Frameline45 : homos, where the heart is

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday June 15, 2021
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Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii in 'Firebird'
Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii in 'Firebird'

Whether consciously or not, the theme of Frameline45, in its programming of narrative films, is traditional values, mainly home and family. Many of the characters in this year's movies are struggling to find meaning either through returning to their homes and biological families, attempting to make sense of their lives now, or revitalizing themselves by discovering something they've been missing but didn't recognize its absence until now.

In the past year of lockdown when we were all chained to our homes, Frameline45 seems to mirror the reassessment of our lives. Our sense of priority, whether it be work, friends, extracurricular activities, and especially spending more time with those we love, has been altered.

Frameline Executive Director James Woolley's welcome message in this year's program guide notes how the pandemic underscores "the fragility and the value of our connections with one another," so it may not be surprising that many of this year's features reveal that connections with home and family —even if not beneficial— still exert a huge influence on our queer identities and the people we become as we mature.

Alexandros Koutsoulis and Matthew James Morrison and 'Boy Meets Boy'  

Boy Meets Boy seems to be a copycat of Weekend, which —at least for LGBTQ audiences— has set the mold for two strangers rendezvousing for a one-night stand but wind up talking, dreaming, confessing, and perhaps changing each other.

White German dancer Johannes meets visiting Black British doctor/tourist Harry in a Berlin nightclub; they're instantly attracted to each other. The next day Johannes will give Harry a tour of the city before his flight later that evening. The clock is ticking as the two men, a younger generation than the two guys in Weekend, discuss major life questions such as monogamy, love, religion, and the meaning of life.

Johannes has an open relationship with his boyfriend, while Harry prefers noncommittal hookups, never sleeping with the same guy twice. Even though society is much more accepting of Johannes/Harry than the Weekend couple, the same issues of internalized homophobia and gay stereotypes still emerge. The vibrant chemistry between the two actors and the exciting cosmopolitan Berlin make this film a standout. It's not as great as Weekend, but a worthy successor.

Jump Darling is one of the must-sees of the festival. Russell (Thomas Duplessie) bombs out in his drag debut at a Toronto nightclub, leaves his controlling sugar daddy boyfriend, and retreats to his grandmother's house in the boonies. His spitfire grandmother, played by the late inimitable Cloris Leachman in her final role before her death at 94 in January, is drifting in and out of dementia, having to deal with her mortality as Russell's mother wants to send her to a nursing home.

Thomas Duplessie and Cloris Leachman in 'Jump Darling'  

Russell can't decide whether to pursue acting or drag (portrayed here as more gritty than glamorous), which seems to give him a fearlessness he lacks in ordinary life. The interplay between one life in the process of ending and the other one trying to kick- start is stunningly essayed. Duplessie and Leachman play off each other brilliantly as the film suggests life is beautiful especially because of the choices we make, even if they defy societal expectations.

From previous films we have learned that sex workers should never fall in love with their clients. In the German Bliss, we're faced what happens when two female sex workers begin a sensual affair, with the older cynical Sascha (Katharina Behrens) and younger neophyte Italian Maria (Adam Hoya) working in a sorority-like brothel headed by a caring mother figure.

One is struck how unsexy and business-like the environment is. If you ever had any romantic notions about prostitutes, you will quickly be disabused of any such impressions. There is a great deal of nudity here and not all of it pleasant.

Katharina Behrens and Adam Hoya in 'Bliss'  

What director Henrika Kull accomplishes so skillfully is paralleling the real lovemaking between Sascha and Maria with the tedious mechanical friction demanded by their occupation. Sascha is damaged with a complicated past and whether she will allow herself to be loved, becomes the focus of this naturalistic and hopeful movie, that is a real find, even in its disturbing moments.

Metamorphosis is an important film because it deals with a topic, an intersex coming-of-age, almost never addressed on screen. Fourteen-year-old Adam is an outcast at a Filipino school, called a faggot by schoolmates, resulting in fights, until a new student, Angel, a 24-year-old sex worker, returning to high school, befriends him. Then one day Adam starts menstruating.

