Tom of Finland (2017)

Tom of Finland is a likeable but hastily drawn sketch of the Finnish soldier and artist whose work is responsible for many a gay man’s wet dreams.

Tom of FinlandFinland
3*

Director:
Dome Karukoski
Screenwriter:
Aleksi Bardy

Director of Photography:
Lasse Frank

Running time: 115 minutes

Pencil sketches of muscle men, leather uniforms and enormous penises. These works of art, long produced underground before finally making their way to gallery exhibits and then even onto a few of Finland’s stamps, are the creations of Touko Laaksonen. “Tom of Finland”, as he would later be known, came of age during the Second World War and put his fantasies on paper in order to forget about his miserable experiences as a soldier and as a man trapped in an ultra-conservative and very anti-gay society.

Some of the early scenes in Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland take place in Helsinki ahead of the 1952 Olympic Games and show the police clearing out a park that has become a popular cruising spot for the city’s gay community. When they catch men doing the old in-out against a tree trunk or kissing in the shadows of heavy foliage, they gang up to beat the victim with their truncheons until he can no longer offer any resistance. It is a chilling reminder of how backward and intolerant some Western societies were – and not long ago. Finland, where same-sex marriage only became possible in March 2017, had taken until 1971 to decriminalise homosexuality, although Tom of Finland (perhaps purposefully) neglects to tell us this and thus sketches a conservative Finnish society forever threatening to people like Laaksonen, portrayed by Pekka Strang.

Dome Karukoski’s biopic of arguably Finland’s most famous artist snaps from one narrative block to another as it scrambles to cram around four decades of life into two hours while pretending to take its time. The first 10 minutes alone cover four separate periods in Laaksonen’s life, and over time, we return to almost all of them in the same fitful, fragmentary manner.

The scenes have room to breathe, but the transitions between them are abrupt and often leave us scratching our heads about the missing amount of time. In addition, the two hours are rather awkwardly framed by a major leather event that, while it offers a powerful culmination and affirmation of Laaksonen’s life, feels rushed and tacked on without any proper groundwork.

There are very few narrative threads that cut across the entire film, although one of the most important (albeit, regrettably, one of the weakest) involves Laaksonen’s sister, Kaija, who never manages to accept his sexuality. Throughout their lives, she lives in bitter denial that homosexuality even exists. We gather that she wants to ignore the tragedy of her own life as a spinster by focusing on her brother’s life, even as he ends up spending most of it with a loving partner, Veli “Nipa” Mäkinen (played by the gorgeous Lauri Tilkanen).

Unlike in another biopic of a gay artist (Julian Schnabel’s glorious depiction of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in the inimitable Before Night Falls), the society portrayed in Tom of Finland is one of binary oppositions. The only person who does not fall neatly into the “gay = good”/”straight = menacing” categories is the quiet wife of an army captain who tolerates her husband’s meetings with other men. It is a real pity we do not get to see more of her, or of her kind, in this film.

As far as “Tom” himself is concerned, it remains unclear whether he ever feels like he fits in. Certainly, on his first trip to California, in the late 1970s, the warm weather and the men holding hands in public immediately signal a break from the frigid confines of Helsinki, where people still give him a dirty look if he is too intimate with Nipa. Towards the end of his life, Nipa has a persistent cough, and although his death is ultimately ascribed to throat cancer, the film’s ambiguity suggests he was very likely an early victim of the as yet undiagnosed AIDS virus.

Laaksonen, whose graphite sported members the size of baseball bats, also had a thing for leather, but we never get any indication of where this fixation originated. Perhaps it goes back to his early focus on men in uniforms, although we can’t be sure. His muse, a leather-clad biker with a prominent moustache and a police cap, is the imaginary Kake (Niklas Hogner), who becomes a central character in his work. Laaksonen says he is only satisfied with his own work if it makes him hard, but we never see him hot and bothered, even in the company of an imagined Kake, nor, for that matter, do we see anyone else getting horny from his pictures. This is a truly mystifying omission, as the film would have benefitted immensely from showing how Tom of Finland’s works offered pleasure to the gay community at large – or to himself.

Tom of Finland is more a patchwork of moments in the title character’s life than an engaging story of his life, his struggles and his motivations. By the end of the film, we still don’t know much about him, and while his Second World War trauma revisits him from time to time, these flashbacks are too scattered and superficial to add much to our understanding of his emotions. Karukoski’s film is unprovocative and doesn’t dig very deep. And although we get one or two vague notions of the life of a ground-breaking artist, the story leaves us unaffected.

Undertow (2009)

In the Peruvian Undertow (Contracorriente), it takes a tragic loss of life – and the appearance of a ghost – to make a family man comfortable with his own sexuality, which, the film suggests, also makes him more of a man.

Cotracorriente / Undertow (2009)Peru
4*

Director:
Javier Fuentes-León

Screenwriters:
Javier Fuentes-León
Julio Rojas
Director of Photography:
Mauricio Vidal

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: Contracorriente

“There are a thousand ways to be a man”, says the boyfriend of Undertow‘s main character, the handsome curly-haired Miguel (Cristian Mercado), whose wife, Mariela, is close to giving birth to their first child. In his tiny fishing village on the Peruvian coast, being a man necessarily involves having a family (unless you’re the priest), and having friends depends on acting like a man.

