There's usually a film at the Cannes International Film festival that kicks up dust with boundary-pushing sexuality. In 2003, it was "Brown Bunny," which included a graphic oral sex scene that, writer-director and star Vincent Gallo, took great pains to tell everyone was real - not staged.
This year's provocateur is "Shortbus." And it has everyone here buzzing.
In one scene, a man is laying in a tub of water making a video of his, um, privates. In another, a naked young man belts out "The Star Spangled Banner" while engaged in three-way sex with gay lovers.
And, in still another, a sex therapist walks into an underground sex club in New York and into an orgy. The "Mistress" of the club, in one of the film's most memorable lines, tells her: "It's just like the '60s - only with less hope."
Whether it's viewed as art or not will, of course, be up to the audience, but writer-director John Cameron Mitchell, whose previous film "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" attracted critical attention, doesn't see his latest work as pornographic.
"I actually like pornography but I don't consider this film pornographic," Mitchell told a festival press conference over the weekend. "I define - and most people do - pornography as devoid of artistic intent. The purpose of pornography is to arouse. I don't think anyone got (sexually aroused) watching this film."
That's not to say he didn't intend the sexuality to excite. "There is a certain provocation we had in mind with this film, but more important than that, we wanted to use sex as a metaphor for things that were, perhaps, universal, themes like connection and love and fear. We just thought the language of sex could be used the way the language of music could be used in a musical."
And the film is not just about sex. It is also about relationships, like the character James, who is suicidal and quietly preparing his lover for his death, and the dominatrix prostitute Severin, who takes Polaroid photos of strangers captured at their most vulnerable moments.
Sook-Yin Lee, who works for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., told reporters there was initially "confusion and fear" when her bosses learned about the movie, but she said they eventually supported her choice to play the character of Sofia, the sex therapist, who is wildly experimental in her exploration of the terrain.
"It was fascinating to me to see all my individual bosses up the corporate hierarchy and each individual would say, 'You know what? This movie sounds amazing, and I want this movie to exist in my world, but I'm afraid of the guy above me will put on the brakes and I'm going to get in trouble Their fear was the fear that the public would be outraged, that we would be talking candidly about our sexuality What happened was, in reality, the backlash was people saying 'This should exist. This should happen.'"
The young cast includes Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish, P.J. DeBoy, Raphael Barker, Jay Brannan, Peter Stickles and Justin Bond, all of whom attended the press conference here, which was relatively friendly. Not like the boos and hisses that greeted Gallo at his.
One of the bigger laughs occurred when DeBoy responded to questions about how it felt to sing the national anthem while having sex.
"It was a hard decision within me of what that meant," he said. "The beautiful image of gay men having sex is a very personal thing to me, and I am an American, and I think that it represents who I am as well and how I express myself. So, when I thought to myself, can I sing my country's national anthem while (having sex) I decided I could. Because I think it is a patriotic act and I think there is nothing morally wrong with gay sex or un-American about gay people."
DeBoy joked that they'd be touring "and singing every country's national anthem."
The film does not yet have a distributor.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times