Thursday, March 18, 2021

Stefan Henszelman | Venner for altid (Friends Forever)

a straight kristian pilgrim’s gay progress

by Douglas Messerli

Stefan Henszelman and Alexander Kørschen (screenwriters), Stefen Henszelman (director) Venner for altid (Friends Forever) / 1987

Danish director Stefan Henszelman’s 1987* film Venner for altid (Friends Forever) is an odd LGBTQ film, if you can even describe it as such.

     The central figure of the work, Kristian (Claus Bender Mortensen) is a shy, new boy at a rough-and-tumble city school seeking out friends who might allow him to discover himself. In fact, you might describe Kristian as a rather passive, open template of a human being just waiting for someone to help to shape and define him. Kristian is certainly an utter innocent for whom we might take pity except, as the work’s epigraph “Innocence is no excuse,” warns us, it is difficult to forgive the central character, who hides behind his youthful innocence as an excuse for his rather selfish behavior as he first betrays first, the friendship proffered by Henrik (Thoms Elholm) and then, later, turns against his other new friend Patrick (Thomas Sigsgaard).

      Early on in the film, I quickly grew to dislike Kristian and the movie in general because of his diffident attitude toward those around him, until I finally began to see Kristian as precisely what his name suggests, the Christian of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress who, having left the City of Destruction (his past and lost world we learn nothing about) goes bumbling about seeking to find meaning in his life, finally being guided by Obstinate and Pliable, the former who quickly leaves him and the latter who uses Bunyan’s pilgrim’s moral flexibility for his own advantage until they arrive at the Slough of Despond.

     In this instance, however, I might describe the Bunyan-like hero Kristian as representing normality, an inexperienced, unknowing, and totally uneducated being who simply wants to find the easiest way to get through his new encounters and the rest of his life.

     And since, as normality, he so firmly represents the Everyman, almost anyone with true emotions, values, and some learning stands out and apart. In this case, we might describe both figures to whom he is attracted as being “queer” simply because Kristian is so unformed and undefined as a human being.

     Henrik, who first attempts to become Kristian’s friend, is obviously someone with an intellectual bent, fascinated by astronomy but equally knowledgeable—when Kristian mentions “astrology,” confusing it with the study of bodies in outer space—in aspects of the tarot, science fiction, and other esoteric information. Henrik is also a practitioner of Tai chi, using it both for its meditative and martial arts benefits. By daily meditating he finds a way to tune out the daily banal lunacy of his fellow students, and by using it as a form of martial arts he is able to protect himself from the bullying of Patrick and his thuggish chums. Henrik also seems interested in a kind of “New Wave” music and regularly attends the concerts of one of its composers. Finally, he wears a pony-tale and stands apart from all the others during school recesses performing the meditative positions of Tai chi—all signifying, one might argue, his obstinacy against the way the world around him defines the “other.”

       Sexually, Henrik stands as a kind of cypher, immediately catching the good-looking Kristian’s eye, and quickly inviting him into this room to describe his interests, providing him with tapes of his favorite composer and even loaning him his walk-man so that he might listen to them. He  immediately offers to show Kristian the basic Tai chi movements and makes an appointment to begin the instruction. One of his first questions is whether or not Kristian has a girlfriend, a sure bead dropped by gay boys in order to determine to even proceed any further. Kristian, at that moment, replies that he does not.

      Moreover, in his enthusiasm, Henrik is constantly leaning forward and moving into Kristian’s private space, at times almost impulsively touching him as he attempts to help the new boy find the proper art gestures and posture for the martial arts positions. In his always eager approaches to Kristian we cannot but help suspect that he might also be attracted to Kristian’s body as well as the state of his mind. And any gay individual naturally almost wishes for the two handsome boys to develop a deeper rapport.

     On the first day after meeting Henrik, Kristian seems almost overwhelmed by Henrik’s brief discussions with him, parroting back the new information he’s already gleaned from his conversation with Henrik to other students who might listen, while being mocked, in turn, by Patrick and his gang. Already by the end of the day, however, Kristian has cooled to the idea of being best friends with Henrik as—galvanized by the equally frenetic actions of the good-looking blond Patrick—he watch him, almost painfully, absenting himself from his appointment with Henrik.

     His attraction to Patrick’s behavior, however, is disturbing, particularly since it involves the quite brutal attack on a girl in their classroom involving what one might almost describe as a rape in which Patrick and his friends attempt to pull off her sweater; Kristian blindly enters into the fray succeeding in stripping off sweater and handing it over to Patrick, who tosses it out the window, forcing the now half-nude girl to escape the room to retrieve it as the school authorities suddenly arrive to bring order. Patrick and Kristian escape together into the school bathroom, while the principal rounds up the other boys. In a bathroom stall a couple of boys are enjoying a marijuana joint, which they quickly hand over to Patrick who shares it with Kristian, bonding the two naughty boys and bringing the newcomer into his sway.

     Pliable is now in control of Kristian’s destiny, and the boy indeed does act somewhat like a piece of putty in Patrick’s hands. On their first night out, Patrick engages the acts of hooliganism, such as pulling up a street sign, breaking out store windows, and minor acts of theft before one of the group, Anders (Lars Kylmann Jacobsen) takes it too far, taking up the parking sign and crashing it into the windows of a nearby shop, setting off the police warning signal. Soon after, Patrick confides that Anders has twice before been arrested, once for car theft.

     If you were a parent—and notably there are no parents portrayed in this film—might certainly be worried about who Kristian has chosen to be his best friend. And soon after, Obstinacy represented by Henrik tells Kristian that he is moving away with his family to Lisbon, leaving our confused hero completely under Patrick’s sway.

