Things are getting steamy in the snow-covered mountains around Park City. Sundance is embracing sex with a passion for the 29th edition of the Utah film festival founded by actor-director Robert Redford.
“It’s new territory; people exploring relationships in ways we haven’t seen onscreen before, and I think it’s going to make for an interesting festival,” said Sundance director of programming Trevor Groth.
Sex has certainly been on the bill before at this fest, which never shies away from controversy in celebrating independent film from around the world, with an emphasis on American moviemakers. Last year, it was The Sessions(then called The Surrogate) starring Helen Hunt as a therapist who helps a disabled man (John Hawkes) fulfill his wish to lose his virginity. The film has gone on to enjoy serious awards season support.
Groth and Sundance director John Cooper chatted with the Star in advance of the festival’s Jan. 17 opening. Sundance runs until Jan. 27, closing with jOBS, the hotly anticipated biopic of Apple founder Steve Jobs with Ashton Kutcher playing the title role.
Cooper said the onscreen sex isn’t necessarily more explicit than previous years’ films; there’s just more of it. And the subject seems to be on many filmmakers’ minds, a trend that didn’t reveal itself to the programmers until they got about two-thirds of the way into selecting the 119 features from more than 12,000 submissions.
“It’s definitely more issue-based,” Cooper observed of the approach to sex on film this year. “There is a lot of talk about sexuality, in pure sexual relationships and . . . human need, but also the power of sexual relationships. What’s interesting and makes it fresh this year is that the perspective is both from male and female directors.”
In that regard, Sundance marks a milestone with this year’s festival. For the first time, half of the directors in the key U.S. dramatic film competition are women. Among them is Christina Voros, who makes her feature directing debut with the doc kink, “the true story of sex, submission,” about website kink.com.
Sundance regular James Franco is the executive producer of Kink, one of a trio of sex-related projects he has at the festival. He co-directs Interior. Leather Bar with Travis Mathewsand also co-stars in this dramatic exploration of the 40 minutes of sexually explicit film cut from the controversial 1980 movie Cruising. Al Pacino starred as a cop who goes undercover to investigate a murder among in New York City’s gay leather bar scene.
And in Lovelace, Rob Epstein’s and Jeffrey Friedman’s drama about troubled Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, Franco plays Hugh Hefner opposite Amanda Seyfried as Lovelace. Peter Sarsgaard plays Chuck Traynor, Lovelace’s abusive ex-husband, who coerced her into making the pornographic movie that made her a household name.
“The film will be both brazen and risqué,” Seyfried toldEW.com recently. “It is very bold. In order to fully share her story, I’ve never been more ready and willing to explore these dark and emotional circumstances.”
If dark circumstances weigh in, other films at Sundance take a lighter tone, like Don Jon’s Addiction, written by Joseph Gordon-Levitt who also directs for the first time. He stars as Jon “Don Jon” Martelloa, a modern-day Don Juan who’d like to change his horndog ways. Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza and Glenne Headly also star.
As for movies that explore sex and could capture both audiences and acclaim, Groth points to Anne Fontaine’s Two Mothers, starring Naomi Watts and Robin Wright, and described in the Sundance program as “a gripping tale of love, lust and the power of friendship.”
“I think it’s a special film,” said Groth. “The two performances (Watts and Wright) are special.
Among some other films at Sundance that explore sexual themes:
Anita: Director Freida Mock’s documentary about Anita Hill, whose assertions that U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her brought the issue of workplace harassment to the fore.
Afternoon Delight: Written and directed by Jill Soloway. An aimless L.A. housewife (Kathryn Hahn) tries to rescue a stripper (Juno Temple) by taking her in as a live-in nanny.
Concussion: Directed by Stacie Passon: A 40-something married lesbian suffers a concussion that unleashes a lust for life — and other impulses.
Il Futuro (The Future): Directed by Alicia Scherson. Teenaged Bianca (Manuela Martelli) is coerced into seducing blind hermit Maciste (Rutger Hauer) as part of a teen gang’s robbery plan.
It Felt Like Love: Directed by Eliza Hittman. A 14-year-old Brooklyn girl pursues an older man.
The Look of Love: Director Michael Winterbottom teams with Steve Coogan again (The Trip) for this true story of British adult-magazine publisher and entrepreneur Paul Raymond. Anna Friel, Imogen Poots and Tamsin Egerton co-star.
A Teacher: Directed by Hannah Fidell: A Texas high school teacher has an affair with one of her students.
Very Good Girls: Directed by Naomi Foner: Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen star as two girls who fall for the same man, with unexpected consequences.
Canadians at Sundance
There are five Canadian movies at Sundance 2013 — most notably Sarah Polley’s documentary debut Stories We Tell. But none of them are in competition this year, unlike 2012 when three Canadian docs were in the World Cinema non-fiction competition, where Indie Game: The Movie went on to win Best Editing.
Also from Canadians at Sundance:
The Meteor (Le météore): A family drama directed by François Delisle that premieres in the New Frontier program.
When I Walk: A U.S.-Canada co-production documentary directed by filmmaker Jason DaSilva about living with multiple sclerosis. It screens in the Documentary Premieres program.
“We have a long, rich history of showing Canadian films and we’ve even done a Canadian spotlight,” said Sundance director John Cooper. “We were hoping to see (some) films that were not finished in time,” added director of programming Trevor Groth, noting “there’s no reason” why Canadian competition participation is lighter than last year.
“I think we’ll bounce back next year. This was a down year for it,” he said.