BPM / God’s Own Country

BPM and God's Own CountryOpening this Friday in San Diego, God’s Own Country has been described as the British Brokeback Mountain, which is both accurate and hyperbolic. Both are about star-crossed lovers who meet while tending to livestock in a sparse landscape, but this time it’s Yorkshire, not Wyoming. Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is the only son of a debilitated farmer (Ian Hart), and his bitterness about being trapped on the farm has led him to alcoholic shenanigans including but not limited to hooking up with strange men in barns. When they hire a migrant farmhand from Romania named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), Johnny is at first angry at the more competent and controlled interloper. And then they figure out what each other want, and it’s each other, and it’s not easy.

Unlike Brokeback Mountain, which had a deceptively complicated narrative and gut-wrenching emotional realism, God’s Own Country follows a standard romance plot and has more familiar conflicts – albeit with gorgeous and naturalistic imagery and an ending that will satisfy many viewers. While I don’t think the artistry of Brokeback and Ang Lee is surpassed by God’s Own Country, the new film is exquisitely made. Writer and director Francis Lee’s taciturn characters and stark scenes hide powerful symbolism and complicated people, and his actors are roundly stunning. O’Connor’s Johnny is a jerk, but his growth makes him sympathetic, and the performance is gritty, angry and beautiful. Secareanu’s Gheorghe doesn’t have the same kind of arc, but he does for the audience what he does for Johnny: we fall in love with him and his deep, beautiful eyes. The great Gemma Jones plays Johnny’s dutiful, loyal, deeply worried grandmother, and it’s a wise, agonizing performance.

A week later, one of the other great queer-themed films of 2017 opens. BPM (Beats Per Minute) was recently named as France’s official submission for the foreign language Oscar; in June, it won four awards at Cannes. And it’s arguably the greatest film about AIDS made in any language. It follows several members of ACT-UP Paris during the early 1990s, concentrating on the group’s various political conflicts and a relationship between young, furious HIV positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and the handsome activist newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois). The film’s focus in the beginning is on ACT-UP meetings, and writer-director Robin Campillo, an ACT-UP Paris veteran, makes them thrilling, frustrating, enraging and awe-inspiring. Over meetings and various actions, Sean and Nathan fall in love, and the film’s superb final act examines Sean’s worsening health and Nathan’s (and other ACT-UP members’) devotion to him.

Even though BPM is arriving 25 years after the height of ACT-UP’s work, its urgency is palpable; despite being firmly ensconced in a particular historical moment, the drama and the emotions do not feel anachronistic. Partly, this is because of how compelling Campillo has directed various key scenes, but it is also because several of the main plot points – pharmaceutical greed, fear of sexuality, bigotry – are still of great concern to all of us. And Campillo does not flinch from the sex, illness, sadness, lust and anger like so many AIDS films before that were made to play well in Peoria. BPM is instructive, enraging, devastating and beautiful. It’s one of the most important films of the year – queer and not – and shouldn’t be missed.

God’s Own Country
Written and directed by Francis Lee
Starring Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, and Gemma Jones
Opens Friday, Nov. 10 at Landmark Ken Cinema

BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Directed by Robin Campillo
Written by Robin Campillo and Philippe Mangeot
Starring Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, and Adèle Haenel
Opens Friday, Nov. 17 at Landmark Ken Cinema

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Sex on the rocky, French beach

Apparently, one of the reasons Stranger by the Lake has been of such interest to film writers and culture bloggers is the sex. Alain Guiraudie’s extremely French sex thriller is being listed along with Blue Is the Warmest Color and Interior. Leather Bar as part of an art film trend of explicit and not always necessary sex. The criticism of this trend is that the sex doesn’t add to the story or characterization or even the mood, and while I think that’s sometimes the case (as in I Want Your Love), it certainly was not in Blue nor with Stranger by the Lake. In fact, while the sex in Stranger is titillating and sexy, it is also occasionally creepy and it always is necessary for the propulsion of the plot and the creation of authenticity. The movie does, after all, take place at a gay cruising spot, a rocky beach on a lake in rural France. The men are mostly naked and most of them go into the woods to have sex with each other – or to watch other men have sex with each other. Not showing the sex these men share would be bluntly censorious and dishonest.

And the power of lust is at the heart of Stranger by the Lake. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a lithe and beautiful young man, comes to the beach every day to swim and cruise men and he is infatuated with a mustachioed man named Michel (Christophe Paou) who has a particularly skillful freestyle stroke and a clingy boyfriend. Franck also comes to talk to a heavy older man named Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), who, unlike Franck, doesn’t see himself as gay, but rather as a man who always has a women and sometimes has sex with men. Franck is confused because Henri has no interest in cruising or swimming, but Franck clearly finds value in Henri’s vague pronouncements about the ways to live correctly.

One evening, after spending the afternoon having sex with a man in the woods, Franck watches Michel and his boyfriend swimming in the lake. Then arguing. And then Michel drowning his boyfriend before calmly swimming to the shore, dressing, and driving away. Franck does nothing, and the next day, both Franck and Michel are back at the beach. Michel starts flirting with Franck, and despite some apprehension, he returns the affection and they begin to have regular trysts every afternoon. Still, Franck clearly worries that Michel will do to him what he did to his previous lover.

The strange and almost cynical morality of the characters and the ever increasing tension about Michel’s potential make what at first seems like a bland sex comedy into something much more complex, metaphorical, and even epic. One critic’s theory is based on the seeming 1980s clothes and cars; the callous way the men on the beach treat each other and their seeming death drive are Guiraudie’s commentary on the early years of AIDS. But it’s hard to know what Guiraudie is doing, whether it is an existentialist homage to Camus’s The Outside or just the story of how far lust and connection can warp a man’s moral compass. The lack of clarity in the Guiraudie’s message makes the film’s sex less hot and more disconcerting, but also, oddly, more powerful.

Guiraudie’s spare, slow-burn script and ambiguous themes are matched by his stunning and simple photography, which manage to make the simplest refractions off of the lake and the shadows thrown by tree branches into art. His cast of mostly unknowns are impeccably directed as well. Deladonchamps is both appalling and endearing, while Paou is actually sexy enough that I could imagine (if not agree with) Franck ignoring Michel’s murderousness. The discomforting nature of their relationship is much more fascinating and surprising than their sex, even though that is pretty fun to watch, too.

Stranger by the Lake
Written and Directed by Alain Guiraudie
Starring Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, and Patrick d’Assumçao
Not Rated
Opens March 14 at Landmark Hillcrest

Her hair is blue, get it?

blue-is-the-warmest-colorThere’s nothing remotely interesting about Blue is the Warmest Color except everything. The three-hour lesbian love story in French that won the Palm D’Or at Cannes this year features all of the oldest tropes of both love stories and queer love stories. We have the same boy meets girl, loses girl, tries to get girl back again plot except in Blue, it’s just with two girls. And like almost every queer love story, coming out is a central theme; girl realizes she’s a lesbian when she falls in love at first sight, she gets called slurs, and she hides her love and her lesbianism. If you’ve seen any queer themed love stories, you’ve seen Blue is the Warmest Color. But you haven’t. Because only once in a decade of blue moons is there a film that does all of these things so effectively, creating such a moving and beautiful experience. Continue…

Touchingly Intouchable

I saw this on a lark because I wasn’t able to make it to the screenings for anything that came out this week. Amazing.

The Intouchables is best movie I have seen this year. Granted, the high-brow movies that are expected to win awards don’t usually arrive in theaters until September, so the competition hasn’t been fierce. However, I’m pretty sure that come December, I will still love The Intouchables, and I will still be telling everyone that they have to see it. Continue…