     Patrick loses no time, inviting his new friend to visit the disco in which he works and insisting that Kristian also get a job at the local video store so that we too might have the money to manipulate the world around him. Despite his seemingly chaotic nature, Patrick actually as two jobs, besides working as a dishwasher and set-up boy at the disco, by morning he delivers papers all so that he might make enough money to get his own apartment, freeing him from the control of his parents.

     Soon after, Patrick moves into his new flat, shared with several others, inviting Kristian to hang out there, and after a drunken night at the disco with his friend, permitting him to sleep over in his new place.

     By this time it is quite clear that Patrick is not only “queer” in his bullying school-boy behavior but is also actively gay, and Patrick’s sleep over certainly hints that the innocent may soon be forced to come into at least some sort of recognition of the world around him and of his own sexuality. Yet nothing happens, making it clear that even Patrick perceives that Kristian is a lost cause, a best friend with no real comprehension of who or what others are.

     Having met an older female singer at the disco—a hangout also for the gay scene—Patrick meets up later with the woman who entices the shy beauty into bed. Patrick is so delighted with the sexual event that he immediately falls head over heels for the older woman, telling her “jeg elsker dig” (“I love you”) in a puppy-dog-like manner that reminds us once again just how unworldly this young man is.

      When he observes Patrick being kissed by an older soccer player, Mads (Morten Stig Christensen) on the field, Kristian is unsurprisingly shocked and immediately pulls away from his  “best friend,” an entirely predictable series of events given that Kristian is clearly a product of what anyone might define as normal and has given absolutely no thought to possible alternatives to his simplistic thinking.

      You might say, without taking the Bunyan metaphor too far, that Kristian has now fallen into the Slough of Despond, overwhelmed by fears of his own doubts, temptations, lusts, shames, guilts, and sins—although one might easily argue that our Kristian is too shallow of a thinker to fully be knowledgeable of any of these abstract concepts. He is simply depressed, and unable to accept the abnormality of his friend’s life despite an open conversation with his new love interest, Berit (Trine Torp Hansen), about homosexuality.

      In a school extra-curricular event, supported by the Danish government, wherein a man has been asked to speak to the student body about possibilities of employment, Patrick rather cheekily asks whether he being gay might not be a qualification of getting a job, actually rather a savvy question given the growing Danish awareness—long before other countries—of the need for diversification in their working force. Moreover, his being gay was perhaps the very reason he was hired by The Disco in which he works. The speaker, however, simply hems and haws, unable to really speak to the question as Patrick’s fellow students howl in laugher, seeing the unanswerable question only as another of his numerous pranks. The angered Kristian, however, interrupts, asking why they are laughing since Patrick is really gay. That statement not only leads to a stunning quietude among the students, but opens up the room to a possibly profound discussion of sexuality and its effects on everyday life which, however, is immediately squelched by the rektor, Kallenbach (Rita Angela). It is as if Kristian’s “Help” of the Bunyan parable were pushed away at the very moment when Kristian most needed him.

     Suddenly, in his outburst Kristian is aware that he has not only revealed his close-mindedness, but will now be recognized by his fellow students as either as someone who has betrayed his best friend or as a person who himself, since he has been so close to Patrick, may be gay.

      It appears suddenly that help may have come to save the day. Having worked with Berit as a coordinator for the very student even that has now been closed down, Kristian sneaks back into the school to print out an illegal flier declaring “Hands off, Kallenbach,” during which as the small printer accomplishes the job, director Henszelman presents us with a montage of scenes portraying the good times shared by Kristian and Patrick previously in the flick. Obviously taking political action also has begun to awaken Kristian’s consciousness as well.

      Rushing over the Patrick’s apartment to present him with his accomplishments, however, he bursts into his former friends room only to find him being fucked by Mads. The very reality of the situation causes a kind of breakdown of Kristian’s formerly exterior of silence, as he breaks down into a confession of his having been a coward while simultaneously being unable to work out the fact of Patrick and Mad’s sexual acts. Holding the boy around the shoulder to comfort him, Mads attempts to calm down Kristian, explaining that in fact they are not ones like them, as Kristian incoherently insists, and that the “strangeness” he feels about the whole thing doesn’t truly effect his own relationships with girls, to which Kristian cannot resist reporting that he has had a day of sex with the older singer, Ayoe. Patrick’s sudden injection of “Wow, that must have been quite an experience,” calms Kristian down, as they pack up the bags of fliers ready for their protest against the autocrats.

       The rest of the movie, however, seems as quickly patched together as that last scene has been. How has suddenly Kristian been so quickly swayed away from his homophobia? And what does tossing out piles of fliers proclaiming their rights to hold such extracurricular meetings featuring the phrase “Hands off, Kallenbach” win over the recalcitrant authorities to their cause.

      And what does a Bombay-like musical production number of the major figures dressed up in Renaissance-like costumes have to do with anything? I suppose the director simply felt that such a grand Danish hootenanny might convince his youthful viewers that everything has turned out for the best in the end, and that his characters’ former differences and wounds have now been healed.

      But I’m not convinced since it appears that once again normality has won the day, even it permitting a little gay sex, once in a while, on the side. I’m still obstinately more interested in what became of Hendrik, and would like to fly off to Lisbon to find out.

      Finally, what does this film’s title actually mean? Do Patrick and Kristian drive off into the sunset to live out their lives together as a gay couple? I doubt it. And besides, Mads is far more attractive, at least from my point of view.

*This film was released and copyrighted in 1987, although there is evidence that it was filmed at least two or three years earlier.

Los Angeles, March 19, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (March 2021).


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