In the film’s stunning opening close-up, Miguel turns his head and gently places it on Mariela’s bare belly to feel the baby kicking. He suggests it will be a boy and playfully calls the baby “Miguelito”. Mariela scolds him, concerned it might be a girl and that she might be confused if she heard her father calling her “Miguelito” through the womb. Babies can hear everything, she says. So can we, just a few minutes in, as it is made clear that in this town a man is a man and a woman a woman.

This makes Miguel’s extra-conjugal relationship with Santiago (Manolo Cardona) something of an existential problem, and despite being in a relationship that has clearly matured over time, Miguel is still far from comfortable viewing their bond as something entirely “manly”.

And yet, it is clear the relationship is not some infatuation. Eschewing the uncertainty that so often accompanies the start of a same-sex liaison, especially in a conservative society like this one in rural Peru with its (religious and non-religious) traditions, director Javier Fuentes-León starts his début feature in medias res, after the two have already known each other for a period of time.

Santiago, an artist who mostly keeps to himself, is an outsider in town and gets on some people’s nerves as he goes around taking photos of people and events to paint at home. His house even gets egged on a regular basis by children whose parents no doubt sanction their actions.

The first time we see Santiago and Miguel together, their interaction is intimate and informal. Clearly, this is not some fugacious fling. But Miguel has compartmentalised it as something that only takes place far from home, and he takes care never to meet or speak to Santiago in public. Understandably, Santiago’s frustration eventually reaches boiling point, particularly as Miguel is settling further into his role as a traditional family man. “I’m sick of playing dumb. You can; I can’t”, he admonishes him.

And then, out of the blue, a mere 30 minutes into the film, Santiago drowns. But there is no time to grieve as he announces his own death to Miguel, by showing up in the form of a (very lifelike) phantom in Miguel’s own home. And he keeps showing up, everywhere, the physical manifestation of Miguel’s memory of him, or of his guilt. Santiago is bound to wander aimlessly until his spirit finds peace. 

Thus begins one of the most thrilling, emotionally gripping sequence of scenes imaginable, as Miguel grows used to being out and about in public with his (albeit late and invisible) boyfriend, because no one can see them. It goes without saying that this is the perfect way for Miguel to grow in confidence, at least until the inevitable ceiling hits him on the head: The moment the town finds out about Miguel’s recent dalliances with the man they all simply refer to as “the artist”.

Along the way, former obstacles fall the one after the other, and halfway through the film, when the couple even recreates the most famous shot from Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, there can no longer be any question in even the most conservative viewer’s mind that Miguel and Santiago should be afforded the same empathy we have always granted their equally fictional mixed-sex counterparts.

Santiago’s persistent presence in the film is as comical as it is beautiful. There are no scenes of anguish over him being dead – after all, to Miguel he looks and feels just as real as before – and even in death he has remained as understanding of Miguel’s fragile domestic situation as before: When he turns up next to the bed while Miguel is having sex with his wife (but thinking of Santiago), he covers his eyes but encourages Miguel to continue as if he weren’t there.

Undertow‘s final moments are deeply moving and tie a neat bow on Miguel’s blossoming into manhood, adding colour and closure by way of an honest conversation whose absence made the final moments of Brokeback Mountain feel like an open wound that would never heal. 

Yes, love is selfish. Miguel doesn’t play right by Santiago while he is alive, and even after his death he refuses to acknowledge their relationship. He wants to maintain his reputation in the eyes of the community by having a wife and a son. He wants to have his cake but eat his banana, too.

But by the time we reach the ending, an allegorical connection with Jesus Christ, who carried his cross along the Via Dolorosa in full view of a crowd of people after fighting long and hard with his inner demons, becomes clear. This is a man. This is what a man does when he is honest about who he is. He keeps his promise. And he ensures the one he loves finds peace, even if that means he has to sacrifice his companionship forever.

Taekwondo (2016)

Two Taekwondo training partners who know little about each other spend a few days in the company of seven other men. Are we just imagining it, or is there a spark between them?

TaekwondoArgentina
3.5*

Directors:
Marco Berger

Martín Farina
Screenwriter:
Marco Berger

Director of Photography:
Martín Farina

Running time: 105 minutes

If you’re a gay man, you’ve often wondered whether a particular guy is gay. When you finally find out he is, you tell yourself, “It was glaringly obvious all along!” Perhaps you even pat yourself on the back and praise your own “gaydar”. And when you find out he’s not, it suddenly seems just as self-evident. While we’re wondering, the possibilities often appear to be both endless and contradictory.

Marco Berger specialises in warm, friendly tension resolved at the very last moment thanks to the briefest of happy ends. His films focus almost exclusively on unspoken desire capped by a tender moment of contact that makes us feel like everything will work out in the end if we are just patient enough for it to happen.

The Argentine filmmaker’s latest feature, co-directed by Martín Farina (whose homoerotically charged football documentary, Fulboy, Berger co-edited), is titled Taekwondo and features a real ensemble cast for the first time in his career. The entire film is set in a large house in the countryside, where a group of nine strapping young men – all friends of the affable, curly-haired Fernando (Lucas Papa) – are hanging out. It’s December, and summer is already in full swing. This means a lot of lazing around, primarily in and around the swimming pool, and mostly in very skimpy clothes. Sometimes, none at all.

