Movie review, 'Sex with Strangers'

Love means different things to different people.

To subjects of the documentary "Sex with Strangers," love involves recreational sex with multiple partners, or "swinging."

Directed by brothers Joe and Harry Gantz, the creators of HBO's fascinating and often-slimy "Taxicab Confessions," the feature-length film chronicles the lives of three couples in "the lifestyle" with mesmeric drama and a naked honesty.

It would be a mistake to regard all documentaries as objective, raw-eyed reality boiled down to 90 minutes. For example, Terry Zwigoff's profile of an underground comic book artist in "Crumb" was clearly a tragicomedy, while Michael Apted's "7 up" series resonates as a social soap opera.

"Sex with Strangers" is a sexual drama, framed by the fringe of society. This fringe status, however, doesn't make its subjects any less empathetic or their themes any less universal. While a few may qualify as those Tennessee Williams called his "incomplete people," most are simply looking for love. Traditional methods proved disappointing or fruitless, so they're exploring the road less traveled.

Thus is the case with veteran swingers James and Theresa, a married middle-aged duo who tour the swingers clubs, seducing like-minded couples in their mobile home "pleasure palace." They even have business cards that read: "We put the 'fun' in dysfunctional."

Occasionally, they swing with Calvin and Sara, a twentysomething pair experiencing tensions over the addition of Julie, a bisexual schoolteacher, to their romps.

Rounding out the subjects are Shannon and Gerard, a married couple with a young son, who have had problems remaining faithful and started swinging on the advice of their marriage counselor.

In many ways "Sex with Strangers" lives as the companion piece and antithesis of 1999's upbeat "The Lifestyle," where Errol Morris protege David Schisgall provided a broad overview of the swinging subculture through convention and party visits, accompanied with some spotlight chair interviews. Schisgall's fine film takes a macroscopic overview of its subjects, but the Gantz brothers have trained their lenses to the microscopic front lines of relationships. Their subjects are also younger, more volatile and the film itself echoes loneliness, even when the screen is filled with people, clothed or not.

Against models of stability James and Theresa, the other couples butt heads and hearts, often unable to separate want from need, paddling through sexual territory few other couples experience. Sara lives in almost constant dread that she'll lose to Calvin to Julie, in the process doing everything possible to make sure her fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Calvin we see as both a boyish romantic and unconscionable weasel. Whenever he's asked a straight question, he turns into a spineless sadist infected by the mantra of "I don't know."

While the directors avoid being physical pornographers -- there is nudity, but any sexual activity remains just out of frame or expressed in tightly framed reaction shots -- they are emotional pornographers. At the documentary's dramatic zenith, the camera almost leers at Sara, pushing ever closer as she goes through an emotional breakdown. It's tough to watch. Like much of the film, the scene picks you up by the collar and doesn't let go.

Although allusions are made to jobs held by its subjects (Theresa has a pilot's license, for example), the film suffers because we see its protagonists almost exclusively as sexual beings. Never are we given insight into their work lives (for obvious reasons), but we do get some of Shannon and Gerard's family life, as they tell her mother about their swinging lifestyle.

The Gantz brothers' talents lie in making the unfamiliar accessible and emotions palpable. While it's difficult to feel sorry for those who habitually create their own destructive melodrama, we none the less identify with them. "Sex with Strangers" is ultimately a film that forces you to bring along and confront your own sexual mores, whether you like it or not. It makes you sweat, laugh, squirm and self explore like few films -- fictional or documentary -- can.

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"Sex With Strangers"
Directed by Joe and Harry Gantz, principal photography by Mike Rock, Kary D'Alessandro; edited by Alysha Cohen. A Crushed Planet release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:41. MPAA rating: R (language, sexuality).

Robert K. Elder is a Chicago Tribune Staff Writer.

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