Sunday, 28 December 2008

Barcelona (un mapa) (Barcelona (A Map), Spain, 2007)

Director: Ventura Pons.

Principal cast: Núria Espert, Josep Maria Pou, Rosa Maria Sardà, Jordi Bosch.

It is peculiar how dictators across the world, nominally professing to different ideologies, are always adamant to be seen as defenders of the „traditional” family values. There is, of course, nothing particularly suprising in that – people coerced into appearing and acting as a homogenous and „happy” mass are much easier to control. Anybody sticking out can be instantly identified and eliminated. However, to great chagrin of all dictators, this only means that the „exemplary” citizens quickly learn double speak and double act while all behaviour inconsistent with the „traditional values” endorsed by the regime is simply consigned to the shadowed fringes of the society. Dictators are disposed of or die, regimes change but their highly harmful legacy of secrets and lies can last for many generations. Still, sooner or later the façades of the „exemplary traditional families” will inevitably crumble and the shadowed fringes will come to light, just like it happens in „Barcelona (A Map)”, a film by Ventura Pons set in the Catalonian capital some 30 years after Franco’s death, based on a novel by Lluïsa Cunille „Barcelona, A Map Of Shadows”.

Rosa and Ramon are an elderly couple who are living in a spacious old Barcelona flat. Not requiring all the space themselves, over the years they have rented out some of the rooms. But now, as terminally ill Ramon is slowly preparing for his final moments on this planet, the couple have asked the three current tenants to move out as quickly as possible. The film’s account takes place over the course of one night. As tenants come home one by one, the pair take their time to urge them to keep their promise and vacate the premises before Monday. The film’s story is displayed as five dialogues with a striking pattern – while Rosa talks to the only male tenant, Ramon takes care of the two ladies. This, however, only emphasises the contrast between the ingrown „traditional” façade of the couple and the dark secrets they are about to reveal.

The three tenants – a 40 something lady giving private French lessons, a 31-year-old failed football player working as a security guard at a shopping mall and a pregnant Argentinian migrant worker – can all be described as examples of urban solitude. They all have one thing in common – they have no where else to go, nor do they really care about moving on. The French teacher doesn’t get along with her son and can only moan about God and French vanishing from the local people’s lives at the same time. The guard is separated from his wife and his only ambition seems to be beating up his wife’s new lover with his service gun. The Argentinian girl has no family or friends in this city and generally has difficulties communicating with people in Barcelona which isn’t only down to her inability to speak Catalonian. At one point she exclaims that „here, for someone to look into your eyes you have to fall down”. And in a figurative sense, in these conversations they all have to fall down before they can truly look into each other’s eyes.

During the course of the night we learn that Ramon has one particular secret (one of many). When he worked as an usher at the city’s Opera House, he often sneaked into the artists’ wardrobes and dressed up in the different outfits found there, preferably women’s clothes. A secret favourite pastime which has survived to this day and which has once been accidentally witnessed by the Argentinian girl. In his conversation with the French teacher, Ramon actually confesses to that himself. When asked by her if he would have liked to have been found out, his answer is no. His answer is the same when the French teacher gives him a departing gift, a black and white photograph of a naked man dancing over the body of his murdered mother, and asks him if he’s never felt the need to get undressed just to be really looked at? In many ways crossdressing and undressing have the same quality – they can reveal your true self. But while crossdressing will ruin your official façade, full nudity will be seen as the ultimate intimacy, baring yourself completely in the eyes of the beholder. There is no place for either in a shadow existence.

The fourth conversation takes place between Rosa and her homosexual brother who had just picked up a hustler in a sauna but left him at home since the guy managed to fall asleep before any action took place. He wants her to run away with him while she wants him to attend to her ill husband. But the brother and sister turn out to be something quite different when we learn another secret during the fifth and final conversation which takes place between the two old spouses themselves. During this conversation Ramon also gives Rosa an old map of Barcelona where he, having once worked as a courier on foot, marked all the shadowed streets to avoid too much direct sunlight - a map of shadows.