In the charmingly verdant, near-symmetrical opening shot, we see a newcomer arrive at the house. Germán (Gabriel Epstein) is an acquaintance of Fernando’s from their Taekwondo class and is joining the gang for a relaxing, fun time. He is the odd one out from the beginning because the eight have known each other for a long time. Fortunately for him, Fernando makes a point of finding him wherever he is, speaking to him, sitting next to him in larger groups, lying next to him by the pool and even sleeping in the same room. We quickly learn that Germán is gay, but what is the deal with Fernando?

This is a question that lingers for most of the film’s 105-minute running time. It always hangs in the background but is pushed centre stage every time Germán peeks at him (we know why), or he glances at Germán (does it mean what we think it means?), or the scantily clad men around them playfully call each other “cocksuckers”. The film also raises a few related but more general questions – ones that almost anyone who is gay has asked themselves at one time or another: What does it mean when someone looks at me? When does a look become a stare? And how do I distinguish between a stare born out of simple curiosity and a stare that is meaningful?

Taekwondo is divided into three interwoven sections: the delicate, silent dance between Germán and Fernando; the many conversations between Diego, Fede (nicknamed “Fatso”), Juan, Lucho, Maxi and Tomás, the majority of which concerns sex with women; and the questionable intentions of Leo, who stalks around in an attempt to get Fernando’s attention.

The film’s major flaw is its handling of the many speaking parts. The second section mentioned above, which consists of loose discussions between various speakers, is particularly problematic because beyond Germán and Fernando, the characters are simply not memorable or well-defined. In fact, it will likely take a second viewing to recognise all the men at the house.

Taekwondo does go overboard by pelting us with close-ups of crotches both covered and exposed, even when the point of view is not connected to anyone in particular. This kind of ogling by the camera, while not exactly comparable to the gross gaze that Abdellatif Kechiche deployed in Blue is the Warmest Colour, is pointless and voids whatever sensuality the shots may have generated if used more discreetly.

If the two directors had utilised the camera as a substitute for specific characters’ point of view, the film would have been infinitely more engaging and immersive. But the gratuitous abundance of full-frontal close-ups simply leads nowhere and becomes annoyingly repetitive. By contrast, scenes like the one in which all nine of the men squeeze into the sauna drip with sensuality precisely because there are no full-frontals. 

All the while, we are grateful that someone as captivating as Epstein was cast to play Germán and that he portrays him as someone who is careful but never pitiful. Germán has no problem being gay, but because he is unfamiliar with the other guys’ sentiments about homosexuality, he doesn’t bring it up. The film’s two comical highlights are the scenes in which he shares his feelings with another gay friend – once over the phone and another time in person.

Berger has always been at his most effective when his stories are simple and focused on two main characters. This was the case in arguably his two best films to date: Plan B and Hawaii. Taekwondo loses time by presenting non-essential storylines and characters. It also negates some of Berger’s trademark sunshine by including a marginal character clearly uncomfortable with his own sexuality. His presence taints the otherwise laid-back, albeit sometimes sexually tense, atmosphere.

But it is fun to see how Berger and Farina work to tease us to breaking point with the promise of something happening. Viewers will have to bide their time, but those who know Berger’s films (this is Farina’s first fiction film behind the camera) can also rest assured that he always delivers in the end.

It might appear that time is standing still in this idyllic summer film, but the small steps that Germán and Fernando take always make us smile out of pure exhilaration for them to realise and benefit from something that is clear to almost everyone else. Taekwondo would have been served better by having fewer in-your-face crotch shots and more clear-cut characters, but the easygoing ambience and the playful camaraderie make for an environment the viewer can easily get used to.

Look out for Marco Berger making a cameo appearance halfway through the film as an anonymous character whose companion is hit in the head with a tennis ball.

God’s Own Country (2017)

God’s Own Country borrows so much from Ang Lee’s famous cowboy romance it should have been titled “Brokeback on the Moors”.

God's Own CountryUK
3.5*

Director:
Francis Lee

Screenwriter:
Francis Lee

Director of Photography:
Joshua James Richards

Running time: 105 minutes

Two strapping young lads herding sheep by day and making love to each other one night out in the field? Check. Do we see spit being used instead of lube? Yes. Is there an awkward silence the next morning? Absolutely. Does the one deliberately look in front of him while the other changes his underwear in the background? That, too. And is there evident yearning when one of them smells a piece of clothing left behind by the one who is no longer there? Yes, even that.

God’s Own Country, an often assured feature-film début by British director Francis Lee, borrows whole-cloth from Brokeback Mountain without adding much of its own, although the story has been altered slightly for the sake of updating and transposing Ang Lee’s landmark 2005 film to the grittier moors of the English countryside.

The central character here is Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a farm boy barely out of his teens, whom we first lay eyes on late one night when he is throwing up in the toilet bowl of his parents’ farmhouse in Yorkshire. The next morning, we learn this is a regular occurrence, and we soon realise why: In this small farming community, being gay is not yet entirely acceptable, and even though Johnny has frequent encounters (penetration, never kissing) with whoever locks eyes with him at the bar or an auction, the idea of a relationship with a man is a foreign concept to him.

