When scrolling through Netflix’s recent catalogue, it’s gratifying to see a lot of content focusing on under-represented minorities, especially in genres that are commonly concentrated on white, straight stories of privilege. While some, such as Pose and Everything Sucks!, manage to establish effective narratives of inclusion, others, such as Insatiable, fail miserably and feed into dangerous prejudice. It’s a relief that Special – the world’s first dramedy series about a young gay man with cerebral palsy – is not only respectful towards its subject, but also conscious of other struggles surrounding him.
“No family. No friends.”
These are the words which first expose the true vulnerability of 74-year-old drag queen Jackie Collins (also known as Jack) in the independent British drama, Tucked. He is talking to his doctor, who has just informed him that he has weeks left to live. Hated by his daughter and plagued with regret for his past decisions, Jack has nothing but the dingy bar where he performs, and the love of a roaring audience—that is, until new queen Faith sweeps into his life complete with eight-inch killer heels. Young, stylish and non-binary, Faith represents a newer age of drag, but it is their shared exclusion from the world which bonds the two queens, and leads to a unique friendship that neither could have anticipated.
Tension has become a trademark in Marco Berger’s work. You’re aware going into one of his films that the will-they won’t-they suspense will drive the narrative. The spaces in his films brim with silence, allowing the restless expressions in his characters’ faces do the talking. The point is not to make it seem like words are irrelevant—on the contrary, it is when his characters come clean that you realize the power of just talking. It is fitting then that The Blonde One, Berger’s latest film, was conceived with a mute lead in mind. While at the end they were forced to scratch that idea, Gabriel, the titular blonde (Taekwondo’s Gaston Re), clings to quietness throughout the story, even being referred to as “the mute” by his friends.
We meet Gabriel as he’s moving in to his co-worker Juan’s (Alfonso Barón) flat so he can be close to his place of work. Juan looks infatuated with the man from the moment he arrives, glancing at him for a bit too long and standing a bit too close to him at every chance he gets. While Gabriel is apprehensive at first, as he has a girlfriend and a daughter living with his parents, he’s ultimately responsive to Juan’s insinuations. The sexual tension builds until the end of the first act when a proposal to go out and buy beer quickly escalates—Juan finally acts on his desires and Gabriel reciprocates leniently. The implication here might be that we’re observing the dawn of a new love, but as Juan kicks Gabriel out of his room after having sex, we learn that’s not the case.
“My body is like a battlefield where the opponents fight one another,” proclaims acclaimed dancer and choreographer Rianto midway through Garin Nugroho’s newest film. He’s not only the narrator, but the story is also based in his own life. Indeed, the constant struggle that Juno, Rianto’s fictional representation, experiences with gender is the driving force for the aptly titled Memories of My Body.
The film is told in sections, marked by Juno’s age. In its early sections, it becomes evident that Juno is at odds with the world around him. Nugroho cleverly juxtaposes shots of kids playing and having fun with one another as Juno tends to be shown by himself, purposely avoiding people when possible. The children bully him and his teacher doesn’t hesitate to abuse him at the slightest mistake, even going as far as forcing him to write on the blackboard with chalk in his mouth. Juno is only happy when he is alone and spying on dancers as they put on makeup and practice their routines. As he watches them dance throughout the early stages of his life, his features fill with longing for what he can’t be.
In most cases, a man in a leather mask masturbating while watching a young man dance would be a red flag. But at the sex club in the opening of Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart, this is expected and even encouraged. The masked man and the young dancer go home together, presumably for a night of fun. However, it all goes downhill when this man reveals he has a dildo knife and kills his partner. This is Gonzalez’s ridiculously delicious opening of his queer slasher for the ages about a killer tracking down porn stars in Paris during the summer of 1979.
Anne Parèze (played by the ethereal Vanessa Paradis) is a porn producer who exclusively makes gay male porn at a discount. Her performers are constantly demanding payment, even discussing their paychecks mid-blow job. Meanwhile, Anne won’t stop drinking her pain away after a breakup with her girlfriend of 10 years, who is also her editor. Amidst this turmoil, someone begins picking off her porn stars one by one, casting a shadow of fear over the studio. But while performing her grief, Anne decides to use these crimes as inspiration for her next porno, Homo-cidal. The narrative intertwines her desire to make the next great porn film, her investigation into the killer, and her declining mental state in the face of a broken relationship.
“I loved that”, said my friend after our screening of Love, Simon finished. The lights were coming up, ‘Aflie’s Song (Not So Typical Love Song)’ was playing over scrapbook style credits. She had been babbling since they started rolling. Her face was a portrait of the film we just watched, eyes red and puffy, mouth in a wide grin. “I loved that so much, I can’t wait to see it again”. I agreed. Love, Simon was easy to love. I wanted to see it again. And see it again I did, three more times in fact, and each with the same amount of joy.
Love, Simon is by all measures a crushingly average film. It is about as cliched as a high-school, coming-of-age, romance film can be. That’s what, in my mind at least, makes it so good. Prior to Love, Simon I had felt that while queer experiences had been depicted well in film, it was normally reserved for awards season or indie films. When queerness was in the mainstream it was usually packaged for heterosexual audiences rather than being for the queer community – 2013’s GBF sticks out as prime example of this.
While this had been improving, 2016 and 2017 certainly saw queer films pushed further into the mainstream with Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name respectively, much of the press surrounding the latter sought to detract from the queerness. With two white male leads in an otherwise common love story its only unique factor to me seemed to be the queerness – yet efforts were made to detract from this queerness, with the film frequently being touted as a ‘universal’ love story.
For Love, Simon to be as average as it was while simply letting its protagonist be queer was nice. “Everyone deserves a great love story” ran the tagline. I wouldn’t call Love, Simon exceptionally great but the queer community was finally getting a middling high-school romance and that did feel great. It felt great because it felt normal – we were finally being treated as normal. Love, Simon seemed special considering that 2018 was year where many films with queer narratives fell into the same clichés of queer cinema past. From these films, Boy Erased sticks out to me as the most egregious example.
Where Love, Simon was focused on the future, Boy Erased was trapped in the past. The story of Jared (Lucas Hedges) is one that we have seen before multiple times, from the 1999 cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader to this year’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post (which tells the conversion therapy narrative with far more delicacy and emotion than Boy Erased).
Many critics of Desiree Akhavan’s The Bisexual have condemned it for not being explicitly subversive enough, somehow implying that because of Akhavan’s bisexuality, she necessarily has to write a neat arc which leads up to a climatic acceptance of main character Leila’s sexuality. I believe that form of criticism in itself is worth interrogating: Why do we expect LGBTQ-centered media (particularly, those by LGBTQ artists) to live up to a totalising and universalising narrative, when all of us have differing experiences on sexuality because of our varied socio-political circumstances? And why do we place the burden on LGBTQ people to figure out all there is to do with sex, gender and sexuality when the world is persistently denying and censoring our access to all these things? Continue reading “Art, Autobiography, and Sexuality in Desiree Akhavan’s ‘The Bisexual’”