True to its title, „Barcelona (A Map)” maps the shadowed lives of people trapped behind the façades of „traditional values”, secretly wishing to set the whole city ablaze, especially Sagrada Família, the famous cathedral designed by Gaudí which still stands unfinished, a symbol of uncompleted lives of our protagonists. To burn something down may also be necessary to be able to build something new. It is a slowly-paced film whose characters are full of surprises with a distinct similarity, however seemingly unlikely, to Pedro Almodovar’s universe. By dissecting its characters, the film also reveals Franco’s legacy in the fabric of the Spanish society. Fascism begins in the family, as everything else. At one point, Rosa who recently watched the traditional Spanish bullfight, notes with a certain surprise that the mostly foreign spectators were cheering the bulls instead of the bullfighters. This was a note of optimism, of changed times. Siding with the underdogs and opposing the brutality of force is the opposite of fascism. The map of shadows needs not exist anymore.

Here you can watch the film's trailer

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Avant que j'oublie (Before I Forget, France, 2007)

Director: Jacques Nolot.

Principal cast: Jacques Nolot, Marc Rioufol, Bruno Moneglia, Bastien d'Asnières.

Ageing isn’t a kind process to most people but it can be a lot worse if your dashing looks and athletic body used to be your main source of income. „Before I Forget”, the final installment of Jacques Nolot’s trilogy about gay life in Paris follows the daily routines of a 58-year-old former hustler (or gigolo as he prefers to be called himself) Pierre whose seemingly well-off life cannot conceal the fact that his decaying body is only the visible tip of the chilly iceberg which his life has become. The film’s director, Jacques Nolot stars himself as Pierre in this rather melancholic, still surprisingly unsentimental account of a person’s dusk on the fringes of the society.

The film opens with a black circle emerging as a dot on a white screen. Slowly but steadily the circle grows bigger until it swallows the entire screen, thus making the viewer take a plunge into the kind of oblivion which Pierre is facing. Living off the money provided by former wealthy lovers, Pierre spends his days meeting old gigolo friends, going to a psycho- therapist, trying to write, engaging young hustlers or just watching life pass by at his local bistro over a beer and a sandwich.

Conversations with his friends and acquaintances are devoid of any passion or real interest in what the other has to say. All topics seem to circle around the prices of rentboys and how poorly they are doing moneywise themselves while trying to convince the counterpart that he should feel lucky and privileged. There is no room for genuine compassion or empathy in these conversations, so the only people who can stand Pierre’s moaning are the ones he pays, namely his psychotherapist and the hustlers who treat it as a professional duty to listen to him. Pierre sometimes talks of suicide and how even seemingly well-adjusted people do it but his composed façade won’t let his surroundings take him seriously and only ascribe such talk to his attention seeking. The thought of his death approaching has never really been absent in Pierre’s mind. Already at the age of 25 he decided not to make any investments since he didn’t expect to live much longer. And for the past 24 years Pierre has had his HIV-positive status hanging over him as the Sword of Damocles, always expecting the worst but never actually succumbing to the virus.

He did, however, make some investments. At the age of 25 when he had already put a cross on himself, he met Tountoune, a former society gigolo who became his lover and benefactor. Although they never lived under the same roof, they were together for almost 35 years. Tountoune had also willed his entire fortune to Pierre but his will was never registered with a lawyer because of some quarrels the two had in their last years, so when Tountoune suddenly died on the day they were supposed to meet for lunch, Pierre was only left with two life insurances in his name as his benefactor’s family naturally removed the handwritten will from the desk drawer where it was kept for many years. Pierre feels cheated out of his old lover’s inheritance, the only pension a former hustler can hope for, but the whole ordeal only seems to motivate him to put a bigger effort behind writing.

