Sunday, September 13, 2020
Francis Savel | Équation à un inconnu (Equation to an Unknown)
destructuring gay porn
by Douglas Messerli
Francis Savel (as Dietrich de Velsa) (writer and director) Équation à un inconnu (Equation to an Unknown) / 1980
How to you explain something that is completely unknown, unpredictable, and impossible to define? In the science of physics an unknown value can be determined if we know the value of all but one of the unknowns. But what if all but one of signifiers are unable to be signified, are unable to be made real except by the one known quantity, in this film’s case, sex.
Moreover, the title of this film does not describe itself—at least in English—as an equation for the unknown, in short something that works toward solving the riddle, but is linguistically represented as of, almost suggesting a kind of tribute to it, as in the case of “The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” And, in fact, that analogy is quite appropriate, since all of the sexually consumed “soldiers” of this film, had, by the time of the film’s 1980 release, died, most likely of AIDS.
But before we can even begin to explore that issue, we need to determine just what kind of film this is. I truly believe that if I were to show a DVD of this work to almost anyone of the general public most anywhere on the planet they would, if they might allow themselves to the pleasure of its full 99 minutes, immediately shout out “Oh, that’s a porn movie!” or “that’s an adult gay film.” And, for the most part, they would be right.
Cinema aficionados and critics might soon after mention the innovative use of the camera, noting, for example, in one instance how the camera, stationed below the elegantly-banistered elliptical staircase follows the film’s “hero” (Gianfranco Longhi) as he climbs to the to top, time and again temporarily moving out of the frame to reenter into view. Or they might point out how the three motorcyclists and one tag-along riders move in misty night through a small tunnel as they seek out a nearby shack in which to perform their sexual acts, remarking how they look somewhat like the beautiful vampires of Dracula. And they would certainly proclaim as filmmaker Yann Gonzalez—whose restoration of this film has allowed me and others to see it—this is “the most melancholic porn film I’ve ever seen.”
These same cinematic observers might also categorize the director, Francis Savel (as listed in the credits as Dietrich de Velsa), as working in the tradition of, as Diego Semerebe actually has commented in his essay in the on-line cinema journal Slant, that “The closest example to this type of cinematic communion between pornography and poetry is perhaps James Bidgood’s Pierre-et-Gilles-esque extravaganza Pink Narcissus from 1971, or Fassbinder’s slightly less cartoonish Querelle from 1982.”
Owner of the early transvestite cabaret in Paris, La Grande Eugène, and an artist (an Alain Delon-narrated short about the creation of one of Savel’s paintings is included as an extra on the DVD of Equation), historians would assuredly remind us that Savel collaborated with Joseph Losey on Mr. Klein and Don Giovanni.
Despite the film’s severe melancholia, Gonzalez, I remind, still describes it as a “porn film” and goes on in an interview with Jordon Cronk in Film Comment, agreeing with Cronk’s statement that the film was “an effort to lovingly represent what was the last gasp before the AIDS crisis,” added
“There is an attitude in those protagonists of the ‘70s—in the faces, in the bodies, you see in those porn films that they enjoy giving mutual pleasure to one another. There’s an innocence, a naïveté, in those films. They were the pioneers of the porno genre in a way because those were the very first porno images and there was a joy in the fact of pioneering a movement, of making joyful love, having sex in front of a camera.”
Similarly, Semerebe almost rhapsodizes:
“What’s so unusual about Savel’s film isn’t only the way it rediscovers queer bliss in the unvarnished aura of the everyday, but how devoid of anxiety its world is. Gay sex is depicted as immune to guilt and fear. If strangers catch two lovers having sex, it’s either to watch them as voyeurs or to join in. This isn’t the same logic of cheap sexual voracity that tends to govern traditional porn, but a logic of absolute openness. In the film, sex is a ceaseless flow comprised of an always welcome amalgamation of visitors—that is, sex angels that promptly turn up at door thresholds or just out of the blue to ensure pleasure lasts.
“Group sex in Equation to an Unknown never amounts to a spectacle of pragmatic transactions. Pissing and rimming are portrayed as inherently tender, even poetic, activities. Orgies aren’t staged so much as they unfold spontaneously, bathed in delicate lighting and quixotic piano notes, as if each body merged with other bodies magnetically so they could form some sort of multi-tentacled organism. There’s no time for characters to reason or filter their impulses. They simply act in what feels like seamless reciprocity, or a kind of solidarity aimed at collective harmony through boundless sexual satisfaction.”
While I would hardly describe the activities this film portrays as representing the gay world of all of the 1970s (by mid-decade AIDS cases had begun to show up in almost all metropolitan areas), the beautiful, muscular and slim white young boys draped in denim, most of whom had little desire to hide their bodies in leather gear or other such “costumes”—in this film’s throwback to the racial restrictions of the time there is only one Arab boy, no blacks, Hispanics, or other ethnicities, who along with older men, hovering close by, are not permitted entry into the sexual participants’ look-alike league—is the world of the late 1960s and early 1970s I experienced in New York City and elsewhere. Except for an occasional police raid, in the bars and their backrooms I visited (Stonewall, with its mix of gays, lesbians, and transsexuals was more regularly invaded) as well as in parks, alleys, cars, and even at times on isolated side-streets, sex was open, fun, predictable, and, if one so desired, nearly endless, just as Savel’s film depicts it. As Gonzalez almost declares it to be, it was a kind of homosexual paradise in which youth was deified.
