FANTASIA REVIEW: Progressive Touch (2020)

Plenty of films over the years have been sex comedies. With Progressive Touch the performance artist Michael Portnoy transforms the act of sex into a comedy. It is weird, but I am not entirely sure one can call it wonderful. What it definitely is is sexually graphic, both unsettling and funny, and doped up to the eyeballs with a liberal hit of ‘what the hell did I just watch?’

Three acts of sexual intercourse – between a man and a woman, two men, and two women – play out on screen in a 12-minute sequence. The performers are choreographed into strange, jerking motions and exaggerated movement. Everything is lit in garish neon colours. The music is a combination of off-kilter electronica and gleefully inappropriate sound effects. The sex is blunt and matter-of-fact, and hides absolutely nothing. Once separated from any sense of eroticism – and that is certainly the case here – sex is a truly absurd activity to watch. Portnoy has pushed that absurdity to an extreme. One could almost say that if you haven’t watched an actor use an erect penis as a microphone to sing rock opera, then the breadth of your film-going experience is narrower than you think.

What is the point of Progressive Touch – apart from this review attracting an awful lot of inappropriate Internet search results over the coming months and years? In part there is a gleeful sense of play at work: you can feel the director sniggering from behind the camera at such provocative-yet-silly imagery. It feels rather like a challenge to the viewer, in that most of us live in societies that are simultaneously prurient and puritanical. There is content in Portnoy’s short that will easily see it banned from popular view, and yet it all looks so whimsically stupid that it is honestly difficult to develop an offended response. It makes our collective fear of depicting sex seem rather alarmist and foolish.

There’s also a sense in which sex is represented as dance: it is performed here to a musical beat, and in elaborate ways that echo contemporary dance moves – particularly in the rather athletic and contorted male-on-male scene in the middle.

It is honestly difficult to pin down one’s reaction to this short. It elicits some shock, to be sure, as well as some genuine laughs and a sort of eye-rolling boredom too. Overall I’m feeling appreciative. It’s not just the attempt to challenge the viewer, it is the sense of play that ultimately overwhelms. Childish, gleeful, mischievous play.

Progressive Touch is part of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Click here for more information.

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