'Shortbus' on Mainstream Route to Explicit Sex

You're likely to leave the theater after seeing "Shortbus" feeling as if you've seen it all -- sex from every angle, sex with any combination of participants, sex you thought only existed in urban legend -- and still the film is not intended to turn you on.

Filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell -- the writer, director and star of the acclaimed "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" -- pushes the limits of mainstream movies in his new film, which features real -- not simulated -- sex that's as explicit as hardcore porn yet hardly designed for that market.

"This film isn't meant to be a one-night stand," Mitchell tells ABCNEWS.com. "If you leave the theater, and you're only thinking about sex, then you have a problem. Instead, we're looking at the emotion and feelings and hangups that are attached to sex."

Still, 15 minutes into this film you'll see one couple who basically attempts to illustrate every page of "The Joy of Sex" and another very limber man who pleasures himself in a way that might have men rushing to yoga class.

But the film's plot twists and comic dialogue are more reminiscent of the eccentrically neurotic New Yorkers in a Woody Allen movie, only these characters tangle with whips, remote control vibrators and a sex salon called "Shortbus," where anything goes.

And who goes to such a club? A sex therapist (Sook-Yin Lee) in search of her first orgasm, a dominatrix (Lindsay Beamish) longing for a lasting relationship, and a gay couple in a committed relationship weighing whether to open their relationship to a third.

But unlike a porn movie, the sex comes with emotional consequences.

"Everybody is trying to feel something; everyone is trying to feel an emotional connection," says Mitchell. "I'm trying to use sex as a way to explain these characters, and that's not done too often in contemporary American films."

More 'Social Satire' Than a Peep Show

Most amazingly, the film, which is unrated, is set to hit more than 200 theaters across the United States by the end of the month, including the top 40 media markets, after premiering Wednesday in New York to largely positive reviews.

Variety has called the film "unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry."

The New York Times declared "Shortbus" is "ultimately less shocking than disarming, more a comedy of manners layered with social satire than a peep-show or a John Waters-style provocation."

David Germain of The Associated Press agreed that "for all their fornicating, oral sex and other carnal acts, the characters feel like grown-ups reverting to experimental teen years, men and women given a chance to strip away years of hangups and put down a base for more honest, unrestrained love and sensuality in the future."

For the 43-year-old Mitchell, just getting distribution in the United States was a bit of a surprise. And the fact that it hasn't yet caused an uproar is a bit of an amazement.

"When we were seeking financing, we heard the typical questions: 'Where's the revenue going to come? You'll never get this film into Blockbuster. It'll never be in cable.' No one ever imagined we'd have problems in Europe," says Mitchell, "But there were questions about how it'd go out in the U.S."

Mitchell's Cameo Sure to Surprise Mom

Made on a $2 million budget, the film got raves at the Cannes film festival, and indie distributor ThinkFilm won a bidding war for the U.S. rights.

Recent movies that feature real sex have largely been relegated to art-house theaters. Vincent Gallo's "Brown Bunny" caused a bit of an uproar in 2003, with its graphic depictions that included the director-star receiving oral sex in an infamous scene with Chloe Sevigny. Opening to poor reviews, the movie grossed less than $400,000.

2004's "9 Songs" -- a British film that had a short U.S. run -- grossed less than $50,000.

Certainly there are times filmmakers hope for media controversy to stir up interest in provocative movies. But Mitchell says he's not disappointed. "I was prepared to argue with people who were going to say, 'You shouldn't see this film' because it's such a false argument," he says. "That hasn't happened."

The movie also isn't coasting on any star power. Most of the cast auditioned through the director's Web site, and then held meetings. They met, held auditions, and then developed their dialogue over months of workshop performances, which, of course, involved lots of sex.

Did the sex need to be real? "It's a stylistic choice," says Mitchell.

Of course, the actors had to be comfortable with New York's sex salon scene. Mitchell says he made a cameo appearance in a group sex scene, pleasuring a woman. "It's my Hitchcock moment," he says.

"And boy, is my mother going to be surprised."