The Handmaiden – Paris 05:59: Theo & Hugo – Baby Bump – Where Are You Going, Habibi? – Different from the Others
Between writing my second piece on the Queer Baker’s dozen of LGBT films I saw at the NewFest Film Festival and starting this piece, I saw “The Handmaiden”, one of the best movies of the year. And with “Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo” being my favorite film from NewFest, I expect I had the pleasure of seeing the most sexually explicit lesbian movie and the most sexually explicit gay movie of this year (or maybe any year), as well as the two films that treat queer sexuality with the greatest narrative finesse.
OK, now that I got your attention with promises of hot yet artistic cinematic lesbian and gay sex, let me shoehorn in the other Newfest movies I saw that bear discussing too; we’ll get to the steamy stuff soon enough…
The four festival films left all hail from Europe – the North and South American selections I saw being already discussed. Let’s start with the wildly weird “Baby Bump” from Poland, about an eleven year boy struggling with bullying, drug dealing, his suffocating mother and puberty induced body horror. Only half the dialog – the characters’ interactions – is in Polish, the other half is in the stylized English of an old-time instructional health film, as spoken by the mischievous cartoon mouse that appears to represent the boys’ Id. Kuba Czekaj’s feature is aggressively arty, avant-garde, absurd, amusing and alienating (driving me to aggressive alliteration). There is a plot or something of a narrative thread in there, but very much playing second fiddle to the surreal experimental extravagance.
Having grown up in Germany I of course would seek out the German entries in the NewFest festival. There were only two, separated by 97 years. “Where Are You Going, Habibi?” (“Wo Willst Du Hin, Habibi”) is a good-natured comedy about an ethnic Turkish Berliner, comfortable with his homosexuality but not out to his family, who unwisely develops a mad crush on a blue-eyed blond ne’er-do-well, who is not only heterosexual, but also a small time criminal. No good can come out of it, except maybe, eventually, an unlikely friendship. This low-budget effort by Tor Iben humorously and sensitively navigates the expected and unexpected plot twists.
96 years earlier, German cinema produced what is believed to be the first sympathetic portrayal of homosexual life in movies: “Anders als die Andern” AKA “Different from the Others“. It was co-created 1919 by the head of the Institute for Sexual Science, Magnus Hirshfeld (who also plays a supporting role) as an “Aufklärungsfilm” (which literally means Explanation Film), an agitprop narrative designed to shed a sympathetic light on homosexuality and agitate against Paragraph 175, the German law which criminalized gay sex. In 1920 German authorities banned the movie, and the Nazis, who would exploit Paragraph 175 to devastating effects for homosexuals, later destroyed every known print. However, about 40 minutes worth of footage would be found in the Ukrainian print of an anthology film of the late 1920s into which Magnus Hirshfeld had edited in parts of “Different than the Others”. This found footage became the basis of a handsomely restored print screened at Newfest with superb live piano accompaniment (the excellent documentary “Paragraph 175” was also screened again).
At least a third of the footage of the original version remains lost, but detailed logs from censorship offices of the Weimar and Nazi bureaucracy allowed the restorers to reconstruct the narrative fully, utilizing extra title cards as well as still photographs from the set and archival photographs from Hirschfeld’s studies.
“Different than the Others” tells the story of a famous concert violinist who falls in love with his young student. A shady character blackmails the violinist, causing a rupture in the lovers’ relationship. The hero finally resists the blackmailer and exposes him to the police, but in the process he is accused of breaking Paragraph 175. The scandal ruins his career and isolates him socially. Finally he commits suicide. The surviving footage focuses mostly on the triangle relationship of violinist, student and blackmailer, and includes some spectacular scenes of queer dance halls of 1919 Berlin, with men dancing with men, women dancing with women, in all variety of genderfluid costumes, as well as a touching flashback segment of the violinist as a young man falling in love with his boarding school friend. The descriptions of the lost footage reveals the wider scope of the original movie, showing how both protagonists’ families deal differently with their sons’ homosexuality, the men’s doomed attempts at heterosexuality, and a prologue and epilogue connecting the hero to the fate of many (famous) homosexuals throughout history.
The Newfest program described “Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo” (“Théo & Hugo dans le même bateau”) as “Shortbus” meets “Weekend”. At the festival screening it was introduced as a film that starts as a “Bruce LaBruce movie” and then morphs into a “Richard Linkletter movie”. I wondered if the film would really incorporate the best those comparisons would promise, or if it would be simply 20 minutes of porn followed by a dull walk and talk. However the fact that “Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo” was made by Olivier Ducastel & Jacques Martineau, who have a strong track record of smart, entertaining filmmaking with “Adventures of Felix” and “Côte d’Azur”, raised my expectations. And they would be surpassed. The movie is a thrilling masterpiece, palpably, realistically and wonderfully capturing two people falling in love over the course of 90 real time minutes.
This love begins in an underground Paris sex club, Theo and Hugo meet as strangers in the midst of an orgy, and yes this section of the film includes explicit hard core sex. But arguably that aspect of realism is the least of what makes this 18 minute scene so thrilling. The scene begins by having the camera follow a club patron down the staircase into the orgy room, only to disorientingly abandon that patron and focus elsewhere. Only eventually do the two main protagonists of “Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo” reveal themselves as such in the basement bacchanal, and how they go from strangers to a couple in thrall with another is a process of intricate narrative steps and a complicated dialog of glances and intentions and movement. Meanwhile the space is so engulfed in pulsing red light and loud electronic dance music that the scene, as real as it is, seems to exist in a completely surreal world. The lights and music and the sight of all those entangled bodies, plus the unusually many real time minutes we are spending here, is overwhelming and hypnotic. I thought we were in a Hieronymus Bosch like version of hell, except all the naked bodies confined to these flames were having a helluva good time. And then suddenly there is a moment of actual dream like filmmaking. Theo and Hugo see each other bathed like angels in a white light within the red lit lovemaking bodies surrounding them, making a heaven of this hell (to misuse Milton and my Bosch metaphor even further). It appears to signify a metaphysical recognition between the two men. It is the only time the movie uses actual symbolism in what is otherwise a deceptively realistic depiction of two people getting to know another in 97 minutes, from 4:23am to 6:00am.
