficult tradition. It automatically calls up the label of sex farce – just as automatically as the same director’s zany Wild Things (1998) called up the label of erotic thriller – but there is in fact very little sex shown or even suggested in its plot.


True to its title, the film is about the discourse of sex. Not à la Foucault exactly, certainly not overtly, but in a way the association fits: the entire comedy springs from the way sex is talked about ‘institutionally’, in a therapist’s office, in legal quarters … (Not for nothing does the film reach a crescendo with the hateful cry: “Doctors and lawyers!”)


And then, more generally, in public: all the best laughs in the film come from the way intimacies are blurted out, passed around, bought and sold … And in this ever-expanding spectacle of social humiliation, particular firepower is reserved for the Phallus – endless references to Jay Mohr’s Mr Happy and James Spader’s Mr Majestic – and special celebration granted to the pleasuring of women (the film’s deposition scene – more public sex-speak that does the rounds – leads to a great, hallucinatory punchline with three women in a bar rubbing their breasts in an ode to “the circle thing”.)


Every actor has a ball here: Melora Walters, Bill Murray, Kathryn Erbe … And the rhythm of their manic action is well matched with George S. Clinton’s jaunty Cajun/rhythm’n’blues score. McNaughton gives a fine, old-fashioned twist to the many plot inserts, fantasy imaginings and flashbacks, reviving the wipe and the becoming-liquid dissolve.


McNaughton is a fascinating director who has made a number of singular films in zones between and beyond the usual genres, such as Normal Love (1996) and Mad Dog and Glory (1993). His lack of a signature style or subject has, alas, put him beyond the radar of standard-issue auteurism. Go look for him in the outlands of your local DVD shop.

MORE McNaughton: Girls in Prison, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

© Adrian Martin March 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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