As the 41st edition of the Toronto International Film Festival gets into full swing this weekend, there may be few better measures of how far Canadian film culture has, er, come than to consider one of TIFF's cheekier origin stories. In 1978, the young-buck producer Robert Lantos was told by Ontario censors that he would not be able to play his mildly racy film In Praise of Older Women unless he cut 40 seconds. (In the end, he defied the authorities, apparently scandalizing precisely no one in attendance.)
On Saturday night, Lantos's Serendipity Point Films brings a movie to the festival that is so suffused with sex that it would not have much to show audiences if the censor board were still active.
Below Her Mouth is the story of a Toronto fashion editor named Jasmine (Natalie Krill) who is hit on at a bar by a roofer named Dallas (Erika Linder). Although she first rejects Dallas's aggressive overtures, with her fiancé out of town for the weekend, Jasmine finds herself exploring a long-buried side of her sexuality.
Earlier this week, the first-time screenwriter Stephanie Fabrizi sat down to discuss how the film's sex scenes contain their own narrative about the unfolding relationship between the two women.
"Typically it's: Two people meet, we build to the sex scene and then that's it. We don't really have another sex scene," Fabrizi said, sipping a latté on the back patio of Jimmy's Coffee on Portland Street.
"I wanted this to be sensual, and I also wanted it to be animalistic."
Fabrizi says that, with director April Mullen, she wanted to plant a flag and offer what she hoped would be an authoritative depiction. "I choreographed the sex scenes. So, it's not just about: 'Oh, the kiss and then the heavy petting and then the making out, and then you see them, like, oh, licking the nipple…'" she said, trailing off in mild mimicry of such a film.
"'No, if we're gonna do this, let's do this! And let's do this so well that no one will ever pick up a camera again without thinking about the way we did it in this film.' It was almost preventative, in a way, to [push people to say], 'Oh, I have to think about that film, I have to think about the way they did it.'"
Fabrizi described the first sex scene between the new lovers, a nighttime episode of discovery that feels furtive and dangerous. In the second sex scene, which takes place the next day, "Jasmine is taking her orgasm. She's in control," Fabrizi noted, adding with a laugh: "She's on top. Like Rocky."
For what it's worth, the film is part of a genre that has been growing. Three years ago, the lesbian coming-of-age drama Blue is the Warmest Colour won the Palme d'Or in part because its sex scenes – which took up about 20 minutes of the three-hour film – felt raw and real in the way they revealed character. But the film ran into trouble: Critics felt the strong male gaze of its director, Abdellatif Kechiche, at work.
In contrast, Below Her Mouth received some press during its shoot last fall, because, at a time when the industry is trying to bring some balance to the stark gender imbalance behind the camera, all but one of the indie production's crew members were women. Fabrizi believes that brought a different approach to the sex scenes.
"It's emotional. It was never just sex for sex, it was how to achieve this emotional beat with the movement of their bodies," she offered.
"We didn't want to zoom in on just body parts grinding together. That's not what I would be turned on by as a woman. Zooming in on grinding body parts, without the context of eyes, would be outside of the female gaze."
Fabrizi said the film "was an experiment of what would happen if I wrote from deep within my body."
She adds: "I would feel quite happy if people [who saw the film] questioned their sexuality. If they thought, 'Wow, did I get to choose my sexuality, or is it something I was stamped with when I was born, by way of gender?' That would make me really happy, if people got to take a moment to think about that."