sundance 2022

At Sundance, a Cautious Reclaiming of Sexual Pleasure Alongside Stories of Trauma

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Me Too didn’t begin in show business, but show business, with all of its conflicting impulses about commerciality, celebrity, and what constitutes important messaging, accelerated it into the phenomenon it became. In 2022, Sundance — where those conflicts often play out — felt caught somewhere between keeping its focus on sexual exploitation and coercion and figuring out how to advance the conversation to whatever might come next. The festival showcased stories about predators, both famous (Bill Cosby, Marilyn Manson) and fictional (the characters in Resurrection and Palm Trees and Power Lines). But it also offered portraits of wrongs against women that were so ostentatiously gruesome they almost curve back around to comedy, and, most interestingly, portrayals of erotic exploration conducted despite, or with an awareness of, the perils of power imbalances and the potential for harm, as though the cautious reclaiming of sexual pleasure could be its own act of protest.

In a convergence of programming and a sign of the times, Evan Rachel Wood and Rebecca Hall told similar stories of abuse in two very different Sundance selections this year. Wood’s account is her own: She’s the subject of Phoenix Rising, an Amy Berg docuseries about her decision to go public with the abuse she endured over the course of her relationship with Marilyn Manson. Hall’s is fictional, the nightmarish backstory of the tightly wound protagonist she plays in Resurrection, a loopy thriller written and directed by Andrew Semans. And yet so many elements are the same, at least at first, that the women feel like they’re singing the refrain of an old, sad song known the world over. Wood was 19, and Hall’s character, Margaret, was 18. Their abusers were older and showered the young women with admiration and attention, declaring them muses and crediting them as sources of renewed inspiration, all the while gradually cutting them off from everyone else, exerting more and more control over every aspect of their lives.

But that’s where the stories diverge, because while Phoenix Rising steers toward Wood’s activism, Margaret’s litany shifts from the all too familiar to something so grotesque that the person hearing it asks if it’s a joke or a test of some sort. She got pregnant, and the man she was with, David (a toothy Tim Roth), wasn’t happy about it. A few months after giving birth, David sent her on an errand and, when she came back, claimed that he had eaten their baby, with only two fingers remaining as proof that the child had ever existed. Hall delivers this information in an unbroken, straight-faced monologue that gives no sense of whether this is all meant to be taken literally. It feels instead like Resurrection is trying to sever its heroine’s trauma from anything relatable, daring you to figure out if its horrors are symbolic. Then it chastises you for wanting an answer when its real focus is on the ways Margaret has sought to regain control, as though she could somehow undo the past through sheer force of will.

Where Phoenix Rising punctuates Wood’s pained testimony with utterly unnecessary on-screen definitions of grooming and lovebombing, as though the words are unfamiliar to most and discussions of them aren’t ongoing, the committed incoherence of Resurrection comes across like a howl of release. It’s a ridiculous film, but never in a way that makes light of abuse. Instead, its outrageousness feels born out of a desire to push past those codified ways in which abuse is described and talked about, to return its narrative to the (literally) visceral. The same could be said of the less successful but no less macabre horror film Fresh, from director Mimi Cave and writer Lauryn Kahn. Fresh’s heroine, a Los Angeles singleton named Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones), finds what feels like an escape from the app-based dating scene when she has a meet-cute at a grocery store. Steve (Sebastian Stan) is a doctor, and a foodie, and handsome, and doting, and also a practiced predator, who soon has Noa chained up in a basement alongside other solitary young women he has seduced. But the twist is that his interest in female bodies has less to do with desire than with hunger — he runs a high-end cannibal delivery service.

Fresh is a mess, but mess is at least interesting in a muted year for the festival, which was at the last minute made virtual-only because of COVID. Movies like Palm Trees and Power Lines, which centers on a teenager steered into sex work by an older boyfriend, and docuseries like W. Kamau Bell’s We Need to Talk About Cosby, which places interviews with Bill Cosby’s accusers against a timeline of his career, offer straightforward cautionary tales about the ways in which predators can exist in plain sight, disguised as smiling suitors or America’s dad. But Sharp Stick, Lena Dunham’s first film in more than a decade, blurs lines about agency and power with all the chaos you’d expect from the Girls creator. Its main character, a virginal 26-year-old named Sarah Jo, played by Kristine Froseth, initiates an affair with the feckless Josh (Jon Bernthal), who’s considerably older than she is, and more experienced, and also married, and her boss. But the movie is quick to portray Josh as a sleazy fool rather than an abuser. It is adamant that he is just an accessory in a story that belongs to Sarah Jo, and that while she may get her heart bruised over the course of her first forays into sex, she does not get taken advantage of.

In Dunham’s lopsided fable, Sarah Jo is able to approach sex with the unfetteredness of a woman who has somehow managed to escape the shame and self-loathing and impossible expectations that accrue like limpets throughout adolescence and early adulthood. The world she moves through may be marked by imbalances and dishonesty and undisclosed STDs, but her forays into erotic discovery, while not always fulfilling, are accompanied with a sense of giddy liberation. That wistful optimism becomes downright utopian in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, an unexpectedly lovely two-hander starring Emma Thompson as a retired schoolteacher and Daryl McCormack as the eponymous sex worker she hires. Thompson’s character, Nancy, has only ever slept with her humdrum late husband and has never had an orgasm. She approaches Leo (McCormack) with a combination of curiosity and self-sabotage, fretting with the certainty that one of them is surely taking advantage of the other. The film, which was written by Katy Brand and directed by Sophie Hyde, becomes a funny, awkward, vulnerable negotiation about the idea of sex as a service, about owning your own desires after a lifetime of hang-ups, and about talking openly about perceived power imbalances.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a chatty affair that seems to hew to the axiom that the brain is the most powerful sexual organ. That is until, abruptly and delightfully, it offers up a montage of joyous fucking that is all the more racy for including some fumbling. The film feels as much like a Me Too offering as anything about predatory celebrities and abusive partners, though its relevance comes from what it doesn’t include rather than what it does. To depict a carnal exploration that can exist outside of frameworks of coercion and unwanted control is to provide a longing counterpoint to stories about assault and harassment. If Sundance is often a showcase for excavations of difficult subject matter, the streak of sex-positive films running alongside ones about trauma speaks to one way for the conversation to move forward — by depicting the world as it should be, alongside reflections of the world as it is.

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Sundance’s Cautious Reclaiming of Sexual Pleasure