Sex with Strangers

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Joe and Harry Gantz are the devious masterminds behind HBO’s wildly successful "Taxicab Confessions," a steamy reality show where hidden cameras are placed in taxis and manage to capture couples discussing shockingly intimate and painful personal issues. The Gantzs have taken this recipe even further with their latest escapade, Sex with Strangers, a documentary that follows the sticky, complex lives of three couples who are swingers. Half psychological study, half soft-core porn, the film offers lots of graphic sex, but also many moments of poignant, raw emotion.

We meet Sara and Calvin, an attractive twentysomething couple who’ve had issues with fidelity in their past; from the get-go it’s clear Sara is in love with Calvin and wants to be with only him, and awkwardly goes along with the swinging because Calvin states he’ll only be with a woman who’s committed to "the lifestyle." Sara is displeased with Calvin’s latest introduction into their relationship, Julie, a willowy brunette who just wants to bang Calvin and wants Sara out of the picture. The scenes where Sara and Julie are shoved together by a greedy, horny Calvin are heart-wrenching to watch.

This dysfunctional trio is friends with Theresa and James, a long-term swinging couple who are truly steeped in the lifestyle, and rejoice in taking their RV across the country and seducing couples nightly. There’s no jealousy here; Theresa and James are on the same page, and they’re the most fun of the film.

Then there’s Shannon and Gerard, a married couple who share a young son. Initially, when we see them "come out" to Shannon’s mother (who’s quite unshocked and supportive), Shannon talks about how happy they are with the lifestyle. However, like Sara, it’s obvious Shannon’s only going along for the sake of Gerard. During a swinging party, a sad, unenthusiastic Shannon sits naked in a tub filled with couples and reflects, "Sometimes I just want to fuck my husband, you know?"

The most upsetting aspect of the film is the way the men push and manipulate their women into doing things (and people) they simply don’t want to do. Even James and Theresa, who seem the most functional, have a power struggle. Theresa opts for breast implants to up her "market value," and James blatantly bullies her into choosing larger-sized implants than she prefers.

During a swinging party, a weepy Sara drags Calvin into the bathroom to express her reluctance with Julie, and, exasperated, he orders, "You’re here to fuck her! Stop getting upset!" Later, when Sara begins to emotionally crumble, she sobs to Calvin, "I just want to be special to one person."

Like "Taxicab Confessions," the film is fascinating not because of anything the Gantzes do style-wise, but because of the couples portrayed and their stunning willingness to express their lifestyles so freely — and screw a whole lot of people on camera. Definitely not easy to watch, but compelling, engrossing and well worth the effort.

Opens Friday exclusively at the new Madstone Theaters, 462 Briarwood Circle (in the Briarwood Mall), Ann Arbor. Call 734-994-1000.

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