Sexual healing

With his explicit new film, John Cameron Mitchell is taking on neo-con America.

It is Tuesday morning, and I am sitting in the bar of a respectable central London hotel with the actor Jay Brannan. "The only thing that works is lots of lube and stroking," he is telling me, sagely. "Viagra is no good unless you're aroused anyway." At the next table, a besuited gent is trying hard not to eavesdrop. I nod sympathetically, and Brannan takes a delicate sip of tea. "Actually I'm not a big external stimulation person, sexually," he adds. "I don't know about you?"

Thus begins my brief encounter with the world of Shortbus, a film soon to bring lots of rampant, polysexual, and definitely unsimulated sex to a cinema near you. It features some of the most graphic scenes ever to have gone on general release in this country, and will - like other films which have featured real sex - inevitably raise questions about the extent to which porn is being integrated into mainstream culture. For Brannan, however, it was "the most meaningful project I've ever been involved in. Sex is so badly represented in film and music, and if we can open a dialogue about that, I think we've made a contribution."

The lingering taboo about real sex on screen is one which is increasingly being challenged by directors of "respectable" cinema. In 2001, Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs prompted squeals of outrage in the press because it featured extensive scenes involving real sex between the actors Margot Stilley and Kieran O'Brien. Winterbottom said at the time: "If you film actors eating a meal, the food is real, and the audience know that. But when it comes to sex, they know it's pretend. You'd never do that with food, so I started thinking we should make the sex real."

John Cameron Mitchell, the director of Shortbus, has gone a step further by taking viewers into a decadent world of sexual experimentation. The film centres on the story of Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a married sex therapist who has never had an orgasm. Two gay clients, James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (P J DeBoy), introduce her to a weekly "salon" called Shortbus, where a collection of New York eccentrics gather to live out their fantasies. It offers something for all tastes: a lesbian room, fetish parlours and a group sex area with a Lennon-esque "Sex-Not-Bombs" theme (although any sense of utopianism is briskly dismissed by Shortbus's glamorous host Justin Bond. "It's just like the Sixties," he says, surveying the heap of writhing bodies. "But with less hope.") With the help of Severin, a self-doubting dominatrix, Sofia embarks on a quest to find her missing orgasm.

Despite some entertainingly graphic footage of sexual gymnastics - including an audacious attempt at auto-fellatio and a gay threesome in which one participant sings the American national anthem into another's butt-crack - Shortbus is not an erotic film. The sex is messy, absurd, and far too real to be fantasy material. And there is no sense of sexual tension, as in the Shortbus world everything is available on demand. It makes for a curious, and vaguely disappointing, viewing experience.

Mitchell insists, however, that the film was never meant to titillate. "It's certainly sex- obsessed, because all the characters work their problems out in the sexual realm," he says. "But very few people will get a hard-on watching it. We wanted to treat sex just as we'd treat anything else, because it is part of life. It's not simply about arousal. In a sense, we wanted to de-eroticise sex and see what we had left."

The point of the film is, in fact, more political than erotic. Mitchell himself describes it as a "love letter" to pre-Bush, pre-9/11 New York, where misfits of all kinds found the space to express themselves. The film was shot in a gay artists' collective that holds sex salons similar to that shown in the film, but with rising property prices and increasingly conservative politics such spaces are becoming ever more rare. "New York has this history of being a place where people were free to experiment, but that has changed so much over the past few years," he says. "I wanted this film to be a celebration of that past."

Mitchell is clearly speaking from the heart: he was raised in a strict military family and sent to Catholic boarding school. Kicking against that background has been a major preoccupation of both of his films. His debut was Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a musical in which he starred, bewigged and magnificent, as a transsexual rock singer. "As a child, I was terrified of sex - there was so much tension around it, and being in the closet made things even worse," he says. "I certainly wouldn't have made Shortbus if I didn't come from such a sex-phobic environment. It made me aware that pretending sex doesn't exist leads to terrible problems. I believe that's where sexual abuse starts."

For Mitchell and the others involved in making it, Shortbus became more a way of life than a film. Instead of simply hiring professional actors, Mitchell set out to create a community of people who were as determined as he was to rebel against the norms of Christian, neo-con America. He found his cast through advertisements in alternative magazines, which asked applicants to send in tapes of themselves talking about a sexual experience. More than 500 people responded, from which 40 were shortlisted. The list was then narrowed down by asking applicants to rate each others' sexual attractiveness, in order to establish their compatibility for becoming sexual partners in the film.

The process of workshopping, improvising and shooting the film took four years, during which time the cast bonded into a tight-knit group. "We've put ourselves out there in a really vulnerable way, and we've all had to go through this emotional roller coaster together," says Brannan. "We've become like a family, or what a family could or should be."

In many cases, the actors had to go through the same emotional arcs as the characters they were playing. "The mission statement of this film was to challenge audiences, and so the actors had to challenge themselves," says Mitchell. Two of the lead characters, James and Jamie, are a real-life couple, and Brannan's character Ceth has sex with both. "By the time we filmed that scene we had known each other for two and a half years, so we'd become really close in a platonic sense," he says. "We trusted each other and we trusted John, so there was no tension. But it was certainly a one-of-a-kind experience: I'm probably not going to do anything quite like that again."

The gentleman on the next table is looking decidedly hot under the collar by the time our interview comes to an end. I get the feeling he would rather benefit from watching Shortbus - in fact, he's probably Mitchell's target market.

"Shortbus" is on general release from 1 December