Cock and ball stories

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“Contains strong, real sex.” There’s a warning which, for some, will operate as an enticement. It adorns the posters for Stranger By The Lake (or, more properly, L’Inconnu du lac) a current French erotic thriller that’s been picking up five-star reviews and which I went to see for my birthday. It was quite a present.

The story – one of social intrigue, moral ambiguity and brazen man-on-man rumpo – revolves around a secluded, idyllic gay cruising spot in the South of France on the edge of a man-made lake, where man-made men of all ages routinely spend the day sunbathing, swimming and chatting, often nude, as a springboard to sexual acts in the undergrowth. Notwithstanding the thriller element, it paints a utopian picture (all the better to be shattered by the thriller element). The sun glistens off the water. Blue skies gradually fade to cool evenings. There is ample car parking. Nobody seems to have a job to go to. Consenting adults get to know each other on towels, or not, and partner off, while others simply loiter in the bushes and watch.

For a lifelong heterosexual who was ostracised as a “poof” in his teens for dressing effeminately and warned off hanging out with actual gay men by his parents as it was interfering with his A-levels, onscreen portrayals of this sort of “scene” – ritualistic, understood, honest, practical – always fascinate me, I cannot lie. All the bullshit that goes with heterosexual courtship is refreshingly absent. Although most of the men in the film are fit, buff and handsome, some are older, fatter, and less idealised looking. Some are single, some are not. Most use condoms, others play a riskier game. It’s the perfect milieu into which to introduce a less controllable danger: that of murder.

Outside of the thriller aspect, which recalls some of the more generic tropes of Plein Soleil and its English remake The Talented Mr Ripley, with more literal recent echoes of Jane Campion’s Top Of The Lake, and even The Returned, Stranger By The Lake is notable chiefly for being the latest 18-certificate film to blur the borders between simulated sex and real sex – that is, frank, explicit, non-simulated, and thus by most people’s definition “pornographic”. The sex we’re used to seeing onscreen, even in “sexy” films, is clearly all artful, choreographed bump and grind, and elevated to gentle titillation by soft focus, tantalising editing, orgasm acting and a saxophone. The sex herein involves erect penises and ejaculation. There, I’ve said it.

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The screening of Stranger By The Lake we attended was in Soho and on a weekday morning. I specify “we”, as all other patrons in the cinema were singles, and male, and – dare I generalise? – of a certain age. Not young men. This was an 18-certificate showing of a film. Not a porn movie in a porn cinema (although I’m sure Old Testament Daily Mail moralists would have a thing to say about its content). And yet, as specified, it contained images of strong, real sex. Which you don’t get on the telly, not even in the background on True Detective.

As unfashionable as it may be to say it, I’m not partial to porn. I actually get more out of one of those faked, edited, saxophone scenes in 18-certificate movies, albeit briefly. I have no great desire to see people “do it” for real. But many do and they are better served in this regard than ever before. So is it wrong to pay money to see Stranger By The Lake for reasons on titillation? No. This is a healthy desire, albeit one perhaps better served at home. Because a lot of the film comprises people sitting on towels and talking, often about very little of import. If it were porn, it would be quite annoying.

As a film, I think it’s quite brilliant. Singular, atmospheric, cool, disturbing; elliptical and sometimes unclear in terms of what’s going on, but of a piece with the naturalistic way it’s shot and acted. Director Alain Guiraudie holds his nerve, and the recurring fixed shot of the car park is a brilliant, evocative way of showing the passage of days. Pierre de Ladoncahmps and Christophe Paou are captivating as the younger, more innocent, smooth-skinned tourist Franck and the older, more hirsute alpha male Michel, respectively. It is their relationship – essentially sexual, but with emotional benefits – that drives the story. And although you think you see them have “strong, real sex”, the more real bits are performed by body doubles. Even actors who are prepared to go full frontal are not necessarily up for going all the way.

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A similar sleight of hand, or slight of genital, occurs in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol I and II, a diptych that really impressed me when I saw a preview of it in January – both films back to back, a four-hour sex marathon – and which I would recommend if you’ve enjoyed his previous work (particularly the first and second parts of this, Von Trier’s loose “trilogy of depression”, Antichrist and Melancholia). It’s surprisingly linear, telling the self-loathing life story in flashback of the fearless Charlotte Gainsbourg’s sex addict. Each “chapter”, adorned with symbolism and cod-Freudian analysis, touches on a different aspect of her sex life, from virginity-shedding to sado-masochism and beyond, and there’s a good deal of what looks like “strong, real sex”.