His father has suffered a stroke and realises his son is not up to the job of taking on his role on the farm. Thus, a (presumably) low-paying position as a temporary farmhand opens up, and this is when a brooding young Romanian migrant, Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu, who looks like he could be Oscar Isaac’s brother) arrives on the scene, not without his own baggage. Things develop more or less as we expect, although these two characters are much more secure in their sexuality than Jack and Ennis the cowboys, their famous fictional counterparts from the early 2000s, who were admittedly a product of their time.

Lee’s handling of the relationship is very sensitive at the outset, and the two characters complement each other in just the right way: the immature Johnny, whose idea of the world only extends as far as the closest pub, has had plenty of sexual encounters but no intimacy, while Gheorghe, who has travelled to the United Kingdom on his own and seems much wiser about the ways of the world, takes on the role of both lover and father to the slightly awkward Englishman. The scene in which the two finally kiss, after much reluctance from Johnny, is paced just right and a striking testament to Gheorghe’s patience and tenderness.

Unfortunately, the film’s final moments are an absolute travesty – the kind of fairytale development that lessens the film’s thoughtfulness and is wholly at odds with the rest of the plot. It feels almost like it was tacked on as an afterthought for the sake of greater viewer satisfaction and commercial success, but the resolution to the climax’s dramatic complication is a myopic idea of romance that one character is too callow to deserve and the other is too good to concede.

The ending is a big disappointment, but the rest of the film does a good job of making the rough contours of a relationship seem less sharp-edged.

All in all, while the meaning of its title remains an enigma, God’s Own Country is mostly a compelling reworking of a tale we have seen before, and the reason lies primarily with the small group of very committed actors. Besides O’Connor and Secăreanu, Ian Hart as Johnny’s stern but paternal father and Gemma Jones as the devoted grandmother both warm our hearts with their candid but caring interactions with Johnny.

Viewed at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.

Moonlight (2016)

In Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, three fragments of a life make up a fragmented whole that is beautiful to look at but remains opaque to the end.

USA
3*

Director:
Barry Jenkins

Screenwriter:
Barry Jenkins

Director of Photography:
James Laxton

Running time: 110 minutes

Despite the fat, the muscle and the facial hair they put on over time to create a facade of machismo or of adulthood, many a man is still the same scared little boy inside he was when he was growing up. This is about as deep as Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight goes, unfortunately, and while this observation is a constant theme throughout the film and comes through in various ways, there is less to this widely praised coming-of-age film than one might have hoped for.

Moonlight is a three-part story depicting the life of a sensitive young man, Chiron, who is prone to bullying and grows up in a single-parent household in Miami. In the three parts, which sketch his life as a boy, as a teenager and finally as a young man, Chiron is played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), all of whom bring sensitivity and a slight awkwardness to the role.

But the film’s most potent portrayal easily lies in the first part, and Jenkins seems to ackowledge as much in the opening shot: Juan (Mahershala Ali), a calm Afro-Cuban drug dealer in his late-30s, leaves his car to cross the street and speak to Terrence, an 18-year-old boy who works this street of the rundown Liberty Square neighbourhood for him. Terrence has clearly had his fill of drugs already and appears slightly dazed, but while he fidgets out of nervousness or fearfulness, Juan lazily puffs on his cigarette and asks him how his mom is doing. All the while, the camera drifts around them in an unbroken take, clearly suggesting that Juan is a bringer of peace and tranquility, an idea quickly made vivid when he sees and then saves Chiron, who is being chased by a group of bullies.

This initial encounter between the drug dealer and the taciturn boy, whose mother depends on drugs and makes money spending her nights in the bedroom, is unexpected, but Juan’s care is soon complemented by the evident compassion that his girlfriend, Teresa, has for the boy. This concern for Chiron’s well-being, which obviously helps him on his way to becoming an adult, is most pronounced in a beautifully written yet highly improbable scene in which Juan and Teresa explain, with the greatest tact imaginable, the meaning and implication of the word “faggot”, a word Chiron’s own mother used to dress him down: “‘Faggot’ is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” Although the intent is admirable, this moment set around the dinner table of a low-income drug dealer in the 1980s is wholly improbable – wishful thinking in a story that in all other respects clearly strives for realism.

Moonlight‘s most glaring fault is also its most appealing aspect for a wide audience: It tackles the issue of homosexuality very gingerly by using only one incident in each of the three parts to remind us that Chiron is gay; if not for these all too fleeting moments, we might have completely overlooked his struggle. The film includes only one sexual act, and it is shot from far away so as not to offend the non-converted. In this regard, the climax is particularly vexing because a nearly 20-minute build-up does not get the dramatic release we expect (and seek). Instead, it fizzles out entirely, and we’re left with nothing more than a very unsatisfying head-on-the-shoulder moment of intimacy.

The spectre of Juan, who only appears in the first part, hangs over the entire film, and in the final act, upon seeing how buff Chiron has become, dealing drugs and sporting the same gold grills as his late father figure, this moment of recognition hits the viewer with a pang of compassion. However much he seeks to emulate his hero, however, we quickly learn that inside the muscled body an emotionally insecure is still hiding, unwilling to engage intimately with those closest to him.