His family, including his Christian pastor father, knew he was intersex at birth. The sympathetic physician does tests and finds he is a true hermaphrodite with a womb and testes, though chromosomally he is a male. Adam's father wants him to have an operation to become female, even willing to move to another town to avoid scandal.

Gold Azeron (left) in 'Metamorphosis'  

However, Adam seems to want to remain a boy, even though he's attracted to both Angel and his handsome doctor. Adam only wants one thing, to be happy. He must learn to accept himself, and reject any false binary gender identity.

Gold Azeron is astonishingly good as Adam, able to convey both vulnerability and fearlessness. The final scenes are heart-rending. At times Metamorphosis can be a bit preachy, but you won't mind since so few of us know much about intersex people. By the end, the film courageously integrates a faithful understanding embrace of intersex that applies to all queer people. Metamorphosis is an unexpected treasure.

The French queer auteur Francois Ozon returns to fine form in Summer of 85, which at first appears to be a summer fling romance, but in true Ozon style morphs into a mystery with treacherous undertones. Alex (Felix Lefebvre) is rescued by the seductive David (Benjamin Voisin) after his boat capsizes off the Normandy coast. They start an all-encompassing romance at least for Alex.

Benjamin Voisin and Felix Lefebvre in 'Summer of 85'  

David isn't what he appears to be, even though his mother (the terrific Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is supportive of the relationship, as Alex takes a job in their family store. But jealousy will lead to far-reaching consequences. In typical Ozon fashion, the ending is murky, open to various interpretations. A killer 1980s soundtrack and picturesque scenery play starring roles here. It's not one of Ozon's very best, but well worth your time with two very attractive leads and a Talented Mr. Ripley ambiance that will keep you glued to your screen to the very last frame.

Language Lessons is a mixed bag, as it's another example of a straight actor writing himself a plum gay role and deciding to act in it, similar to Viggo Mortensen's recent Falling. Mark Duplass portrays middle-aged Adam, whose rich husband gives him a gift of online Spanish language lessons taught by Costa Rican tutor Carino (Natalie Morales). Not for one minute will you buy Duplass as gay; aside from having a husband, you'd never suspect he was gay.

An unexpected tragedy brings the two closer as they reveal more about their personal lives, going beyond Spanish tutorials, though Carino isn't forthcoming about the bruises on her face.

Language is ideal for lockdown filming, because it's just two characters with their virtual screens. Having a gay actor play Adam might have lent a queer perspective clearly missing in the script. The final plot ending seems contrived, though Adam admitting his white privilege in their inter-cultural exchange, is invigorating in these post-George Floyd days. Mediocre at best but as we emerge from the COVID pandemic, Language Lessons argues for honest connections, and reflects the zeitgeist of the moment.

Firebird is the best gay male love story since God's Own Country (2017). Based on a true story, Sergey (Tom Prior) is serving as a junior Soviet Air Force base in Estonia in 1977 along with his best friend Luisa (Diana Prozharskaya) who hopes to marry him, though Sergey, ready to leave the military, wants to pursue a career as an actor. Both their lives are upended with the arrival of the dashing starfighter pilot Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii).

Sergey and Roman begin a forbidden but passionate affair, especially precarious during this Cold War period, as they must hide their affections from everyone or face dire consequences.

Years later, the now married Roman and drama school student Sergey meet again and restart their secret relationship. Yes, a bit melodramatic and marred only by all the characters speaking English rather than Russian, but the sparks fly between the two hot leads, even though this is primarily Sergey's story of his struggle to lead an authentic life.

After a monastic-like lockdown, aren't we all in need of a dreamy romance? Firebird is it. Sumptious production values even manage to make drab Moscow look inviting. This is my favorite narrative film at the festival. Run and see this winner live at the Castro Theatre as well as watch Prior and director Peeter Rebane being interviewed in-person post-screening.

Look for part two of Frameline45's narrative films, and documentary coverage, in next week's Pride issue.

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