Sex and Death

(Kathleen Lee, Australia, 2020)


On four occasions between 1980 and 2023, I have written in-depth about Michael Lee’s masterpiece of the Australian avant-garde, The Mystical Rose (1976); I also met and talked with Michael at various screening events. For that entire time, I was unaware that Gerard Lee, the AFTRS graduate who has collaborated on and off with Jane Campion over that same period, and himself directed the teen-comedy feature All Men Are Liars (1995), is Michael’s brother. And I had absolutely no idea that Michael had a daughter, Kathleen Lee, who is today a young filmmaker working in the Melbourne production group Kewl Studios. A talented family rhizome!

Sex and Death is neither film nor television exactly, but that hybrid in-between: a web series, supported by Screen Australia and broadcast on SBS Viceland. On YouTube, you can set its six episodes to play-all and then it unfolds continuously, as a short feature. This is how I advise you to experience it. I watched it twice, with pleasure.

I was immediately hooked by its four-way-entanglement set-up. Charlie (Lee) and her boyfriend Damian (Robin Brown) break up – despite Charlie’s intriguing pre-sex admission that she’s “getting close to being at ease” with him. Damian immediately picks up with his pre-arranged next relationship: with Tanya (Isabella Giovinazzo), who happens to be Charlie’s best friend and housemate, and someone who annoyingly always pinches Charlie’s love-interests. Charlie meets and is instantly attracted to Pat (Jonathan Schuster), a somewhat beleaguered worker at a chicken shop (the very same shop in which I regularly spent a lot of money while living in the suburb of Clifton Hill!).

In an extremely awkward but beautifully directed street encounter, Charlie bumps into Damian and Tanya (who haven’t told her about their relationship) – and then Pat rocks up, greeting all three in a familiar way. Eventually, Tanya will break with Damian and gravitate to Pat, leaving Charlie even more bereft. And there’s a crucial revelation on the way – watching it the second time, I realised it was flagged in an offhand line of dialogue very early on – which I won’t spoil.

The other key thread in this mosaic is the acting class that both Charlie and Damian attend. The comedy is a little forced here, as the manic teacher (Greg Ulfan) bugs his eyes, crawls over rows of seats and consistently yells directions on the order of: “You want to kill him and fuck him!” But the point is clear: Charlie has problems accessing and expressing her emotions; she has low self-esteem, she’s not yet ‘in touch with herself’, and doesn’t really know who she is or why she’s there … (Aside: a year before Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, Sex and Death also uses Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya as the set text!)

Let’s hit pause on this review. It wasn’t until I read the few articles devoted to Sex and Death (both profile-type pieces on Lee as actor-writer-director) that I twigged to the ‘fact’ that the character of Charlie is autistic, as is her creator. Hence Charlie’s problems with feeling and connecting, on and off stage. And yet: this is never mentioned, never made an explicit subject, in the series itself. (The only comment uttered is that Charlie is a bit “weird”.) I believe this was an excellent decision – unlike the choice made by those reporters who automatically placed autism front and centre in their coverage.

I possess no expert knowledge of autism. I am fully aware, however, that we live in a time when the folk wisdom that ‘we´re all somewhere on the spectrum’ circulates – rightly or wrongly – as a breezy, flip, glib bit of pop psychology. I’m equally aware that we inhabit a rabid culture of diagnosis (and self-diagnosis) that parrots ‘clinical definitions’ of personality-disorders from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as if they were Biblical edicts cast in stone. And that such diagnostic frenzy has inevitably fed into areas like the screenplay-analysis industry, where fictional characters are (often retrospectively) tagged as handy psychiatric case studies.

How refreshing, in this context, to recently encounter Jeremy Cooper’s superb novel Brian (2023), which alights on a diagnostically-fraught area – the inner, somewhat stunted life of an obsessively organised cinephile! – and, like Lee’s web series, never once delivers the hammer-blow of affixing a psychological/psychiatric label. (And Brian indeed closely resembles quite a few cinephiles I have met in my lifetime.)

