The début narrative feature film by Travis Mathews has received considerable attention in Australia for the wrong reason. Scheduled for Australian festival screenings in February, March and April, I Want Your Love has been refused the film festival exemption that it requires to be publically screened as a non-classified film within Australia. This exemption has been refused by the Australian Classification Board on the grounds that were the film to be formally classified it would be given an X18+ rating due to it containing explicit sex scenes without a narrative context. This is effectively stating that the film is closer in tone to pornography than narrative cinema, and it is therefore banned from being screened in most Australian states, including at film festivals to discerning adult audiences. What is most unfortunate about this decision is that not only is the graphic sex in I Want Your Love crucial to conveying character information and therefore part of the narrative, but the film is overall an excellent work by a talented emerging filmmaker.
I Want Your Love should be receiving attention for announcing the arrival of Mathews as a new voice in realist cinema. Coming from a documentary background, Mathews delivers a fly-on-the-wall look at the lives of a handful of gay men living in San Francisco over one weekend. At the centre of the narrative is Jesse (Jesse Metzger), a performance artist in his early thirties who is moving back to the family home in Ohio. He is holding a going-away party in the apartment he shares with close friend Wayne (Wayne Bumb), who is unsure about whether it was a good idea to have his boyfriend Ferrin (Ferrin Solano) move in. While putting on a brave and optimist face for his friends, Jesse confides his doubts and concerns to his neighbour Keith (Keith McDonald), an older man who is also an artists and serves as something of a mentor and father figure to Jesse. One of Jesse’s biggest concerns is moving away from his ex-boyfriend Ben (Ben Jasper). Similarly to Andrew Haigh’s outstanding Weekend, I Want Your Love uses its focused time period and small cast to express and explore some of the aspects of modern gay identity without attempting to be a definitive work. It is an unapologetic film that doesn’t attempt to dilute or ‘introduce’ the viewer to a segment of society that is not usually depicted in cinema beyond stereotypical or tokenistic inclusions.
With tight framing and a small ensemble of actors with the same name as the characters they play, this is an intimate work that attempts to express interior thoughts and emotions. From a distance the characters are all confident and expressive, freely discussing their feelings and desires. On this level alone I Want Your Love is an enjoyable 70 minutes in the company of a likeable group of people, but the film really shines when it shows us what is happening beneath the surface. Often actors are filmed in close-up to capture the small gestures and expressions that undermine what they are saying. Under the surface emerges a picture of people at various crossroads in life who are no longer sure about what they are doing, who they are with and even who they are. In this sense Mathews’s film is thematically universal and part of a long tradition of actor driven character pieces that incorporate a documentary aesthetic.
Where I Want Your Love pushes boundaries is the way it uses unsimulated sex to further express the status of the relationships and state-of-mind of the characters. Michael Winterbottom did something very similar in the 2004 drama 9 Songs, where the actors having sex on camera was used to communicate the evolution of their affair. I Want Your Love is perhaps even more successful in appropriating actual sex away from pornography and into narrative cinema since there is a better sense of the non-sexual scenes flowing on into the sex scenes. The transitions are far more seamless and draw less attention to the fact that the audience is watching unsimulated sex. It’s a bold innovation that non-pornographic films have experimented with since the late 1960s, more frequently in the past fifteen years. While cinema has never shied aware from exploring sexuality, even during periods of intense censorship, there is a rawness and honesty to depicting real acts of sex that opens up new ways of understanding the role sex plays in the everyday life. Without coyness, sensation or titillation, unsimulated sex is a refreshing way of exploring love and desire in a way that previous approaches to sex on film have not been able to achieve.
While there is a campaign for the Australian Classification Board to overturn the refused exemption status for I Want Your Love to allow for festival screenings, Australian audiences can still legally view the film via the film’s official website. It would be a shame if this impressive film did not receive the audience it deserves, especially considering how rare actual sex-positive films are. The irony of the situation is that far less graphic films that nevertheless perpetuate reductive sexual stereotyping and objectifying are commonplace and widely available. Films like I Want Your Love that explore aspects of sexuality and human connectivity with such affection and lack of judgement, are a rare gift that should be celebrated and not shunned.