And guess what? It’s not Shia LaBeouf or Charlotte Gainsbourg’s parts you’re seeing going into each other, or being spanked or sucked. It’s the parts of some porn actors, which have been seamlessly edited or digitally composited into the action. (See also: the astonishing Blue Is The Warmest Colour, which also apparently involved full prosthetic vaginas that the non-porn actors were strapped into. It’s amazing what they can do these days.) Although some of the sex – particulary between LaBeouf and Stacy Martin playing the young Gainsbourg – borders on conventional, if not quite Hollywood, and its pretty torrid, but I would still steer you away from Nymphomaniac if it’s titilation you seek! Much is seedy and disturbing, not least the scene where two African men have an argument over Gainsbourg while standing there naked and erect, like swordsmen. (That is, disturbing in the men’s attitude to Gainsbourg – which, to be fair, the character has masochistically brought upon herself – but also quite a sight if you’re not used to seeing men with erections banging around in front of them.)

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Coincidentally, Pierre de Ladoncahmps from Stranger By The Lake, the non-hairy one, reminded me of Patrick, the lead gay man in Looking, HBO’s simply adorable new comedy-drama about life on the non-heterosexual side of San Francisco, just coming to the end of its first season on Sky Atlantic. More education into the way things work within the gay community in America’s gayest city. (I loved San Francisco the moment I set foot in the place back in the early 90s and fancied myself as quite local on a two-week stay there.) Patrick, played with puppy dog charm by Jonathan Groff (whom I don’t even remember from Glee), is far less aggressively gay than his two companions, the experimental Agustín and the seasoned Dom, in that he’s yet to be seen in a bathhouse and only in leather as fancy dress, and I guess he acts as a “way in” for hetero viewers. But the show does not shrink from its sexual preference. It could be about any firm friends in any city and their lives and loves, but many of the “issues” are gay-specific. I love it.

I think I was bound to; one of its founding writers and directors is Andrew Haigh, the openly gay British filmmaker whose second film Weekend I only belatedly caught on Film4 this year. It’s as fetching and raw and irresistible as the reviews said at the time of its release: simply, the whirlwind 48-hour romance of two men in Nottingham, whose relationship is concertinaed by the fact that one of them is leaving for America on Monday. (Just as the talented Haigh would, ironically.) It’s nothing like as sexually explicit as Stranger By The Lake, but it’s still frank and unabashed, and once again depicts the mechanics of “encounter” culture – what the cool kids in America have now dubbed a “hook-up”, I do believe: sex without strings, something women are now permitted to admit to pursuing. (Imagine!) This bypass of traditional courtship is again refreshing and confusing to a Victorian gentleman like myself.

Although it is simply beyond my understanding how anyone could regard a same-sex relationship as any less valid or meaningful or natural as a bi-gender one – I mean, really, are we still debating same-sex marriage and the equalisation of rights in the 21st century? – I do seem to have been exposed to a lot more gay cinema and TV of late, and my reaction to it is bound to be different to the reaction of someone gay, lesbian or transgender. Heterosexuals: we’re like the fourth emergency service!

Dallas Buyers Club is an Oscar-stamped film about the gay community, set at a time when it was under attack not just from Bible-bashing moralists and the ignorant but from a new virus, too. Matthew McConaughey’s real-life Texan protagonist is super-straight and in his bones homophobic, and his shifting attitude to the likes of Jared Leto’s male-to-female transgender, HIV-positive drug addict forms the heart of the story. It is essentially a heterosexual film about homosexuality, and, like Patrick’s “soft” gay man in Looking, McConaughey’s conflicted cowboy acts as a bridge into another world.

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I grew up in the 70s, when gays were figures of fun in entertainment, and little more. Thankfully, come the 80s, when my politics started to harden, gay storylines became de rigueur in soaps and entered the mainstream. The terror of AIDS served to either confirm or wash away prejudice. The tabloids continued to treat homosexuality as something that must be “confessed” by celebrities right through this progressive decade, and homophobia is still horribly rife among certain knots of men. But much progress has been made. The Sun still objectifies women and reduces anything complex to single syllables and capital letters, but you don’t sense that the simple act of being gay is the news story it once might have been.

All that said, I wonder if some of the five-star reviews from heterosexual critics for Stranger By The Lake – mine included – are borne out of solidarity as much as out of dispassionate critical consensus. A willfully contrary, negative review of Under The Skin at the weekend called it “misogynistic” for its male gaze upon the Hollywood body of Scarlett Johansson, and yet – without giving too much away – it’s the men who are presented as victims, not to mention meat, in the film. They appear completely naked, while she generally gets to keep her bra on, and are apparently priapic, although the light is low and my failing eyesight meant that I didn’t even spot that their members were erect! Maybe I’m just getting used to them?

Film 2013: great beauty

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As I write, it’s not quite yet the very end of the year, but my records indicate that I have seen 153 films in 2013 – that is, 153 films I’ve never seen before (which includes films I’ve seen but never before seen on the big screen, such as Manhattan, Aguirre Wrath Of God and Chinatown). Of those 153, 122 have been films released in 2013. If I were an actual film critic, I’d be seeing around seven a week. But I’m not one. So I’m calling 153 a decent tally. But never mind the width, feel the quality.

