Compared to most weeks, this has been a good one for gay movies. Moonlight* scored a stellar eight Oscar nominations on Monday. I Am Love director Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s beloved 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name debuted at Sundance on Sunday to such effusive praise, “raves” feels like an understatement. Also unveiled at Sundance to glowing reviews was Eliza Hittman’s Coney Island cruising flick Beach Rats.
For civilians nowhere near Park City, two new gay movies are in theaters today: Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo and Justin Kelly’s I Am Michael. As is the case with most queer movies that aren’t Moonlight (and the Sundance selections mentioned above), both of these films focus on the sexualities of a few white characters, with only nominal recognition in Michael that non-white people can be queer too. There’s your caveat that while 2017 is off to a good start in terms of queer visibility in cinema, it’s the same kind of visibility that we’ve been seeing and it will take considerably more time before the influence of Moonlight (and, more to the point, Moonlight’s impressive-for-its-size gross) to be felt.
Neither Théo & Hugo nor I Am Michael have experienced nor warrant the hype that precedes the as-yet-unannounced commercial release of Call Me By Your Name, but they’re both trying (I guess) to be important and one is far less worse than the other. Let’s take a look:
Starting with a happy ending and then working its way toward an even happier one, the French language Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo wants to make it clear that intimacy can be found in the least likely of places. Our protagonists, Théo & Hugo meet virtually wordlessly at a gay sex club during their movie’s highly explicit 19-minute opening scene, during which boners and blowjobs abound (however, there aren’t any shots of anal penetration). Directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau perfectly nail the disorienting, narcotic energy of red-lit, writhing bodies, and what feels like miraculous focus that can materialize when surrounded by nothing but options.
Théo spots Hugo fucking another dude and wants a taste, so through a series of intense stares and bodily maneuvering, he makes his way over. If you can read the movie’s title, you know what’s coming (they both are—together, with the matter-of-factly versatile Hugo assuming the role of bottom). They leave the club together in a euphoric afterglow, as Hugo rhapsodizes the cosmic implications of their amazing fuck (“I think we made a big contribution to world peace. What we did was pure love creation. We need to start over for the good of humankind!”).
And then, when Hugo realizes that Théo fucked him without a condom, their universe built for two threatens to collapse. But so does their movie. Hugo’s ensuing panic initially suggests he’s terrified of contracting HIV—he calls Théo “insane”—until you realize that Hugo is HIV positive and he’s scared for Théo’s health.
A few things there: If Hugo is aware of his status and concerned enough about it to worry about how it may impact his sex partners, he’s more than likely on meds, which means his HIV is undetectable, which means it’s virtually impossible for him to transmit the virus. That Théo topped further cuts the risk. And if Hugo were the kind of person who cares so intensely about these things, why didn’t he make sure Théo put on a condom?
Many of these points are eventually teased out as Théo goes to an all-night clinic to get PEP (or post-exposure prophylaxis, in which a regimen of antiretroviral medications are administered over the course of about 30 days to thwart the transmission of the virus), though perhaps not precisely enough—Hugo twice mentions that he’s undetectable without explaining what that means or the implications for transmission. That the irrational fears of HIV transmission conjured by its characters’ unrealistic ignorance (especially on the part of Hugo) remain the source of tension in this film feels at least slightly exploitative if not a total perversion of the truth for the sake of plot, which continues to follow Théo and Hugo around Paris in real time, just the two of them so that the structure of the movie is something akin to Weekend with a heaping dose of AIDS paranoia. I wanted to print out the results of the PARTNER study (which surveyed some 58,000 sex acts among serodifferent couples and found not one instance of HIV transmission) and throw it at the screen.
Théo’s uncertainty and resentment is a contrived device for getting at bigger issues that are rarely talked about outside of private conversations among gay men, so even if Théo & Hugo’s methods are overblown and disingenuous, at least the movie is contributing something to culture, including the mere presentation of the idea that Hugo doesn’t bear the entire responsibility of Théo’s predicament (which seems obvious to me, but laws criminalizing HIV across our very nation suggest otherwise). “It takes two to screw up,” says Hugo quite reasonably. Later he also notes, “Desire is stupid,” which is also correct, but probably too on the nose given the rest of this material.
I think it would be useful to rattle off some things that actually come out of people’s mouths in Justin Kelly’s ex-gay yarn I Am Michael to give you the clearest picture of what we’re dealing with:
- “Everyone’s gonna die. No amount of praying is ever going to change that.”
- “We are making a documentary about queer youth in America because discrimination against LGBT youth must be eliminated!”
- “When faced with your own death, it reminds you of what’s important in life, and for me that’s helping other people.”
- “Not everyone wants to be part of the subculture!”
- “Stop hating, start loving!”
These are just a few of the lines penned by Kelly and fellow screenwriter Stacey Miller in their bad-verging-on-incompetent adaptation of Benoit Denizet-Lewis’s great 2011 New York Times Magazine story “My Ex-Gay Friend,” about gay-activist/writer-turned-ex-gay Michael Glatze. Kelly and Miller’s script is so mercilessly heavy-handed that not only are you conspicuously aware of its presence as you watch Kelly’s film, but you can practically see their lips moving as they were writing it.
I Am Michael is strung together with more than just verbal clichés. As his Michael (played by James Franco), via a religious awakening, struggles with the idea that his sexuality is perhaps mutable and convertible, Kelly slings melodrama like it’s crack. There’s a scene of Franco taking a bath in shallow water and dim lighting with knees pressed up to his chest. In another he listens to a radio show on headphones outside, and as the guest says choosing gay identity will lead to eternal suffering, the camera swirls. “This is hard! Michael Glatze is conflicted!” this movie says over and over without adding much insight beyond that or depth to the character. This sensibility extends to the final frame.
Kelly’s I Am Michael follow-up King Cobra (nominally about the murder of gay porn producer Bryan Kocis, who discovered former twink du jour Brent Corrigan) was just as shallow as this. It surveyed gay-porn production as voyeuristically as a dude jerking off at home in front of his computer (and there weren’t even dicks in Kelly’s movie) and was ineptly paced (it takes more an an hour and 15 minutes to get to the murder the movie is supposed to be about!!!). However, it is Franco who comes off worst here, though he’s done no favors via Kelly’s script, which gives Zachary Quinto and Emma Roberts nothing to do but show up and look vaguely concerned. Franco displays “pained” like he’s playing a remedial game of charades. Franco, who played bicurious in Interior. Leather Bar and power bottom in King Cobra, has talked at length about his fascination with gay culture (despite claiming never to have indulged in man-on-man “intercourse”) but his choice of Kelly’s gallingly dumb scripts (and otherwise willful misunderstanding and contempt of gay art) suggests that he is just skimming the surface for brownie points. Certainly, given his choice of material, he hasn’t been blessed with the refined taste stereotypically attributed to gay men.
While a nuanced argument regarding the elastic and ever-evolving nature of sexuality is in order, I Am Michael is perhaps too compassionate to Glatze, who gave his blessing to the film. It’s kind of hard to take a guy seriously who went through the life of a writer-activist in San Francisco and then goes on to advise questioning youth, “If you’re a moral person then you’ll choose heterosexuality to be with God.” But it’s not like you can take Glatze in any way because Franco never disappears into the part. He’s never not James Franco doing that James Franco thing where he plays gay/not gay on screen in part of the bigger, provocative performance of his life. His quite like Madonna in that way, actually. I guess if you can’t be gay, or a gay icon, you can at least act like one.