Sunday, June 7, 2020

Christophe Charrier | Jonas (I Am Jonas), also titled Boys

trying to heal a broken heart
by Douglas Messerli

Christophe Charrier (writer and director) Jonas (I Am Jonas), also Boys / 2018

To describe French director’s Christophe Charrier’s film Jonas as a “coming-of-age” film I think misses the point. In fact, the director toggles back and forth in time precisely to discourage critics and viewers from perceiving it as a traditional gay youth film in the manner Alex Strangelove and so very many others.
      Yes, Charrier spends a significant amount of time on the youthful love budding between two 15-year old’s at their school, but this is not a story so much about their love, but the results of that love and the terrible burden of memory, regret, and guilt. You might say that this film is closer to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend or, at a stretch, to Wong Kar-wei’s In the Mood for Love than it is to a film such as David Moreton’s Edge of Seventeen, which actually does portray sexual acts, while Jonas represents love only by kisses.     
      The film begins, in fact, in a kind of no-man’s land, in a time we cannot even comprehend, in which a young teenager is being driven by his father as he makes his way to a quick-stop shop at a gas station, the boy remaining in the car with his Game Boy, while the father goes in to purchase something. The Game Boy doesn’t properly function, and the teenager is pissed.
     Suddenly, as he surveys the landscape, he becomes terrified and before he can turn his eyes back to the car someone is at the closed window trying to break it. The kid screams and quickly locks the car up.
       We comprehend that this has just been a nightmare vision, but we won’t discover this incident occurs until the end of the film. The father returns and tries to sympathetically reassure that everything is fine. As one critic has written, it is like a piece of a jig-saw puzzle which cannot yet be explained.
       In the very next scene the same boy is 18 years older, and after a gay-bar fight in Boys, he is arrested by a police woman who reminds him that she was once a friend, Caroline, whose seat was usurped by a new boy to the class, Nathan (Tommy-Lee Baïs), just so that might sit next to Jonas. Evidently this has not been Jonas’ first bar fight, and he is now banned by the police from ever returning to the bar. What we won’t know until near the end of the film, it was his youthful attempt to enter the bar that caused the series of fights which now disallows his re-entry.

      We slowly discover, as the film progresses that the surly young adult (Félix Maritaud) was, in fact, the terrified youth of the film’s first scene. What has happened to him to allow such a transformation, we can only ask?
       Soon the director takes us back in time, as a 15-year old is about to begin his 9th year of school—an important year that may define their futures, as the principal explains. He, Jonas (Nicolas Bauwens, as the adolescent) we sense, seems to have few friends other than Caroline mentioned above. But when Nathan suddenly enters the room, late, he immediately discovers not only a “friend” but a kind determined thrill-seeker who looks for ways to get into trouble and who take him out of the doldrums of the classroom.
     Nathan has a large scar on the side of his face, which even further fascinates Jonas, and the two quickly become fast friends, Nathan, soon after, falling out of his chair in a faint so that, accompanied by Lucas to the doctor’s office, the two can escape to the gym room to, in Nathan’s case, smoke and consummate their friendship with a deep kiss, not at all rejected by Lucas. There he also admits how he got his scar: a pedophile priest struck him with a chalice when he wouldn’t consent to sex and bit the priest’s penis.
       Kisses, cigarettes, and Game Boy become almost leit-motifs which link the two forever: when Lucas smokes (as he does throughout the rest of the film) he is recalling his relationship with Nathan; he constantly plays Game Boy on the device that Nathan has given him; and his constant search of love (kisses) is an attempt to find something that he can’t explain, knowing simply knowing he is seeking ineffable. We know it is the missing love of his friend.
       The elder Lucas has a current boyfriend, Samuel, but he cheats on him so much—even he admits he cheated “a lot”—the boyfriend grows so tired of the cheating that he takes Lucas’ keys and throws him out, forcing Lucas to sleep in a hotel, where, it so happens, Nathan’s younger brother, Léo (Ilian Bergala) is the clerk. Léo later claims that he has been stalking him.
      I won’t go on detailing this highly fractured narrative, but my point is that the moment you try to grasp the young innocent Lucas, you again meet up with the surly young adult. The minute you feel you have begun to get a hold on the film’s realities, you realize it has slipped away again.
     Yet, finally all the pieces do finally snap together in the penultimate scene when (and here, for one of the first times I declare a spoiler alert) we discover that after the two boys unallowed entry to the gay bar, are called over a man, waiting outside, who claims he can take them to another gay bar, La Dolce Vita, and that he will even drive them there! Nathan delights in the idea, while Lucas hangs back, only joining at the last moment.
     After a rather long time, and not being able to perceive where they were, they ask him to turn around; when he refuses, they again insist, which results in him slugging Nathan, seriously injuring him. When still the car wouldn’t stop and they realize that they are being kidnapped for a sexual act, Lucas, in the back seat, reaches for the handbreak, resulting in the car spinning about for a moment as Lucas jumps out, leaving his friend behind. There is not La Dolce Vita, as the police later confirm.
     As a child, he has told everyone that he was asked to leave the car, but in this scene he explains to Nathan’s mother and brother what really happened, which reveals nearly everything in the film that has proceeded.
     Both forgive him, the mother reminding him that he was only 15, and Léo, driving him to the hospital where Lucas works and where intends to sleep in staff quarters, tells him that if he had stayed he too would be dead, which he is certain has happened to elder brother.
     Several viewer’s and critics have criticized the last frames of this powerful film, but I see it as a sign of Lucas’ possible healing. He has already left the Game Boy that Nathan has given him on a family bed, and now as they pass an amusement park, Magic World—where Nathan’s mother has revealed that Nathan has really gotten his scar playing bumper car—he insists they stop, despite the protests of Léo, for a short visit. They park and enter.
     Once more Lucas is attempting to link up with his lost youth and Nathan, but this time it is something joyous and, for him, new. All lit up in bright lights, the world does seem almost “magic,” and perhaps can help heal even a broken heart.

Los Angeles, June 7, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 7, 2020).

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