That elusive bliss is what the people in Sex With Strangers, aficionados of swinging, are looking for. After intimately following three couples with video cameras for two years, Joe and Harry Gantz have produced a graphic (but never lurid) documentary about the obsession that surrounds -- and at times dictates -- their subjects' lives. The results are flimsy and off-the-cuff at times, as the Gantzes pile on footage. But they have hit the mark half the time, and the revealing moments they do capture are engrossing.
Voyeurism is the Gantz brothers' particular fetish. The creators of the long-running HBO series Taxicab Confessions and a variety of Webcam Peeping Tom projects, they've cultivated a talent for being invasive without being exploitative. That's mainly because the Gantzes shun narration: The couples (or threesomes, etc.) do all the talking. The first couple we meet, James and Theresa, are sex road-warriors, traveling around the country in an RV from one swingers' club to the next. They talk giddily about the next possible conquest, and their focused attitude is endearing in its own way; in an odd but genuinely tender moment, we catch them flipping through an album of photos from sex trips past, smiling and joking the way most couples would with their wedding pictures.
But the Gantzes quickly make clear that their lifestyle is built on a herculean struggle to balance sexual compulsion with the basic emotional needs of a relationship. Another couple, Calvin and Sara, are constantly at loggerheads about how the lifestyle is supposed to work. Sara pays lip service to the joys of multiple partners, but she's mainly devoted to Calvin, who constantly talks down her worries with a litany of lectures: "You're being a catty bitch about this," and so forth. Calvin believes he's got his emotional house in order, but he's a serious candidate for Prick of the Millennium. When a third woman, Julie, joins the fray, Sara timidly inquires about the mechanics of the arrangement, prompting Calvin to lecture her yet again as he cooks dinner. He doesn't know the answer, but he's also not about to admit it.
The sex itself is supposed to transcend all of this, of course, and it occasionally seems to do so. In the hot tubs, bedrooms, and swingers'-club playrooms that the Gantzes make their way into, everybody finds a comfort zone. The filmmakers capture the sense of relief their subjects feel about finding a community, a like-minded group. Smoking a cigarette in a hot tub, one woman tells another, "I understand we're in the lifestyle and all that, but I'm comfortable just sitting here." But the convivial mood can collapse quickly: In one scene, James simply stops in the middle of sex with two women at a club and storms back to the RV. When Theresa asks what happened, he sulkily replies, "It just didn't feel right. I didn't like the vibe of that place."
Sex With Strangers keeps the sex per se to a minimum, not out of any sense of morality, but because the Gantzes know that emotions emerge afterward. Similar subculture documentarians (Errol Morris of The Thin Blue Line and the Maysles brothers of Gimme Shelter come to mind) look for the telling detail or the well-constructed shot, but the Gantzes just want the raw moment -- the second when a face flinches or the tone of voice ratchets up a notch -- or down. "Bet she rides like a Cadillac on a toll road, James enthuses about a possible conquest. The placative, tentative way Theresa says "bet she does," as she paints her toenails, is stunning and crucial.
The Gantzes follow only the swingers themselves, a technique that has its flaws. When Shannon and Gerard, whose relationship devolves into screaming matches, tell us that they started swinging on the advice of their marriage counselor, we want to hear from that marriage counselor, cinéma vérité be damned. Only at the end credits do we find out that their lifestyle has had serious consequences on their day-to-day lives. Getting to know these people solely through their sex lives was probably essential, but it's also, in a way, unfair. After all, monogamous-minded folk have obsessions, joys, kinks, and passive-aggressive tendencies all their own, and the Gantzes would've come up with a movie that felt much the same if they had talked to them instead. This universality is part of the point Sex With Strangers eventually makes: Swingers, like everyone, are desperately searching for the relationship that's meaningful and sustaining. Like everyone, they're trying to figure out how never to be alone.