Despite his writing ambitions, Pierre has never been much of a reader himself. Although the bookshelves in his flat (which he actually owns) don’t display much empty space, he claims that he falls asleep after the first page he’s trying to read. He laments his lack of culture when he visits his shrink, still he is driven to put his own thoughts on paper for others to read. His apparent inability to concentrate in order to read seems to be the same force that makes him write – his fear of the oblivion, the black circle which threatens to devour him before it’s too late to leave a footprint in the world of the living. Before he forgets. And despite his talk of suicide and Pasolini’s beautiful death, he doesn’t really want to go as yet. Although he claims that nothing interests him anymore, he spitefully resists a new HIV treatment since it may have side effects – loss of hair and looks. He still dresses elegantly and rarely lets his guard down in front of others. His obvious vanity at 58 suggests that he is still the same defiant and proud person behind his fatalistic façade. The final scene of the film, powerfully supported by Mahler’s music, masterfully shows this defiance of the oblivion he’s inevitably facing with all the dignity you can expect from an old unbroken queen.

„Before I Forget” is a stylistically flawless film which leaves the discerning viewer with a sense of empowerment. Unmistakeably French in its existentialist outlook and poetic camera work, this film is a sombre study of what may be in store for a person outside of the mainstream society toward the end of his days.

Here you can watch the film's trailer

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Shelter (USA, 2007)

Director: Jonah Markowitz.

Principal cast: Trevor Wright, Brad Rowe, Tina Holmes, Katie Walder.

American cinematography has a relatively long tradition of easy-to-digest- and-drop-a-tear-or-two coming of age and coming out films. In a way, it has set a standard for such films for the mainstream queer audiences for as long as such films have been available for the very same target group. Here! TV’s first own feature “Shelter” is in many ways nothing but a continuation of this tradition, only with gay parenting issues thrown in as an extra subplot to try and catch the tides of the time. But while professional critics are busy calling this film flat and uninnovative, the average gay viewer out there is in a hurry to order this film on DVD after having given it numerous Audience Awards at this year’s queer film festivals. And that is utterly unsurprising – a romantic drama with a seemingly happy ending where the two main characters, played by hunky straight actors, use every excuse to show a bit of skin (either surfing or during some more intimate exercises), cannot be any further away from the gloom and doom of “Brokeback Mountain” and Prop 8. And that certainly sells.

The film’s plot evolves around Zach, a serious looking fellow in his early twenties and his rather dysfunctional family – his sister Jeanne, a single mother whose 5-year-old son Cody has found a fatherly figure in Zach as well as their ill and rather absent-minded father who seems to be more of a burden than a support. Feeling responsible for his family’s well-being, Zach has put his own future plans and needs on hold playing a surrogate father to Cody while his sister is busy finding a new man in her life. He spends his free time painting artsy graffitti on the walls of his neighbourhood, dreaming of an artist’s career and, since the film is set in the LA suburb of San Pedro, taming waves with his surfboard. Occasionally, he hangs out with his childhood friend Gaby and even dates Tori, a local girl. His relationship with her can at best be described as half-hearted – it is clear that she expects a lot more from him than he is willing or capable of giving. The pace of life is slow and physically undemanding but still there isn’t much that seems to put a smile on Zach’s face.

One day at the beach, he runs into Gabe’s brother, Shaun whom he hasn’t seen for some time. Shaun, an aspiring writer, has come down to San Pedro from his home somewhere in urban LA after an ended relationship to spend some time at his family’s house by the beach which is obviously only used every now and then as a getaway by different members of his family. The two hook up reminiscing about old times, surfing and burning midnight oil on Shaun’s terrace. Life seems easy and unrestrained. Only Zach’s sister seems to be worried – “doesn’t Zach know that Shaun’s gay?” In fact, he does – he even read Shaun’s first novel when it came out and, apparently, this novel was rather clear on the subject matter. Shaun is surprised but delighted. However, it isn’t long before first clouds appear on their sky – one night after a few beers on his terrace, Shaun kisses Zach. On the following day, Zach is all sullen and cold towards Shaun who, however, doesn’t seem to take his sudden change of mood too seriously. But it’s a different story for Zach – his unexpected feelings for Shaun are a torture – he’s torn between his loveless but comfortable life on one hand and this whole new world of homosexual desire on the other. Torn or not, he still chooses to embrace the latter and they are soon involved in a passionate relationship. A relationship which despite all the happiness that it brings to both protagonists, is kept a secret to the outside world.

