Culture  Cruising the contemporary

Queer romance and sex on film at the Festival du nouveau cinéma

Following the example of this year’s Cannes, Venice, and Sundance film festivals, Montreal’s own Festival du nouveau cinéma screened a film from James Franco’s sudden, recent slew of directorial projects. Recently, the actor and all-around artiste has shown a propensity to adapt or rework dearly canonized works of American literature and film, including William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Cormac McCarthy’s Hand of God, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and, as if it hadn’t already been given enough attention, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Some critics have found his audacity unnerving and whimsical, and early reviews of Franco’s As I Lay Dying suggest that he might not be paying as much time and due as these pieces warrant. On the other hand, Interior. Leather Bar., which continues Franco’s filmmaking process on a more sizeable scale, succeeds in using its contemporary context to create something intelligently and appropriately revisionary.

The impetus for Interior. Leather Bar. is a lesser-known movie from 1980 starring Al Pacino called Cruising, about a detective who covertly enters the throbbing underworld of gay S&M culture in New York in order to track down a serial killer. The film represents a decisive moment in the history of queer subject matter in cinema, as it portrays a particularly ignorant and homophobic vision of the urban male homosexual community. Intended for a wide release, Cruising was censored and the director, William Friedkin, was forced to remove 40 minutes of homoerotic footage deemed too explicit, resulting in a highly schizophrenic narrative. The aim of Interior. Leather Bar. is to imagine and recreate these lost scenes.

The project ends up being less a finished reconstruction of this footage than an investigative ‘making of’ the production itself. Coincidentally, Interior. Leather Bar. co-director Travis Mathews takes a more ostensibly traditional role, easing the equally gay and straight cast into their roles, while Franco provides inspirational support for his long time friend Val, who plays the Pacino stand-in. Val’s persistent inability to grasp Franco’s motivations for doing a gay-themed project and his negotiations with the sexual situations taking place on set provide the film’s main narrative arc. As the viewer watches Val closely in his interactions with extras and listens to the phone conversations between him and his wife, they see a narrative in which discomfort and homophobia are not displaced onto a fictionalized screen but grappled with in their raw, everyday manifestations. While Val theorizes that the project is about having the artistic freedom to push boundaries and explore taboo subjects on-screen, Franco speaks of wanting to reorient his perspective entirely – engaging specifically with the taboo of gay sex in order to dismantle its cultural and psychological weight. (A particular high point of the film is listening to Franco rant passionately about being “sick of heteronormativity.”)

At the heart of Interior. Leather Bar. is a frankness in depicting gay sex and relationships, and a challenge to the liberal facade and secret aversion of contemporary straight audiences. Mathews’ sensibility as a director gives his characters a refreshing shape and depth, even if they are only playing themselves, portraying a diversity of queer subjectivities inadequately met in modern cinema. Moreover, Mathews’ films often involve explicit sex scenes, tastefully shot, encompassing the spectrum of gay sexual behaviour, and often resulting from a genuine, unique attraction between characters. For instance, Interior. Leather Bar. contains a scene in which a real-life couple engages in intimate love-making, and in an interview afterward, they provide a compelling real-world view of gay romance. Their sex scene is made cinematic through editing, sound, and lighting, but is quickly disrupted as the camera pulls out to face the production team and the reality of the studio, framing the ongoing reactions of the people as they continue to look on. The scene asks the viewer to consider representational differences between gay sex, on- and off-screen.

Interior. Leather Bar.’s tactic of forefronting the realities of gay sex are echoed in another, equally intriguing, Festival du nouveau  cinéma selection, L’Inconnu du Lac (Stranger by the Lake), which actually succeeds in staging a fictional cruising ground. Directed by French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie, the film takes place exclusively on the beach and in the surrounding woods of a lake in southern France, a popular gay hookup spot. The natural setting and slow ambience are the antithesis of Cruising’s cavernous underbelly, allowing for a more illuminated, yet nonetheless marginalized, microcosm of gay sexuality. The story follows a downtrodden middle-aged man named Franck as he navigates the erotically charged landscape in order to fulfill a deep-seated desire for companionship. After witnessing his new lover Michel murder another man, Franck must simultaneously deal with his emotional and physical attachments and the inscrutable danger Michel presents.

L’Inconnu du Lac pictures the perpetuation of exclusively gay space on the fringes of society. The beach is dotted with mostly older men, naked and sunbathing, or wading into the shallow water, and occasionally going into the woods in search of a hookup. The languid atmosphere this creates contests the conventionally provocative construction of gay sex, rending the tropes of films like Friedkin’s Cruising threadbare and obsolete. And yet the film does not shy away from a full visualization of gay sex either. Multiple sex scenes chart the relationship between Franck and Michel, and participate in the same persistent viewing as Interior. Leather Bar.. The most significant part of the movie is, however, the powerful argument it makes concerning the role of sex in the mediation of more intimate emotional connections. Franck’s lovelorn pursuit is mobilized by the behavioural intricacies of the cruising area – for him, these kinds of spaces provide a last resort in a dominant culture that is structured around heterosexual relations. In a way continuing the claims made in Interior. Leather Bar., it asserts that the stigmatization of gay intimacy relegates opportunities for homosexual romance to the very edges of society.