Masterpieces Amongst The Maudlin

19 March 2012 | 1:13 pm | Anthony Carew

Anthony Carew previews the 22nd Melbourne Queer Film Festival.

The Melbourne Queer Film Festival often seems to lack for good old-fashioned queer cinema; its program sadly loaded with middlebrow rom-coms and earnest, maudlin, injustice-chronicling documentaries. Thus, this year's inclusion of Christophe Honoré's Man At Bath is cause for rejoicing; the 22nd MQFF boasting a bona fide work of transgression and provocation from one of French cinema's most interesting new-millennial auteurs. The film begins with an act of ferocious male desire, with a slab of hyper-masculinity – chiselled French porn-star François Sagat – lovingly raping his effeminate other half – weedy, moustachioed hipster Omar Ben Sellem – as he's attempting to walk out the door. From there, the narrative is split: Sagat blowing from blow-job to blow-job in suburban apartment towers (including a conversation with the blithely manipulative, meta-conceptual Dennis Cooper); Sellem scrapbooking a video journal in New York on a promo tour with Chiara Mastroianni. The film's but 72 minutes, and its narratives are haphazard and, in some ways, slight; this clearly a minor, queerer work lodged in between Honoré's big-ticket pictures (Making Plans For Lena, seen at MIFF in 2010, and the musical Beloved, showing concurrently at this year's French FF). But the film functions both as fascinating formalist exercise – a study of the supposed veracity of digital video's vérité and the theatricality of the modern, self-conscious existence – and unabashed chronicle of male desire, in shades ranging from tender to traumatic.
Longtime Honoré collaborateur Gaël Morel has, as filmmaker, long studied brutish masculinity, homoeroticism, and the intersection therein. Our Paradise features piles of taut male bodies fucking madly and a suitably brutal tone, but it's really rather silly; a pic in which an aging rentboy rescues an urchin, they cater as pair to all kinds of creepy fetishists, and, then, get down to some...murder!
Insects In The Backyard backed into cultural currency when it was banned twice-over in its Thai homeland for its provocative shot of the flaccid cock of its transgendered lead. Yet, Tanwarin Sukkhapisit's film is hardly worthy of cause célèbre status. A minor melodrama dotted by horrendous – if perhaps self-reflexively stilted – acting, the film explores the fluidity of gender/orientation. There's a dry, dull morality to its parade of sexual transgressions and social 'issues', as if the filmmaker is wagging her finger at uptight Thai society.
Circumstance, too, is out to provoke a patriarchal, conservative society with a loving look at those who've fallen through its cracks; in this case, teenagers out to taste their sexual/cultural freedom in Tehran's covert nightlife. Reducing it to such denies the elegance of Maryam Keshavarz's familial drama, which creates a claustrophobic air in which tiny incidences carry immense weight. It's undoubtedly a study of (sexually-tense) life under the yoke of conservative Islam – “one day we'll all be able to go in together,” says a father, wistfully, sadly, as he heads into the ocean whilst wife and daughter remain bound to the beach; later, daughter and 'best friend' strip to their underwear and take a covert, rebellious plunge – but, save for the 'erotically-charged' soundtrack to first teen explorations, it rarely feels like cheesy taboo-breaker. It's more caustic stew festering in the heat of daily oppression, where closed-circuit camera footage rolls as potent symbol of God, God-as-moral-tool, and morality policing as social blackmail.