Having an affair with Shaun doesn’t prevent Zach from continuing with his role as the de facto head of the family. Jeanne never fails to seize an opportunity to force Zach to babysit Cody while she’s working on her love interest Alan whose current interests in life as well as future plans haven’t got much room for the little boy. Instead, Cody gets to spend a lot of time in Shaun’s house and becomes very infatuated with his new adult friend. It is also Cody who unintentionally brings the secret affair to light. This sudden disclosure not only becomes a true test for Zach and Shaun’s relationship but also forces Zach to take a fight with his inner demons and choose his own path in life.

The inner struggle that Zach experiences seems to have three dimensions. Coming to terms with one’s own sexuality and coming out to the outside world are two that are known all to well to most non-heterosexual people. The third one is about finding a balance between one’s own needs and those of the others. Sacrificing oneself for the sake of one’s family or, for that matter, even one’s country usually only creates self-appointed martyrs who often end up bitter and lonesome, having driven away other people by their self-righteousness and beforehand doomed expectations from these very same people that they are allegedly sacrificing themselves for. Others just let objects of their selfless care tread all over them and take them for granted. And that which is taken for granted seldom yields any respect or is even generally noticed or appreciated. Needless to say, finding this balance is a lot more difficult process in real life than it may sound. For those who don’t automatically fit into the categories of either “Mother Theresa” at one end of the spectrum or “The Absolute Selfish Bastard” at the other, this process is a never-ending story. However, all these three dimensions can also be directly intertwined. Often people who cannot find acceptance in society or themselves due to their sexuality seek to apply their energy and emotions to tasks which make them forget, if only for a time, their own needs and personal life. By filling his days and his head with his family’s needs, Zach mentally postponed having to deal with questions like: why wasn’t he really interested in physical contact with the girl he was dating or any other girls for that matter? Why did he read Shaun’s gay novel in the first place? There is a significant number of people out there who spend their lives taking care of other people’s problems and needs simply because they don’t have a personal life themselves, or are too afraid to even think of having one. Finding self-respect and creating respect for oneself in others are two very essential steps one must take to be able to live a fullfilling life. And somebody who lives a fullfilling life also has a much stronger capacity to reach out to others in need of help. Toward the end of the film we see Zach finally attempting to take these steps.

Still, the whole gay parenting aspect in the film’s plot is more of a way of letting Zach have his cake and eat it than a real take on the issue. In the end, Zach isn’t forced to choose between his love life and taking care of Cody after his mother deserts him to move to Oregon with her boyfriend. Being a responsible young man in need of both a physical and emotional shelter, he and Cody simply move in with Shaun who seems to be more than happy with the arrangement. And surprise, surprise – Shaun’s home in LA is basicly next door to the art school where Zach has just been enrolled. Hmmm, a little too convenient?

This is clearly the film’s biggest and most obvious flaw. To the eye not completely blurred by the tears of happiness felt towards the budding family, Zach actually appears to be more of a gold-digging opportunist than someone passionately in love with Shaun. Also Shaun’s amazing availability and accommodation of Zach’s every tantrum just leaves me wondering if that Shaun character is for real and hasn’t been planted on Earth by a hostile alien race whose objective is to lull us into false security and then eat us? Or will he now turn out to be the real Mother Theresa of the two?

Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing seems certain – these apparent flaws in the film’s script will not deter most viewers from loving this film. And if you wish to have a relaxed and romantic evening at home with your boyfriend (or just wishing you had one) at Christmas and still feel that you’re watching something deep and meaningful without drowning yourself in existential anxieties afterwards, this might just be the film.

Here you can watch the film's trailer