The early light of morning reveals a fluttering eyelid and the twitch of a hand, as a rumpled body rolls over in bed to discover a stranger's back emerging through the haze of a hangover. Queasy shock gives way to slow-dawning recognition.
So begins the new Australian film Better Than Sex, as a night of reckless passion blinks wide awake to the consequences of a one-night stand. It's a cute idea that first-time writer-director Jonathan Teplitzky milks for all it's worth. Starting where most romantic comedies end, Better Than Sex seems both disorientating and familiar, blurry as well as clear-eyed-a combination that keeps your curiosity piqued for much of its 89 minutes.
Josh (David Wenham) is a wildlife photographer catching the breeze in Sydney before heading back to work in London. Introduced to him at a party, costume designer Cin (Susie Porter) appears like a dazzled creature caught in his lens. Beguiled by his impersonation of a meerkat, she invites him back to her warehouse apartment where, over the next few days, their mating ritual is played out as a kind of Last Tango in Surry Hills.
When the two lovers are not a tangle of strawberry-blond hair and sun-speckled flesh, Teplitzky cleverly unravels their characters. Josh stalks Cin's apartment as if it were fieldwork to pin down her outsize, bohemian persona. For Cin, Josh is an alien species, whose loose bathroom habits and wit belie a tightly wrought emotional life. It takes acting stamina and talent to stand up to all this scrutiny. And Porter and Wenham successfully hold the gaze, displaying a nice mix of impulse and reserve, earthy warmth and ironic cool.
It's only when Teplitzky introduces other elements that Better Than Sex loses its truthful verve. Spliced into the action, vox-pop interviews with friends have Sex and the City written all over them. A subplot involving Cin's interfering friend Sam (Catherine McClements) seems forced, and a scene where the couple watch zebras copulating on TV overplays things in a film that already has plenty of sex.
Which all goes to show the pitfalls of trying to rewrite romantic comedy's governing code of Unresolved Sexual Tension. In satisfying the couple's desires so promptly, Better Than Sex risks running out of steam. But three days and nights of fumblings, gropings and post-coital ennui later, Teplitzky manages to deliver a different kind of movie payoff: a fully fleshed, emotional one. Which, in this sex-saturated era, leaves us with the seemingly radical notion that two characters can be just as interesting with their clothes on.