Lust Life Love

Lust Life Love (2021)

Lust Life Love opens on a rainy night, as Veronica Willow (Stephanie Sellars) walks under her umbrella through the busy urban streets of New York City on her way to an erotic assignation. It ends with Veronica once more under an umbrella in the rain, only this time in upstate New York during the day, now standing all alone in a grassy field where, discarding her umbrella, she opens her arms to the autumnal woodland before her. The symmetry of the rain and the umbrella creates a ring composition, marking how far this woman has travelled between beginning and end, and between the sophisticated city and wilderness’ edge. So this is to be a journey narrative, as Veronica ever so gradually turns her back on an urban, cosmopolitan life of sexual Bohemianism.

Even the tripartite listing in the film’s title seems to be riffing on Ryan Murphy’s Eat, Pray, Love (2010), another film about a woman’s journey drawn from Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir. Lust Life Love also draws from a literary account of lived experience. More particularly, it builds upon a sex-positive autobiographical column – written for the alt-weekly newspaper New York Press between 2006 and 2007 – in which author Sellars explored and exposed the life of bisexual polyamory that she was herself enthusiastically leading. Sellars not only wrote, co-directed (with Benjamin Feuer) and co-produced (with Alena Svyatova) this feature, but is also playing a fictionalised, name-altered version of herself, only with the hindsight of a woman now over a decade older.

In that opening NYC sequence, Veronica is on her way to a couple’s apartment for a threesome. They certainly get down to the sex, but not before Veronica has sat them down for a drink and said, “Let’s talk boundaries.” Boundaries are key to Lust Life Love. As committed polyamorist and sex blogger Veronica negotiates the difficult consensual terrain of her multiple relationships with girlfriend Joanne (Jeanna Han), with artist lover Pedro (Rolando Chusan), with hedonistic yoga instructor Maya (Makeda Declet) and with married, appetitive polyamory novice – and wannabe chef – Daniel (Jake Choi), she finds all these people coming and going, while herself being left with a growing sense of emptiness, ennui and isolation. Boundaries, after all, are hard to fix within a community of avowed boundary pushers – and while the glimpse that we get of Veronica’s childhood home in Connecticut, a conservative white bourgeois nuclear family of casual racism and homophobia, helps explain her rejection of prevailing conventions, we can also see a woman privately, if not yet publicly, interrogating her own choices. Sensual, hungry Veronica appears open to, and forward with, everyone and everything; but in her emerging relationship with Daniel, we can also see her flirting with what for her has become the greatest taboo of all, monogamy itself, and ruing the Frankenstein’s monster that she creates by initiating Daniel into her more fluid world of sexual freedom. 

Lust Life Love is equally preoccupied with the boundaries of genre, as Veronica’s journey of self-discovery runs parallel to the film’s quest for its own generic identity. “You ever think about doing porn?”, a random fan asks Veronica in the street. She answers with a bemused negative – and although Lust Life Love is certainly both focused on and frank about sex in various combinations and orientations, anyone seeking the sort of hardcore material that it skirts should – and easily can – look elsewhere. Nonetheless, Veronica feels conflicted about what she is doing: “My followers don’t want art, they want smut,” she tells Pedro, himself an artist for whom she often poses nude and with whom she regularly sleeps. “Do what you want, don’t care what they think,” he responds, in a conversation about her blog Sex With Intention that is also a reflexive discourse about the nature of the very film that we are watching, a film that essays to turn its protagonist’s sex life into something artful. Meanwhile the film plays upon its own relationship with truth as Veronica finds herself the subject of a documentary on polyamory being made by her friend Benton (Victor Sho). “How true to life do you want it?”, Veronica asks him, to which he replies: “As true as you want it to be. You already have a following with your blog – this is gonna take you on a whole other level.” All these conversations represent sly metacommentary on a film that we are watching find itself. Even Veronica’s eventual shift from blogger to novel writing reflects Sellars’ transition from columnist to the bigger, longer-form medium of cinema.

Of course, the most obvious template for Lust Life Love is TV’s  Sex and the City, given the New York setting, Veronica’s status as a writer chronicling her own erotic adventures, and her Carrie Bradshaw-esque voiceovers that frequently convert what we have been watching into broader journalistic musings on life. Yet we also see Veronica carefully editing her experiences into what her readership wants to hear, as opposed to what she truly feels. After the threesome that opens the film, Veronica concludes her column about the tryst with, “It’s strange though, for the first time in ten years, in the end I feel –  nothing”, before she deletes the line and replaces it with the decidedly more upbeat, “In the end, I’m still amazed that three people can come together in mutual desire and not fall apart.” In a sense Veronica is fictionalising her own life as much as – and idealising it more than – Sellars herself. Sellars’ film, though, also shows the downside: Veronica’s growing dissatisfaction with all the orgiastic parties and partner-swapping masquerades, and her sense of deep loneliness even when constantly surrounded by lovers (“Dying a little,” as she puts it, “With each stranger’s touch”). 

A film about a pampered, privileged woman’s journey of self-discovery might easily be accused of being self-indulgent, but Sellars’ clever writing preempts such charges with its own carefully placed self-critique. The pet store that ailurophile Veronica frequents is – in a self-referential gesture – named ‘Spoiled Brat’; and if some of Veronica’s escapades might be deemed self-absorbed, even masturbatory, a later scene in which Veronica is shown actually masturbating would seem to acknowledge this, while also ending not in her pleasure, but rather in a bleak, bone-dry brand of sexual frustration and tristesse. For all her assertions of sexual openness, presence and generosity (the word ‘compersion’ becomes a motif), Veronica is selfish. Asked by Daniel why she does not acquire a second cat as a playmate for her first, Veronica says: “We have a special bond – I don’t want to lose that to another kitty.” Veronica cannot see what Sellars clearly can: that the kind of exclusive relationship that Veronica wishes to have with her cat is akin to the monogamy that she so publicly eschews but secretly desires more and more. After entering a formal ‘triad’ with Daniel and Maya, Veronica proves a jealous lover, wanting Daniel all to herself and unwilling to lose him to another pussy. The polyamorous lifestyle that Veronica documents and promotes in her blog is no longer bringing her happiness.

In the film’s final scenes, Veronica may at last have found herself, but there is also a melancholic sense of loss to match the autumnal season. For Veronica is now all alone, far from the madding crowd, and wet only from the rain – a lonely, ageing romantic heroine left facing (her own) nature – and so, like many a memoir unfolding across the distance of space and time, Lust Life Love offsets the sweetness (and spiciness) of its erotic adventurism with complex hints of a flavour more bitter.

strap: In Stephanie Sellars & Benjamin Feuer’s bittersweet semi-autobiographical romance, a NYC blogger chronicles her life of bisexual polyamory, while secretly questioning it

© Anton Bitel