When it comes to mainstream entertainment, we North Americans have two hang-ups: sex and sincerity. Take two big commercial films opening this weekend, Eat, Pray, Love and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Despite their stylistic and plot differences, both are standard Hollywood romances. Attractive people meet; they fall in love. Hardly an honest reflection of the messy, hairy side of human relationships. Those sheets never get dirty.
Then there's Year of the Carnivore, screening Thursday as part of the Carbon Arc series at the Khyber. Directed by Sook-Yin Lee, who will participate in a Q&A afterwards with pal Andrea Dorfman (her short Nine opens the night), the film is also a romantic comedy, just not in the traditional sense. Diminutive Sammy Smalls (Cristin Milioti), a grocery store security guard, falls in love with guitar-playing Eugene (Mark Rendall), who we see is not quite hip enough to hang with the cool kids, but it doesn't stop the red-haired busker from telling Sammy she's shitty in bed.
To overcome her inexperience and ticklishness, Sammy tries to gain as much experience as she can, as quickly as humanly possible. She sleeps with a shoplifter and gets involved in one of the most bizarre threesomes in Canadian cinema. Sammy doesn't learn a lot about position angles, but does sort out her feelings about love. "Sex is expansive and a huge reflection of the human condition," Lee says from Toronto.
Lee is open about the fact that some critics and audiences weren't sure what to think about the film, and she gets it. "We're not used to speaking about women's sexuality," she says. "I feel like I live in a world, in my own mind---and with my friends and my community---that's a progressive, interesting place, where we wrestle with all sorts of ideas. At the same time, I get a glimpse of the larger, mainstream world and it's a bit disarming. I've seen people respond: This movie should be titillating a guy, and why isn't it? If it isn't just a pretty girl pleasuring people, why have it? It's too ugly to see."
The filmmaker just returned from the Odessa International Film Festival, the premiere event for the Ukrainian city. Focusing on "artful comedies," Lee was one of 16 international filmmakers invited to participate. Here, she found a homecoming, where sexuality isn't taboo, and exploration of female characters is more prominent than "Seth Rogen's girlfriend."
"They seemed to get my movie on a whole other level, and could really identify with the characters and the story and saw what I was getting at, in terms of the conflicts, the human struggle," Lee says. "Whereas here, there's a lot more prude behaviour, and as soon as you deal with notions of sexuality; if it veers off of what is kinda familiar---like sexy romance---and it goes to a place that's a little more difficult, people get scared, or they just don't get it."
Lee was relieved she didn't have to explain her film's intentions. She even made a fan of the second prime minister's wife, who invited Lee and her partner out. "Would Mila Mulroney have taken me out for dinner and told me, 'Oh my god, that really moved me and made me think?' I don't think so," Lee laughs. "It was like, 'What the fuck?' I'm used to people telling me I'm creepy. 'Why aren't you entertaining me?'"