Except for the dialogue, which is so authentically rooted in lower-income Miami that is not always easy to follow, the film is immediately accessible thanks to its focus on a single character who ages in front of our eyes, albeit not as seamlessly as in the equally superficial Boyhood. Jenkins’s soundtrack raises the beauty and the grit into the artistic thanks to the inclusion of the Laudate Dominum movement from Mozart’s gorgeous classical piece “Vesperae solennes de confessore” and – at a pivotal moment – Caetano Veloso’s performance of “Cucurrucucú paloma”, best known from its appearance on the soundtrack of Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (Hable con ella).

In the end, the film belongs to the actors, who emote and elicit our empathy thanks to their faces, their silences, their hesitation and their humanity. Surprisingly, one of the best-known players, Naomi Harris, who stars as Chiron’s drug-dependent mother, Paula, is the only one whose acting veers into over-the-top hystrionics as she momentarily portrays a character we’ve seen all too often before from characters who are drug addicts.

Moonlight is a well-intentioned, meticulously shot film whose rich colours and sense of place unfortunately never translate into sustained action or robust character development. Chiron gazes without interacting, is diffident to a fault and (except for mimicking Juan) shows little appetite for opening himself up to new experiences. This reticence ultimately leads to precious little progress and produces a film that merely pretends to be complex but is nothing of the sort.

The Danish Girl (2014)

Tom Hooper’s Danish Girl, which tells an important story about a historic, groundbreaking gender transition, struggles to confront its own identity crisis.

UK
3*

Directed by:
Tom Hooper

Screenwriter:
Lucinda Coxon

Director of Photography:
Danny Cohen

Running time: 120 minutes

The Danish Girl, which was 2014’s much talked-about transgender movie, puts on a very strange face right at the outset, for no apparent reason. Given the title, one would expect the film to open in Denmark, and indeed it does, except the landscape is about as un-Danish as one can imagine. Instead of the ever so slightly rolling countryside, we see giant mountains rising up from the coast. In fact, despite the plot (and this scene!) being set in Denmark, these mountains are in western Norway’s Møre og Romsdal county. For a film that is supposed to be all about its main character’s true nature, this is an absolutely unforgivable and truly puzzling moment.

The sudden fame of Caitlyn Jenner over the year immediately preceding the release of the film had catapulted transgender individuals onto centre stage at about the same time as the rest of the LGBT family was finally granted the opportunity to marry, on an equal footing with all the rights and responsibilities of heterosexual marriage, in the United States. Jenner was praised in some quarters and reviled in others by both gay and straight people alike, but it is rather obvious that the central character in The Danish Girl, Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener), was chosen because she was the first person ever to undergo sex reassignment surgery — nearly 90 years ago — and because she is much more likable than Jenner.

Even if the film stupidly deceives us with its opening (and closing) visuals, the story of Einar (played by the very suitably delicate-featured Eddie Redmayne) accepting his inner Lili has the advantage of being both true and topical. It is a story that will find a certain audience, but the reasons are unfortunate. For one, there is very little drama, both internal and external. The film contains only a single scene of violence committed against Einar because of his sexually ambiguous features and provides precious little insight into his moments of self-doubt or self-reflection. He writes a diary to make sense of his feelings, but we never discover what he writes.

Luckily for him, but unfortunately for the film, there is surprisingly little drama in his marriage, too. Einar, an artist, is married to a fellow painter, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who appears to care for him so deeply that she simply accepts her husband’s transition almost without blinking an eye. While her response is unquestionably loving and beautiful, it also removes any drama that might result in a better understanding of the situation from either side.

The major challenge here is to get the audience to fully appreciate the situation from Einar’s point of view. Despite his feminine features, he appears to be living a happy life with Gerda in the early 1920s, even though they have been trying without success to have a child of their own. Early in the film, Gerda asks Einar to pose for her in women’s clothing so that she can add a final touch to one of her paintings. Embarrassed, he acquiesces, and then he suddenly has a eureka moment with the fabric as he is stroking it across his skin.

Before long, he is wearing his wife’s clothes under his own, putting on makeup and dressing up to go out into the world as Lili. Gerda is a little surprised but not entirely shocked, until she discovers Lili has been seeing a young man, Henrik (Ben Whishaw), for companionship. While the viewer can come up with reasons for this behavior, the film does not provide them and instead glosses over any discussion of them entirely.

We get small but very simplistic hints to fill in Einar’s back story — for example, Gerda relates how she propositioned him on their first date, how she kissed him, instead of the other way around, and how it felt like she was kissing herself. The writing here is utterly transparent and about as helpful as having a gay character say he once played with a doll when he was a boy.

The story starts to pick up once the couple relocates to Paris, where Einar gradually starts to mimic the gestures of the women around him in order to appear more feminine when he behaves as Lili. Here, Einar/Lili and Gerda also meet up with Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), a childhood friend of Hans’s, who brings some much-needed complexity to the story line.