Here are my Top 30 in order. I’ve eschewed qualitative ordering in my entries for TV, books and albums, but I feel more confident about films as I log them as I go, and enter a star symbol next to any that stand out from the pack. This makes it easier to sift them. Frankly, the Top 10 rose effortlessly to the top, but the next 20 confirm that it was a damn good year.

1. The Great Beauty | Paolo Sorrentino | Italy
2. All Is Lost | JC Chandor | US
3. Gravity | Alfonso Cuarón | US/UK
4. Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
5. Compliance | Craig Zobel | US
6. Beyond The Hills | Cristian Mungiu | Romania
7. I Wish | Hirokazu Koreeda | Japan
8. Spring Breakers | Harmony Korine | US
9. Blue Is The Warmest Colour | Abdellatif Kechiche | France
10. Frances Ha | Noah Baumbach | US

11. Mea Maxima Culpa | Alex Gibney | US
12. Silence | Pat Collins | Ireland
13. Lincoln | Steven Spielberg | US
14. Nebraska | Alexander Payne | US
15. Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
16. A Field In England | Ben Wheatley | UK
17. Mud | Jeff Nichol | US
18. The Selfish Giant | Clio Barnard | UK
19. Shell | Scott Graham | UK
20. No | Pablo Larrain | Chile
21. Zero Dark Thirty | Kathryn Bigelow | US
22. Captain Philips | Paul Greengrass | US
23. Parkland | Peter Landesman | US
24. Blue Jasmine | Woody Allen | US
25. Prisoners | Denis Villeneuve | US
26. What Richard Did | Lenny Abrahamson | Ireland
27. Stories We Tell | Sarah Polley | Canada
28. The Place Beyond The Pines | Derek Cianfrance | US
29. In The Fog | Sergei Loznitsa | Russia
30. A Hijacking | Tobias Lindholm | Denmark

Some thoughts. Four documentaries in the Top 30 (and one in the Top 10) says something powerful about the continued relevance of non-fiction. (The Act Of Killing topped many a critic’s poll in Sight & Sound; for me, it was a unique film, but not one I actually enjoyed.) And two Irish films in the Top 10, too, which has to be a first, and a welcome one. I note that only half my Top 30 are American, which feels like a significant victory for “the rest of the world” as Hollywood accountants call it – although I only did a Top 20 last year and less than half were American, so who knows? On a geographical note, Gravity is apparently “British” enough to qualify for a British Bafta nomination in 2014, as it was shot here and Alfonso Cuarón has dual UK citizenship.

For the record, the following films also received a star under my yes-or-no rating system this year, so they merit an honourable mention. More documentaries, and two more Irish films!

Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Django Unchained | Quentin Tarantino | US
This Is 40 | Judd Apatow | US
For Ellen | So Yong Kim | US
The Spirit of ’45 | Ken Loach | UK
Arbitrage | Nicholas Garecki | US
Reality | Matteo Garrone | Italy/France
Neighbouring Sounds | Kleber Mendonça Filho | Brazil
Good Vibrations | Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn | Ireland
The Gatekeepers | Dror Moreh | Israel/France/Germany/Belgium
Spike Island | Mat Whitecross | UK
The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Easy Money | Daniél Espinosa | Sweden
Behind The Candelabra | Steven Soderbergh | US
The World’s End | Edgar Wright | UK
Before Midnight | Richard Linklater | US
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa | Declan Lowney | UK
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks | Alex Gibney | US
The Deep | Baltasar Kormákur | Iceland
Fire In The Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster | Antony Wonke | UK
Hawking | Stephen Finnigan | UK
Oblivion | Joseph Kosinski | US
What Maisie Knew | Scott McGhee, David Siegel | US
Mister John | Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor | Ireland/Singapore
Leviathan | Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel | US

A final postscript: I didn’t get to see Philomena this year, which leaves an obvious gap as I suspect I will like it.

Left to right

Two European films seen a few days apart, one French, one German, and how different. Untouchable, the one everybody’s heard of, is a feelgood French comedy and box office smasheroo with little time for thematic subtlety or narrative ellipse, the sort to break out of the arthouse ghetto and find an audience who wouldn’t normally touch subtitles with a bargepole; Barbara, less concerned with the quest for bums on seats but nonetheless honoured by the festival circuit and laurelled at Berlin, is a more demanding watch, although drew an impressive crowd at the Renoir two nights ago, and paid back in different ways.

