Sundance Review: 'Interior. Leather Bar.'

James Franco is known for his acting, certainly, but in recent years he's also gotten a lot of attention for his intellectual abilities and other artistic endeavors, including collaborations with artists such as Harmony Korine. "Interior. Leather Bar." is Franco's collaboration with filmmaker Travis Mathews, who also wrote the film. Part documentary and part narrative, it is the duo's attempt to re-create 40 minutes of footage that was cut from the controversial '80s film "Cruising," which stars Al Pacino as an undercover cop who descends into the world of gay leather bars in the hopes of catching a killer.

The pair are hoping not to make a perfectly accurate recreation but rather an interpretation of the lost footage. They recruit Franco's friend, an actor named Val Lauren, to play the role of Pacino, they hire a cast of actors both straight and gay, and away we go. We are privy to their pre-production prep, including a moment when Lauren asks Franco if he cut his hair and he replies "Yeah, for 'Oz,'" reminding us that this is not only James Franco the experimental filmmaker, but James Franco the star of the upcoming Disney film "Oz the Great and Powerful." We also watch interviews with actors who will participate, and eventually arrive on set in a small cramped black box theater somewhere in the arts district of Los Angeles.

Much of the film is documentary-esque footage of the preparations, including hair and makeup, director Mathews negotiating a few of the kinkier sexual scenes between different actors and many conversations wherein people attempt to understand exactly why James Franco is so deeply interested and invested in the production of art house hardcore gay porn. The actors involved are giddy to be there — working with a star like Franco is obviously a huge draw, but no, Franco is not going to be performing any sexual acts. He never even gets naked and stays behind the camera half the time, and in front of it talking about the movie with Lauren or Mathews the rest of the time.

Franco seems particularly interested in the more challenging aspects of the film, and discusses his wishes to subvert the normative and to try and retrain his brain to not be shocked by the things he sees. He's pretty into the creative and outlandish aspects of the film, though Lauren seems to be a much harder sell right from the get go. Lauren, who is married to a woman, continually expresses his discomfort and awkwardness with the explicit sexual content of the film, as well as his concern for the reputation of Franco, and awkwardly quizzes other actors about their own limits when it comes to homosexual activities they'd be willing to perform.

Most of the actors are up for almost anything, though, and are totally willing to push their own boundaries. Once the cameras start rolling, there is plenty of gay sex on display here, accompanied by chains, paddles, whips and, of course, leather. We're watching real, unsimulated sex happen on screen, and the men are encouraged to be as sexually forward and conspicuous as possible.

The film clocks in at only an hour, and it's an interesting idea, but perhaps there is more benefit for James Franco himself in creating "Interior. Leather Bar." than for audiences watching it. It's difficult to see this finding a wide audience. As the doc plays on, we begin to suspect that more of the unscripted moments in the film may be scripted than we initially assumed, lending another layer to this artistic exploration into creativity, sexuality and our own boundaries, both physical and mental.

Grade: B+