The film’s desire to be accessible has watered down the emotional turmoil that one would expect from Einar/Lili and Gerda. Its depiction of the many doctors who fail to understand Einar’s condition, each of whom comes across as vile if not sadistic, is just as ridiculous. At other times, shocking revelations are not followed by the expected conversations but rather by ellipses that are incredibly frustrating because the director does not have the stomach to show us how the couple argues.

The Danish Girl brought the world the story of a groundbreaking icon of the movement for acceptance of (unconventional) sexual identity, but its reliance on suggestion rather than a rich narrative and sturdier characters undermines its own significance. While the film is far more capably directed than Hooper’s laughable Les Misérables, it never comes close to the sheer whirlwind of passion that so vividly brought his The King’s Speech to life.

From Afar (2015)

On the streets of Caracas, father issues push two men – the one in his late 50s, the other barely out of school – together into an ambiguous relationship that defies explanation until it’s too late.

from-afarVenezuela/Mexico
3.5*

Director:
Lorenzo Vigas

Screenwriter:
Lorenzo Vigas

Director of Photography:
Sergio Armstrong

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: Desde allá

He doesn’t blink. Almost never. He has money; they don’t. But for them to get the money, they have to expose themselves to his gaze until climax.

“He” is Armando (Alfredo Castro), a dental prostheticist in Caracas, Venezuela. “They” are young boys in wife-beaters who hang out on the street and can always do with an extra buck. One of them is Élder, who has a girlfriend but gets lured into Armando’s flat before violently taking the money to establish his manliness, or rather, his non-homosexuality (he constantly refers to Armando as an “old faggot”), and then fleeing the scene.

Armando, one of the two leads in Lorenzo Vigas’s From Afar, is an enigma. His apartment is immaculate but very quiet, and visitors are always for-pay. He has established a certain rhythm, and even when things don’t go as planned, he merely executes his plan as before, convinced that this time, somehow, the result will be different. But the viewer has good reason to be on edge, particularly because of the ominous but absolutely ravishing opening scene, shot in very shallow focus out on the streets of the capital, where Armando is on the prowl, visually isolated from everyone around him. This opening scene bookends strikingly with the deep-focus final scene, also set in downtown Caracas.

Armando has almost no social interaction with anyone except those he solicits with a heavy wad of cash – often in public. In an early scene, he shows up at his sister’s apartment. There is a short, hazy conversation about their father, who is back in the city, and the tension between Armando and his sister is thick enough to cut with a knife. But the rage remains pent-up, and the father, whom we never see up close but always “from afar”, wholly unapproachable.

In the meantime, Élder develops a relationship with Armando that is neither sexual nor friendly but rather one of convenience: Élder, who works in an auto shop and has no problem bringing in business directly from cars parked on the streets of Caracas, gets a sugar daddy who pays for whatever he needs, while Armando has some real human contact for what we assume is the first time in years.

Both of these characters suffer from a lifetime of daddy issues, however, and it is impossible to ignore Armando’s role as a father figure in the young man’s life. At the same time, however, Venezuela does not appear to be the most hospitable area for a relationship between two men, and they both have their ways of hiding their emotions and interest when in public. Unfortunately, this reservedness extends even into the private sphere, and we rarely get a glimpse into their thought processes.

For an extended period of time, one question hangs in the air: What does Armando get out of this? His emotions are suppressed to the point of being completely pulverised, so we won’t get an answer from him, but will this relationship manage to reinvigorate him? By the time the end credits roll, it would appear that Armando only used Élder to expel some of his own demons, but the fragmentary presentation of the film’s narrative helps very little in making sense of the events and the characters.

In his acting début, the young Luis Silva is a revelation. Although his character has a devil-may-care attitude at the outset, presumably a defence mechanism against a life that was not always easy, Silva’s deep dark eyes imbue him with a darkness that is ambiguous and keeps up wondering who will ultimately have the upper hand. By the time he cleans up and dons a proper shirt for a birthday party, it is impossible not to notice the seductive young man with the peachy lips who had been hiding in full view the whole time.

From Afar draws out its mysteries, relishing in our futile attempts to make sense of the slowly unspooling relationship, perhaps in the same way that the two characters are, although we cannot know for sure because the one (in part) and the other (in full) are so reluctant to stand naked before us, as it were. With such a short running time, it would be wrong to ask for much more colour, but a handful of scenes seem to be fragments left behind when earlier, fuller scenes were pared down for the sake of artistic obfuscation. But the silences – and Armando’s silent stare, especially – will continue to haunt the viewer long after the final credits.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

The Feast of Stephen (2009)

James Franco applies the language of cinema to adapt an Anthony Hecht poem and produces a work of sexual intensity that nicely dovetails with the films of dedicatee Kenneth Anger.

The Feast of StephenUSA
3.5*

Director:
James Franco

Screenwriter:
James Franco

Director of Photography:
Christina Voros

Running time: 266 seconds

James Franco’s The Feast of Stephen, a five-minute short film adapted from the eponymous poem by Anthony Hecht, is about sex, violence, violence as sex and sex as violence. Its ambiguous depiction of homoeroticism makes it difficult to determine whether or not it is a fantasy woven from reality, although the director overplays his hand in the second half with an unnecessarily literal portrayal of what was already quite apparent in the first half.

