The 26th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Like a cloudburst, the annual London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival brightens our springtime with a brief glimpse into the contemporary mores of gay culture, queer thinking and foreign closets. And this year’s festival was off to a fine start with Thom Fitzgerald’s dazzling Cloudburst starring Brenda Fricker and Olympia Dukakis as a septuagenarian lesbian couple escaping a nursing home and heading across the border into Canada to get hitched. But they weren’t the only A-listers hitting the pink screen, with Kathleen Turner heading up The Perfect Family, Anne Renton’s take on reconciling homosexuality with faith. And while its view on Catholicism is probably too niche to ring true for most church-goers the world over, The Perfect Family neatly sidesteps preaching to the (un-)converted with a thought-provoking denouement in which Catholic Woman Of The Year nominee and general do-gooder Eileen must not only accept her family for who they are – alcoholic, philanderer and lesbian – but her family must accept her Holy See doctrines too.
It’s an interesting glimpse into family politics, pushing coming-out onto other family members too, without which less than ‘perfect’ members are thrust into an unmentionable oblivion. In the close, conservative world of upstate catholic California, it’s perhaps surprising how supportive other family members are, with little more than a shrug or a drunken quip about turkey-baster babies. But it’s a normative acceptance, the withdrawal of which is darkly illustrated by Steven Williford’s The Green. With its tale of a gay teacher living a happy suburban life with his long-term boyfriend Daniel in the lush green lanes of lakeside Connecticut and suddenly finding himself suspended after a mercenary allegation of improper behaviour, The Green is a very real look at a community retracting into a hesitant huddle of guilty-until-proven-innocent stasis and a paranoid (over-)sensitivity to hidden meanings on the part of the accused. It’s a heartbreaking storm that rents the couple apart, with secrets dredged up and trust broken in the maelstrom, and while it may have a hokey fight scene and a rather ill-advised loyalty to schoolboy prodigy Jason, it’s a frighteningly believable descent from conjugal bliss to fractious uncertainty.
The teacher-pupil relationship is seen from the other side in Marco Berger’s Ausente in which a schoolboy angles for a stay-over at his swimming teacher’s house. It has a similar feel to his magnificent Plan B, with its machiavellian stratagem and its shaken straight sensibilities, but Absent doesn’t quite master its subject in the same way. Man and boy’s futile car-bound odyssey across Buenos Aires is quietly suspenseful, as much as the freewheeling opportunism of teenage sexuality on display in teacher Sebastián’s apartment, but the story fizzles out following Martín’s absence. With fantastic performances from both Carlos Echevarría and Javier De Pietro, who marvellously combines both a manly determination and a boyish recalcitrance, Absent lingers on an impossible love after death and its all-too-theoretical sexual awakening, but it is nevertheless visually daring and poignantly clever.
Soon to be released in the UK, Oliver Hermanus’ Queer Palm winner Skoonheid is a frightening look into an older man’s fascination with youth. Set in the macho white world of South Africa’s deviant husbandry, Beauty follows middle-aged Francois as he becomes fascinated with his attractive young nephew Christian. It’s a slow-burner of observational tension punctuated with violent flash points, but with one stand-out scene of merciless violence it’s a shocking take on the grim ruthlessness of desire. And gay violence is an idea expounded on in two French films, in a curiously coincidental expression of French zeitgeist. Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr’s American Translation and Gaël Morel’s Notre Paradis, both influenced by American post-Beat literature and a sudden fascination withUS serial killers, make gay psychopaths of their heroes. American Translation is essentially a straight story, a highly sexual Natural Born Killers for the Y generation, but with Jean-Marc Barr’s camera adoring Pierre Perrier’s sculpted body as much as his nihilistic anarchism, it’s a male objectification unfamiliar to our screens. Chris’s scenes with do-nothing rich girl Aurore are powerful, but the film unravels with its rent-boy killings in the woods. With something of the Parisian cool and sexual openness of French cinema after the Nouvelle Vague, American Translation over-eggs its patisserie, with its ubercool soundtrack and libertine sex murders, and ends up feeling like The Dreamers turned sour.
Compared to Jean-Marc Barr’s digital hues, Gaël Morel’s Notre Paradis is positively delicious. Nicolas Dixmier’s photography is sublime, casting glassy veils over Vassili’s murders and turning a paunchy Stéphane Rideau into a tousled midnight cowboy. His psychopathy is equally enigmatic, perhaps a very French contempt of sordid johns, but there’s a touching tale of two mismatched men who find each other and hide away in a world of their own making. Above all, Notre Paradis is a commentary on modern materialism, with Vassili and Angelo selling themselves for sweatshirts and blow and helping themselves to what they want. But it’s also an improbably optimistic story of self-determination, like Malgorzata Szumowska’s Elles, in which the world of prostitution becomes an aspirational haven and an escape from the bourgeois anxieties of reality.
Circumstance, directed by the Iranian ex-pat Maryam Keshavarz, is another of those coming-out-in-a-foreign-climate movies, but very sensitively and very beautifully done. Gay rights are co-opted into human rights, à la Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which is referenced in the film as the two heroines decide to risk their reputations dubbing the banned film into Farsi. It’s shocking and quietly disturbing, watching a liberal, open-minded family slowly succumb to the patriarchal demands of religious brother Mehran. And punctuated with footage from CCTV cameras, the girls Atafeh and Shireen are observed first by the state on the street, then by Mehran in their own home. The ending is uncomfortably, albeit reasonably, pessimistic, Shireen giving in to a loveless marriage and Atafeh escaping to Dubai, but with beautiful imagery and a Teherani underground scene to rival No-One Knows About Persian Cats, Circumstance is a fascinating insight into Tehran behind the veil.
The 26th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival’s closing film North Sea, Texas couldn’t be more different. Set during the Eighties on the Dunkerque coast, Bavo Defurne’s film seems at least partly autobiographical, with its young protagonist Pim and his childhood crushes on older friend Gino and visiting gypsy Zoltan. It’s an intriguing delve into a boy’s own sexuality with his box of queer mementoes ranging from his mother’s beauty queen tiara and a rag christened with Gino’s spirit. Defurne’s first feature might feel impossibly upbeat, Pim having his cake and eating it with a straight line from unspoken crush, tent-in-the-dunes dalliance into a relationship that might even go somewhere. It runs almost counter to Pim’s grim determination to leave his neglected childhood and his temporary outlook on life, but with its Flemish joie de vivre and its idiosyncratic quirk, North Sea Texas is an impressive debut and a testament to the plurality of gay experience.
And so the clouds draw back for another year, a veil drawn over another year’s sunburst of cinematic dazzlers, the festival embracing not only its fair share of polemical, political and queer desire movies, but also daring towards a new wave of gay antiheroes and post-queer sensibilities. But with Christophe Honoré’s Beloved, Albert Nobbs and She Monkeys just over the horizon, maybe the clouds will part a little longer.