Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I've Always Been This Way: Bret Wood's The Little Death (2010)

A delightfully intoxicating and extremely thought-provoking work from writer and director Bret Wood, The Little Death (2010) is one of the most captivating and original American films in recent memory. Adapted from the Frank Wedekind play The Death and the Devil (along with the Anton Chekhov short-story "a Nervous Breakdown"), The Little Death is a visually dazzling period piece that manages to be feel both authentic to its Victorian-era setting, as well as completely topical to today's ugly political climate.

First staged in 1905, The Death and the Devil is not anywhere near as well-known as Frank Wedekind's plays Earth Spirt (1895) or Pandora's Box (1904) but it is an equally fascinating work and Wood's update shows it as an incredibly modern piece whose topics of sex, repression and judgement are as relevant as ever. Set in a brothel, The Little Death concerns a conservative reformer named Eleanor who has come in an attempt to 'rescue' a former employee named Lisiska from the clutches of the seedy, but intelligent, owner of the house of prostitution.

While the subject matter of The Little Death suggests a film that might be filled with skin and sex, Wood's work is actually very much a dialogue driven piece that finds his characters more emotionally, than physically, stripped. The centerpiece of the film, a heated debate between the reformer and brothel owner, is a masterful exercise in intelligent filmmaking and great acting. As the apparently straitlaced, but undeniably curious, Eleanor, stage-actress Courtney Patterson gives a wonderfully nuanced performance that perfectly captures a person driven by desire but controlled by denial. Just as good is Daniel May, who is both charming and menacing, as Eleanor's sparring partner. Equally compelling are Christie Vozniak as the 'fallen' woman who may or may not need saving and Clifton Guterman, as her paying suitor, who is either there to help or destroy her.

A visually dynamic low-budget production (that looks incredibly opulent thanks to cinematographer Chris Tsambis' skilled lighting skills), The Little Death improves on Wood's accomplished previous production Psychopathia Sexualis (2006) in nearly every way while at the same time complimenting it. Both films show Wood as a real talent with a very distinct vision that hearkens back to the glorious days of wildly uncompromising filmmakers like Walerian Borowczyk, Jose Benazeraf and The Quay Brothers. The subdued elegance that is on display throughout The Little Death shouldn't hide the fact that, at heart, this is a very confrontational film that asks its audience to question what they are seeing on the screen, and perhaps feeling in their heart.

While watching The Little Death, particularly the heated dialogue between Patterson and May, I couldn't help but think about today's combative political climate and the fact that we are facing a frightening part of the population willing to support candidates, whose driving force is a promise to interfere with the private sexual lives of people they find 'morally' corrupt. Wedekind's play from which The Little Death was taken from seems absolutely prophetic and is perhaps even more topical in 2012 than it was in 1905.

The Little Death is streaming at Netflix but I highly recommend going ahead and snagging the DVD for the terrific documentary on the production as well as a generous helping of deleted-scenes. The Kino-Lorber disc also offers up Wood's extraordinary, and wonderfully disturbing, short-film The Other Half, a work that is just as good in its own way as The Little Death.


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