This wordless black-and-white short dedicated to experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger has something in common with one of the director’s earliest films, Fireworks, released more than 60 years earlier in 1947. Anger’s film was about a teenager (played by Anger himself) who goes in search of “relief” and finds it after wading through some sadomasochism. Like Fireworks, Franco’s film touches on the issue of shame and violence but also, eventually, sexual gratification, albeit tinged with violence and scatology, but luckily The Feast of Stephen takes a more serious tack and eschews the camp so often visible in Anger’s oeuvre, as Franco spares us the sight of milk-covered flesh.

The film opens on a basketball court, where four teenage boys – two of them shirtless – are passing the ball and shooting hoops. Along the fence comes a boy, the titular Stephen, wearing long trousers, a long-sleeved T-shirt and glasses – clearly, at odds with the rest of the group. Stephen stares at them, and something they look back at him, straight into the camera. He stares at them, and they start moving in slow motion, their youthful torsos rippling in the afternoon sun. He stares at them and notices how their hands playfully touch each other’s taut bodies. Suddenly, his desire is made manifest by more carnal images of the boys’ genitals. Now, Stephen is staring even more intently, and when one of them looks back, and the camera rushes towards him, it is clear Stephen has been caught out. He bolts off, his secret now out in the open, but the violence that ensues when the quartet of boys catch up to him also makes his innermost thoughts a reality.

The pounding that he gets all over his body, experienced most acutely in his groin, gradually becomes a pounding from behind. At this point, the implication is clear, but this is also the moment at which Franco goes too far in order to emphasise beyond a shadow of a doubt that this act of violence has a strong sexual undertone, as a cut suddenly removes all clothing, and we see Stephen being penetrated by the boys over whom he’d been tripping out. Of course, this moment is as imagined as the earlier moment of nudity that had briefly revealed the boys on court in the buff, and perhaps this prior image forms a sturdy means of support for the later scene, although both intellectually and emotionally it would have benefited from much tighter editing during the sodomy scene.

Despite its last-minute overreach, The Feast of Stephen is a seriously executed film that is thoroughly enjoyable and – unlike many of Franco’s other works – never overstays its welcome. The camera work has a grittiness that fits its subject very well, and while the lead actor comes across as more of a blank canvas than an actual character, the players’ movements are all beautifully coordinated. The film doesn’t have the grace or the sensuality of, say, Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour, but the brutality wrapped in fantasy makes for two easily accessible levels on which to process the events, and in a film less than five minutes long, that is not bad at all.

Peacock (2015)

Short film about Czech playwright Ladislav Stroupežnický is a period piece like almost no other and has a central character who almost never speaks but evokes passion beyond words.

furiant-peacockCzech Republic
4.5*

Director:
Ondřej Hudeček 

Screenwriters:
Jan Smutný

Ondřej Hudeček
Director of Photography:
Ondřej Hudeček

Running time: 27 minutes

Original title: Furiant

The early years of the 19th-century critical realist Czech playwright Ladislav Stroupežnický are vividly brought to life with a dazzling display of humour and unconventional storytelling in Ondřej Hudeček’s 25-minute short film, Peacock (Furiant). This is the story of a young rebel whose first encounter seemed to have been divinely ordained. And even though the tale also has a tragic component, a warm romanticism that is both affectionate and slightly tongue-in-cheek infuses the presentation of the material.

Borrowing liberally from the visual style of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, as is to be expected in any period film worth its salt, the film has another reference that is even more pertinent in terms of eccentricity and playfulness: Tony Richardson’s 1963 classic Tom Jones, which has become regrettably underseen and underknown. Hudeček’s use of a period setting to tell a story that is every bit as energetic as a music video and filled with painterly landscapes yet almost entirely devoid of dialogue is thrilling, and the film’s glimpse of this famous playwright is as witty as it is educational.

The structure of Peacock, which comprises an introduction, three acts and an epilogue, is just about the only aspect that one might label as traditional, as the contents and the presentation of the material are dynamic. Not only does the film deploy animation, droll title cards and a side-splitting extract from a screenplay, but it even does away with dialogue altogether, replacing it with the coherent, ubiquitous and atmospheric voice-over by Lukáš Hlavica.

Book-ended by gorgeous shots of the interior of Prague’s National Theatre, a magnificent symbol of the Czech National Revival to which Stroupežnický would become an important contributor (many of his plays would also be performed here), the film covers 14 years in the author’s early life, from 1853 to 1867. We follow him on his riotous rejection of authority, especially of the Church, and his first love.

Ironically played by a German and not a Czech actor, the young Stroupežnický (Julius Feldmeier) has a tense face that almost never relaxes, except in the company of Jan Aleš, a close friend whom a title card early on introduces as “a poet and a great lover”. This unexpected meeting between the two is anticipated – even endorsed – in religious terms, as the narrator tells us that “Ladislav, rebelling against the supreme authority, was unaware that he would soon receive a great sign from above.” 

This first love very intelligently marks the end, at least for him, of romanticism. In fact, the film suggests that the disintegration of their intimacy – whose melodrama is rivalled only by the climax, in which Stroupežnický attempts to commit suicide but is seemingly (and rather hilariously) spared by divine intervention – was a turning point for the artist and somehow explains his subsequent conversion to critical realism.