I’m sure you’re abreast of Untouchable (or, to use the French, Intouchable): a quadriplegic rich man rediscovers his lust for life thanks to a Senegalese carer from the projects who refuses to stand on ceremony and speaks the truth while all around him tread carefully. Both parts are played with great spirit: François Cluzet – best known here for Tell No One (or Ne le dis à personne) – and Omar Sy – most recently seen in the irksome Micmacs – bring humanity to the frankly cut-out characters they have been given. Cluzet plays paralysed from the neck down with consummate dedication, and, in doing all the work with his face, proves his chops in a way that only playing the disabled can. Sy is the livewire, and certainly feels like he is riffing on the script, whether he is or not, and that’s terrific. It will make you feel good, in that it depicts hope out of hopelessness, and makes the optimistic prediction that upper-class French people can learn to rub along with African immigrants. It also knows how to push buttons.

Some might say that Driss, the character Sy plays, is a reductive stereotype, in that he’s poor, he’s initially workshy and, hey, he’s a great dancer. He also conforms to the “Magical Negro” achetype so beloved of Hollywood (an inevitable English-language Weinstein remake is already on the cards, in which the “Negro” may become even more “magical”). All that considered, Driss is the beating heart of the film – and it’s he who won last year’s Cesar for best actor, beating The Artist‘s Jean Dujardin. It could be argued that we should applaud the film for foregrounding an African character, and performer. He is employed to be the “arms and legs” of Cluzet’s depressed widowed millionaire in his big, lifeless mansion, and does this job with athletic aplomb, at one point cutting a rug to Earth, Wind & Fire in a showcase scene for his talents. But even here, I couldn’t help but think: really? All the white people who work in the mansion are, of course, rubbish dancers. Again: really?

This isn’t a spoiler, but at the very end, the filmmakers show home-movie footage of the real-life quadriplegic and his carer, Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sellou, who had previously been featured in a documentary (Sellou has also written a bestselling memoir You Changed My Life). Notice anything about the carer’s name? Yes, it’s Algerian. Not Senegalese. If you look him up online, he’s nothing like as black as Omar Sy. So why did the filmmakers change his nationality from North African to West African? Did they require Driss to look more black, more African, to help make their ebony-and-ivory point for the broadest audience possible?

Because Untouchable makes fairly blunt and sweeping – literally, black and white – drama from the thorny subject of racial difference and racial prejudice, and it’s based on a true story, I can’t help wondering why the race of a key character has been changed? I’m genuinely interested to know, particularly as we’re in a country like France, where race is a burning issue. Maybe it was simply so that they could cast the likeable Sy?

If you can shed any light on it, let me know. And I’d be interested to know how “good” it made you “feel”. I felt good about the performances, but less so about the film, which, despite its apparent roots in veracity, seemed more like a fairytale than anything else.

Barbara is being sold with this quote from, it says, MSN: “Anyone who loved The Lives Of Others should see this.” (I’ve searched MSN’s film reviews and can find no context for this quote, incidently.) Hey, you can’t blame them; The Lives Of Others is a German-language film that successfully crossed over, internationally, and won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, so if selling this is all about reassuring the potential audience, job done, I guess. And both films are set in the early 80s in East Germany, and show invasive, paranoid surveillance by the Stasi. The big difference between the first film and this one, is that it was a thriller, and this isn’t, despite initial appearances.

Directed by Christian Petzold, of the Berlin School – whose previous film, Yella, had a wider release than his previous work – it stars his muse, Nina Hoss as the titular doctor who is exiled from East Berlin to a small rural town on the Baltic coast after incarceration for some unmentioned crime against the state. (I’ve since read that it was simply to express a wish to leave the GDR, although I didn’t pick this us from the film, which does anything but spoon-feed, to its credit.)

She is understandably wary of those around her, assuming she’s being watched – which she is – and acting accordingly. She is an intelligent woman, and an excellent doctor, but she keeps herself to herself, constantly putting distance between herself and her seemingly benign boss, the bear-like Ronald Zehrfeld, who fancies her. Barbara moves at a slow, exacting pace, and gives little away at first, which actually reflects the general paranoia of the time and place. Even out in the country, people are wary of who’s listening. (Barbara’s nemesis is very real, Rainer Bock’s seemingly sadistic Stasi officer, so it’s not as if it’s all in her mind.) Like the decor of the run-down buildings – the hospital, her apartment with the fizzing wall socket and un-tuned piano – this is a spare, minimalist film, but against such an austere background, symbolic movement – the freedom of a bicycle ride, the coastal winds buffeting the trees – feel more significant.

I don’t know Petzold’s sork, and have not seen Yella, but I’ve a huge soft spot for the New German Cinema of the 60s and 70s, and the more recent revival of Germany’s output – including the obvious breakout likes of The Lives Of Others and Downfall – and this slots comfortably into that intellectual/historical renaissance. Many of the 70s films looked back at the war and Nazism, while the post-unification films use the fall of the Berlin Wall as their focal point.

I recommend Barbara. It works harder for its audience than Untouchable, and we must work harder for it. But there’s nothing wrong with hard work.