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S#x Acts | Review

Sextette: Gurfinkel’s Debut an Uncomfortable Sashay into Female Victimhood

Johnathan Gurfinkel S#x Acts PosterExuding enough uncomfortable finesse to be ranked as one of several cinematic explorations that appear to offer homage or exist as acolytes to the cinema of Catherine Breillat, Johnathan Gurfinkel’s feature debut, S#x Acts manages to be memorably unsettling even as it treads familiar territory. The sexual awakening of the adolescent female offers an endless amount of discomfort, degradation, and humiliation for young women in any language or land, it seems, and Gurfinkel’s film certainly doesn’t aim for empowerment or agency. But what his film does depict is that faint line between consensual sex and rape, where there exists a classic grey zone that blurs issues of mere pleasure with sex as a tool to gain power, control, and often that thing that sex by itself never yields: love.

Gili (Sivan Levy) has recently moved to a wealthy suburb in Israel, though it’s made clear that her family has less economic means than many of her peers’ at her new school. In an effort to make friends, Gili seems acquiescent and eager to hang out with a boy that’s caught her eye, Tomir (Roy Nik). After a quick hand job in a secluded spot overlooking a neon lit parking lot, which the teens compare to Los Angeles, and Tomir seems to have lost all interest. But his best bud Omri (Eviator Mor) seems eager to meet Gili once he hears of their indiscretion.

Omri manipulates Gili into having sex with him, after which transpires a series of other sexual acts between Omri, Gili, and several other of Omri’s friends and associates. Meanwhile, we’re not quite sure why Gili seems determined to put up with being treated so degradingly.

Given what we know of Gili, (which is next to nothing) based on her behavior, these six acts are presumably not her first. In fact, she’s changed schools recently, citing boredom and a barely hidden disdain for a student body that seemed less than welcoming. Whether plagued by rumors there or not, Gili’s nonchalant offering of her body clearly seems to be a way to gain a certain acceptance and affection, however momentary. If this aspect of Rona Segal’s screenplay seems pedestrian, it’s also equally believable.

As we witness Gili in these six different scenarios, ending on an abrupt and clearly ominous note signifying these scenarios will continue until she begins to see that winning the attention of men through sex is a game best played without your heart on your sleeve, a complicated series of interactions occur. Gender, parental, control, and identity issues are coiled tightly into this snarl. Gurfinkel’s title is its own playful riddle, the # sign (also an homage to modern technology’s hand in the proceedings) warping the film’s eponymous structure to indicate that the smallest detail can drastically alter situations, assumptions, and attitudes.

Gili, as played in an achingly uncomfortable performance by Sivan Levy, is reminiscent of those young Breillat protagonists from A Real Young Girl (1976) and 36 Fillette (1988), but without their agency. Gili’s struggles are more in line with recent examples like the accosted teenager in Michel Franco’s After Lucia (2012) or Maja Milos’ Clip (2012), where filmed versions of sex acts are circulated in teenage communities but often with detrimental impact on the young women involved in them, and whose actions or lack of action seem to lend a hand in their own victimization.

Despite the predictability and the familiarity of Gili’s circumstances, Gurfinkel’s S#x Acts is an effectively compelling film, its age old depiction of acceptable and atrociously conditioned behavior of the male sex as invasive and prevalent as it ever was.

★★★ / ★★★★★

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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