The film uses the music of Antonín Dvořák, one of the most famous Czech composers of all time and a contemporary of Stroupežnický, all the way through, and his series of “Slavonic Dances”, in particular, provides a rich and sometimes thrillingly bombastic frame for the emotions at work in the story.

The Czech title appears to be somewhat ironic, too, as Furiant literally means “show-off”, even though Stroupežnický almost never utters a word. The original meaning refers to the type of movements that accompanied, among others, Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dances”. Clearly, the English title is connected to the first meaning, and the attention paid to the film’s absolutely stunning visuals – especially the exterior scenes, although at least one interior shot also draws attention because of its theatrical composition – is highly commendable and helps to immerse us in the beauty of the story.

Hudeček’s work here is absolutely flawless, and his talent for producing splendid images that knock us with emotional hammer blows, often in complete silence, makes the experience of watching the film all the more intense. Filled with sly humor, bubbling with creativity and assembled as a coherent work of fiction that draws on reality for inspiration, Peacock is as colourful as its English title suggests. 

Viewed at the 2015 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Loev (2015)

In India, where same-sex love is still a taboo (and sex is illegal), uttering the word “love” is a challenge, but “loev” signals there is light at the end of the tunnel.

loevIndia
4*

Director:
Sudhanshu Saria
Screenwriter:
Sudhanshu Saria

Director of Photography:
Sherri Kauk

Running time: 90 minutes

If there is one abiding image that is familiar to and may even represent most gay men – especially those who grew up or were ever in an environment that was less than accepting of their sexuality – it is two people awkwardly squeezed onto a single bed. Whether it is at home, where the parents assume their son is sharing a room with a friend, or at a hotel, where out of embarrassment or fear no booking was made for a double bed, the desire to hold each other easily but uncomfortably overrides the physical restrictions of the single bed.

Homosexuality is not only taboo but also illegal in India, where an infamous 2013 decision by the country’s supreme court found the Penal Code’s section on “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” did in fact include sex between two individuals of the same sex (technically, men). This fact makes the production of Loev, an Indian film about men who have sex with men, utterly remarkable. Not only does the film’s creation constitute a courageous act on the part of writer-director-producer Sudhanshu Saria, but it is also a very accomplished film in its own right that sidesteps many of the traps into which many so-called pink films from the other side of the world often fall. It also includes that beautiful, recognisable image mentioned above.

In the film’s opening scene, we find Sahil, a 20-something musician from Mumbai, all alone in his apartment. It is pitch black, and as his face is illuminated by the candle he lights, we see he is not impressed. It is nearly 40 degrees, there is no air conditioning because the power is out, and he is in a rush to pack for a weekend trip. His boyfriend Alex arrives and admits that he forgot to pay the electricity bill, but Sahil tells him he had also left the gas running. The mood would be tense if it wasn’t for Alex’s carefree attitude, which is nonetheless rooted in an understanding of his boyfriend’s emotional state. He takes Sahil to the airport, but not before we see him trying unsuccessfully to put his arm around his shoulder.

This moment in the car when Sahil pushes his boyfriend away is key to the film, as it not only underlines his anger but also hints at his feeling of shame when it comes to being intimate with his boyfriend in public. His old friend, Jai, who has become a workaholic businessman in New York City, returns to Mumbai for a short visit, and the two head off to the idyllic countryside of the misty Mahabaleshwar, a night’s drive south of the teeming metropolis.

What makes the interaction between Jai and Sahil so compelling and contributes to the film’s serious treatment of its characters is Jai’s attitude towards his friend. There is no tension or judgement. Jai talks to Sahil about Alexander the same way he would have if his friend had been in a relationship with a woman. The underlying assumption of normalcy distinguishes the film’s approach from the traditional anxiety that tends to accompany gay films, even in more accepting countries. At the same time, however, director Sudhanshu Saria does not ignore the lingering disapproval of homosexuality, especially in the countryside, although such moments are fortunately used for context, not to create some contrived moment of drama. 

Loev‘s many long takes (the camera is very mobile but lets the scenes breathe thanks to extended silences) emphasise the real-world setting of the story and are further proof of the director’s talent as a filmmaker. It bears mentioning that this is his début feature film.

The film’s title is equivalent to the U.S. expression “lurve” and allows the speaker to suggest “love” without saying the word. “Love” is a difficult word to say for those who fear the consequences of such a declaration. Men in particular tend to avoid the word, even when their feelings are clearly within the orbit of the definition, and that is certainly the case for Sahil, whose relationship with Alexander is unmistakably filled with compassion and patience even though he refuses to call it by its rightful name.

The final scenes are riveting and reveal a great deal about all three of the main characters. The film comes to a very satisfying conclusion without sugar-coating or glossing over the problems that remain or throwing open the closet door to expose all the secrets hidden inside.

Loev is a timely film that, far from seeking to understand the status of gay men in India, treats them as any other group of individuals with the same problems and desires as anyone else. This approach of normalising their identity is crucial in a country that still struggles to accept people who do not fit the perceived status quo, and in so doing, the film, focused primarily on the tension between a friendship and a relationship, marks an important milestone in the depiction of characters who also happen to be gay.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015