I say deceptively realistic, because in “Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo” there is always a lot more going on and being said than is obvious on the surface, in the opening orgy scene and in the journey through late night/ early morning Paris the two young men end up taking in the following 70 minutes. The intricacies of attraction, establishing intimacies and finding understanding are subtly and intelligently explored on many levels. As are side glances at the lives of other Paris denizens. And as are (spoiler alert) the intricacies of living with HIV in our modern time of medicines that prevent infections and that keep the infected alive and the infection undetectable; in such illuminating detail that “Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo” might also be called an “Aufklärungsfilm”, except one that manages to thread that information into a dramatic and engrossing plot line rather than come across as didactic or agitprop. (Side Note: after the many movies about the worst of the AIDS crisis, how many films have dealt with living with AIDS in this new era of medicines that keep most people alive and healthy? I can think of only one other: “Adventures of Felix”, by the same filmmakers incidentally; plus on TV the second season of HBO’s excellent “Looking”).
Ultimately “Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo” is a movie about falling in love. The couple meets in ecstasy and faces an existentially frightening threat much earlier than new relationships usually endure, but comes through it stronger; yet what captivated me more than almost anything else was how palpably the feeling of falling in love was being expressed within the most mundane moments and minute interactions. It suffuses the proceedings with a wonderful sense of grace.
After traveling from a basement sex club through dark streets, canals and bridges, into a hospital, the subway and finally six flights up to a small apartment, the movie ends (spoiler alert) on an odd piece of dialog, an admonition of one man to the other not to go back in the apartment they just left, that to turn back even for the forgotten cell phone would destroy the relationship, ruin the future. This pronouncement seemed strangely melodramatic and out of character for both the person and the movie itself. But upon reflection it occurred to me that this line was a way to reference the Orpheus tale, that “Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo” exists on yet another level, that of myth. Where the lovers have exited the underworld successfully and as long as they don’t look back can stay together in the real world. They’ll just have to share a cell phone for a day.
“Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo” will turn away many out of prudery and attract many out of prurience. Either way a rich movie experience would be reduced to some sensational particulars. And the same fate could befall “The Handmaiden”. This is an elaborately, beautifully constructed puzzle box of a movie, a wickedly clever and often outrageously funny gothic thriller about con men and women – with deceptions and reversals and surprises so numerous and baroque it makes classics of the genre like “The Sting” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” seem straight forward by comparison. The less you know of the plot going in the better for your enjoyment of the movie. But let me just say, in as much as this post is about LGBT movies and queer sex in movies, the plot of “The Handmaiden” illustrates how patriarchal structures and male-pleasing pornography denigrate women, and the lesbian sex in the movie ultimately stands in necessary thematic opposition to that.
Although the erotic scenarios are often of an elaborate and startlingly specific nature, their depiction is actually more suggestive than explicit. Unlike another recently celebrated Cannes competition entry about lesbians, the Palme D’Or winning “Blue is the Warmest Color”, “The Handmaiden” doesn’t show genitalia. Nor does it indulge in sex scenes for their own sake (I remember thinking that the plot of “Blue is the Warmest Color” took place in between the highly passionate, anatomically detailed and extended sex scenes, which didn’t make any dramatic revelation other than showing how vigorously passionate the lovers are). Director Park Chan-Wook stages and films every sexual moment in “The Handmaiden” in such a way as to delineate important dramatic developments between the heroines: shifts in their feelings, their understanding, their relationship, and their perspective on their place in the world. Most of the sex scenes are as intricately plotted and dramatically revealing as any of the dialog scenes. We even revisit one particular scene of lovemaking later in the movie to view it from another perspective, learning new details which completely change our understanding of what’s really happening between the lovers.
And that to me is a major element of what can make an erotic scene in a narrative film artistic, thrilling in more than the obvious reasons. It is about telling a story between two characters, exploring relationships, personalities, wishes and desires, objectives and consequences. It is about making sexuality part of the art of storytelling, not merely about naked flesh, positions and passion (not that there is anything inherently wrong with that by itself). It is about connecting sex with the larger glorious story of humanity and life. Making it emotional. Multidimensional. Holistic. Art.
“The Handmaiden” and “Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo” are two films this year that successfully unite explicit sexuality with high art and compelling storytelling. Is it a coincidence that these two films happen to focus on queer sex? Other highly acclaimed recent films that successfully explore explicit sexuality dramatically and artistically, like “Short Bus” and “Stranger by the Lake”, are also about queer sex. Whereas recent films about explicit heterosexual sex, like “Love” and “9 songs”, have been critical narrative failures. I wonder why that may be. That whole question may bear deeper exploration… but I’m just being a tease now, since I won’t pursue that digression any further, yet.
For now I’ll just reaffirm my hearty recommendation to enjoy the delicious cons of “The Handmaiden” and the delightful lovers of “Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo” (plus “Moonlight” and the rest of the Queer Baker’s Dozen) whenever you get the chance.