Autoerotic – Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard (2011)

While this film’s co-director Adam Wingard is mostly an unknown quantity in this equation, partner in crime Joe Swanberg — the indie director of collaborative efforts Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends — is no stranger to sex or controversy, both of which are courted nimbly in Autoerotic, a four-part omnibus film that takes a penetrating and at times unexpected look at exactly the topic the film is titled after.

It’s not necessarily an aim to court controversy by being explicit, though. “I am trying to document the humans around me, the same way a nature show would document elephants or lions, and a big part of our lives is spent thinking about sex, trying to have sex, or having sex,” Swanberg told me during a Hannah-era interview. “For me it’s obvious that sex would have a big role in the films.”

But while Hannah, Weekends, and Alexander the Last have been more straightforward relationship dramas with sex in them, Autoerotic returns to the thematic ground forged in the pre-Hannah films, LOL and Kissing on the Mouth, which you could say were films about sex with relationships in them. He returns to that ground a much wiser, more technically proficient director and collaborator, but one who has remained as starkly honest and continued to be able to get actors to trust him wholly, without reservation or worry about embarrassment. It’s a trust explicitly needed in the first two segments — the first, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde story about a man addicted to penis enlargement pills; the second, about a girl who is turned on by a stiff breeze and delves into the dangerous area of autoerotic asphyxiation.

The trust is thanks in no small part to his wife, Kris Swanberg, who is perhaps more vulnerable in the third segment — about a sexually unfulfilled pregnant woman who lets a girlfriend try and work out what her husband can’t achieve — than anyone else in any of Swanberg’s films. She is very honest, very open, very pregnant and very naked all the while. That kind of willingness for vulnerability can so easily be considered contemptible, but I find it to be commendable.

It’s he fourth and final piece, about a man desperate to keep his old sex tapes with a girl who (presumably) dumped him — or find something a little more lifelike — is where the film hits something of a snag, though: it is just downright uncomfortable to watch. The film actually starts off with a short piece from this segment, showing a static shot of an iPhone as it shoots the now-broken up couple having rather boring looking sex. This provocative whiff  works very well as a front bookend to set up the films other stories, but the actual segment, with its incredibly dry, overly honest assessment of the deeply warped spaces in a lonely guy’s mind doesn’t work as a closing bookend. It’s the one piece that asks too much. Whether that is because of an overload from the previous pieces or naturally occurring within the fourth piece, I can’t decide, but, to go with film’s motif, ends up being the pubic hair in the mouth of an otherwise thought provoking and essentially good time.

It’s a little strange thinking about people doing these things in real life. They’re almost mythic stories that you run across commonly online, but for some reason, or maybe it’s just this Catholic prude, don’t seem to be real, they seem to be the creation of fetish porn sites. But the facts are this: people take penis enlargement pills; people are into autoerotic asphyxiation; people invite third parties into their bed; and most guys do cling onto mementos of past relationships, especially the dirty ones. It’s brought to the absolute extreme here, but the last part is actually, I would think, the most common thing. Even in the relatively tame Juno, Paulie hangs on to the undies Juno wore during their big night.

This demanding, quietly confrontational film asks you to take a step back and consider your desires, and how far you let yourself go, or how much you hold back. Whether or not it’s a public conversation starter, Autoerotic should at the very least start an internal dialogue.