Enter romantic comedy, and the broader genre of the comedy of manners – to which Sex and Death surely belongs. Conjure in your mind Barry (Adam Sandler) from Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and – even more spectacularly – Melvin (Jack Nicholson) from As Good As It Gets (1997). When I first saw and wrote about these films, I used phrases like neurotic comedy, and described Melvin, for instance, as solipsistic. I situated the films on a lively, quasi-anti-rom-com continuum that includes Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), Cross My Heart (1987) and around 253 stray Mumblecore movies. Many other examples are citable (and excitable). The tag of autism did not cross my mind at the time.

Smash-cut to the 2020s: I find myself appalled to read Barry paraded as a textbook illustration of social phobia in an online site devoted to Abnormal Psychology. And here I was assuming he was just an ordinary person with extreme yet everyday problems! But even I am susceptible to the reigning Zeitgeist: when an editor asked me to write a chapter for a book on autism in cinema, my mind performed an instant refocus on Melvin as a possible case-study. But I didn’t, in the wash-up, work on that piece – because As Good As It Gets is another film that, somewhat mysteriously (evasively, in this case?), never trots out any diagnostic labels; Melvin is simply, in more moralistic terms, a Hard Guy to Get Along With – and the script seems to say that, with some effort, he can improve himself, ‘be a better man’ and all that.

(According to an online paper concerning ‘interpersonal communication’ and ‘media evaluation’, Melvin is a “misanthrope with obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD]”, adding up to an “inability to be other-oriented” – which is having it both ways: judgmentally moralistic and reflexly diagnostic. Other Internet discussion-groups tag him as HFA: High-Functioning Autism, or what used to be popularly called Aspergers. And the beat goes on … )

Back to Sex and Death. One of the best motifs in the series is Pat’s affectionate playing of a punching game: buddies or lovers whacking each other in the arm. He signals the onset of the game by holding up his clenched fists in a ready-to-fight pose. The first time he does this in front of Charlie, she doesn’t have a clue what he’s on about (and neither did I). Later, she winces as she sees him performing the same routine – less awkwardly and more successfully this time – with Tanya in hospital.

Now, this is among the many details that can be relegated to a diagnostic, bullet-point script: Charlie-as-autistic cannot read the signs, doesn’t understand the codes. Just like the way she declares she is “getting close to being at ease”, or has problems following the teacher’s emotive instructions on how to be as a person, how to feel as a human being. But think, once more, of romantic comedy, particularly in the ‘immigrant outsider’ mode of Lubitsch or Wilder: everything, on every social level, is a problem of not knowing how to read the prevalent cultural, interpersonal signs.

It's probably fair and appropriate to suggest that Lee and the Kewl team are happy to have both interpretive frames in play: viewers who take Sex and Death as an autism story (see her interviews on this theme); and those who take it as an ‘edgy’, neurotic comedy of everyday puzzlement and alienation. It’s intriguing to see a work land so squarely at the intersection of these shifting contextual frames. (Lee expertly plays another sort of neurotic – using her ‘Marketplace’ app to infiltrate strangers’ homes and pilfer a little piece of their lives for her wall mosaic – in another, more strenuously zany Kewl production viewable on YouTube, Sam Rogers’ Discontent [2022].)

In the meantime, there’s Pat. He’s a personality-type I’ve never seen captured so well – or captured at all – on screen: always looking and understanding the dynamics of what’s going on, quietly laconic and deflating, yet somehow charming and attractive … even though he has precious little idea how to ‘play the game’ of love and relationships. He’s like something you’d see in the good, bittersweet, fleet Mike Leigh rom-com that Leigh has never managed to make.

In a sense, Pat and Charlie are the truly ‘authentic’ people in this tale, while Tanya and Damian, the ‘conventionally good-looking’ ones, are all vanity, ego, bluff, show. (The teacher is a further variation on that latter semantic cluster.) All the actors are excellent, but Schuster is exceptional, and he’s given indelible screen moments – such as the way he and Charlie look and gesture to each other from opposite sides of the street as they walk (and Tanya babbles on, self-absorbed, not noticing any of it).

And the fantastic ending, when Pat, out on the pavement, is reduced to giving Charlie (walking away with the others) a hopeless, defeated, puppy-dog look, before retreating back into the shop and (under the credits) sweeping up – what an envoi for this guy you don’t want to really call a loser, even if he most definitely ends up as that.

Let’s hope that Kathleen Lee gets more opportunities to make work and fulfil the rich promise of Sex and Death.

© Adrian Martin 30 April 2024

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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