Reviewer Jason Arment gives us a slightly different bent bemoaning that when he sat down to the double feature of Gonzalez’ Knife+Heart and Equation at Denver’s Sie Film Center, “we found out minutes before the show started that it [the latter] was pornography,” and going on to quite dismiss the work:
“The problems with Equation to an Unknown isn’t the acting, which is adequate considering, nor the production value, which is on point, instead it’s the lack of sex and musical score which debilitate the film. Sure, there are ultra-explicit sex scenes, but nothing special. The lack of music was especially problematic as my friend snored through stretches of boredom.”
So unhappy was this viewer and his friend that one has to wonder if they were possibly heterosexual or perhaps had just seen to many gay porno films in the past.
Yet, as we shall see, he has a point. If this is simple, if beautifully filmed, pornography it does indeed represent all of the standard tropes of gay porn movies.
It is now time to apologize to any delicate readers for my use below of some rather crude gay sexual terminology, but that is the only way I can present the facts of Savel’s representation of gay sexual practices in their order of bodily involvement. Please absolve me with the possibility that you may simply allow my words as representing a kind of urban dictionary of gay slang.
Let me add that along the way the director also catalogs these so-called deviant sexual practices within the context of various activities and avocations that were widely featured in gay flicks of this time. The central character, La figure principale (Longhi) is a well-dressed motorcyclist, whose major attire, other than his short shirt and faded denims, consists of gloves, yellow goggles, a white cotton scarf and a white cycle-helmet framed by in red.
For the first sexual scene he arrives at a soccer scrimmage between youths, standing against a net to watch, with another cute boy at the other end and an older man between, who, as the younger men engage in covert glances, gives up and retires. One of the stars of the soccer players, Le footballeur brun (Jean-Jacques Loupmon) is hurt—perhaps not so very accidentally—becoming dependent upon his friend, Le footballeur blond (Reinhard Montz) to help him limp back to the showers. While the other players perform the typical jock shower routines of towel slapping, penis-grabbing, and general rough-housing, blond takes brun (it may be the other way around, but it doesn’t matter) into a nearby cubicle for a massage—or for those in the know, a pretense of massaging—his friend’s hurt groin, his hand gradually moving toward his cock before quickly escalating into the supine player rimming the would-be medic while the latter begins seriously to suck him off.
Meanwhile, La figure principale shows up as voyeur to the action, staring through the cubicle window for a long while before taking out his own cock, which eventually the other cute boy begins to jack off. Blink an eye, and the two voyeurs enter the soccerboy’s room and join in on the fun, all of them cumming in heavy streams of sperm across the face of the principale.
For readers who have not seen a gay film or only a couple, I can assure you that there are hundreds pornos that play out something like this scene. Soccerboys are important in gay filmmaking.
As are friends, such as the next-door neighbor (or the boy who perhaps shares his flat)—in this case his childhood friend, François—who pops in through a window just in time to masturbate the naked principale now laying coverless in his bed.
The next scene is another gay porn standard: several boys are standing around a pinball machine watching Le joueur de flipper (Dominique Delattre), who apparently has not yet mastered the game and, accordingly is joined—with penis rubbing against the ass and hands embracing the young pinball player’s hands—by Le jeune Arabe presumably to teach him how to better master the game.
Meanwhile, our principale has chosen this little hot spot to have a drink at the bar with a snack. An older patron sits a table nearby busy drinking harder liquor since we will surely not be included in any of these boy’s games. When the young Arab decides to go to the loo, the pinball player soon joins him to be sucked off before the flipper proceeds to fuck him.
Soon after the pinball player returns to the bar the principale determines to join the fun, but just as he is beginning to enjoy himself, the probably pissed-off Le patron de bistrot (Jean-Claude Patrick) enters, pushing our “hero” out of the way before taking out his cock and releasing his urine all over the willing-to-do-anything Arab boy.
That’s lunch. Now our hero boy takes again to the streets via the motorbike for a late night snack, first with a worker holding on tight to the principale’s pants before he picks up a half un-zipped uniformed Le pompiste(Tony Weber), who, conveniently finished for day with pumping gas, goes for a ride of the central figure’s bike, his cold hands stuffed into the driver’s pants pockets.
They stop for a moment on a narrow side path to have sex on the seat of the bike, the gas-station attendant sucking off the driver before snowballing the cum he has just acquired into the principale's mouth with a kiss, the excess semen running down our hero’s chin.
At that very moment two other cyclists drive up to join them, asking the local pompiste where they find a more private place to do their business. He knows of a local shack up ahead, and they move through the dark tunnel I previously mentioned, to have a nice foursome, the two cyclists pairing up, while our “hero” does it again with the cute gas-station attendant, while this time also serving as a voyeur to the one cyclist who is fucking the other. The scene ends with all the cyclists speeding off, Le pompiste walking home along a country road with cum dripping from his mouth.
After another encounter with François, this time the principal, perhaps intrigued what he observed the evening before, demanding that he fuck his friend with a hint that he wishes he might be the only one he loves.
As if to immediately disprove that, the busy hero, now floating upon what appears to be a waterbed, popular in all sex flicks, is gradually joined by six or seven of the boys, now lined up against a wall in the next room, with whom he has previously had sex, for the necessary orgy, each of them joining him one by one for whatever kind of sex one might imagine.
The last scene of the film returns us to the first, the two, “the principal player” and François, years younger, joy-riding upon a single bicycle down a street.
I don’t think I’ve ever described in such detail a gay porn film, but if nothing else, this should establish that Savel’s work, at least superficially, represents adult gay entertainment. But, as Peggy Lee has many a time asked, “Is that all there is?” My answer is most definitely “no.”
First of all, not only is the central figure a complete blur, without a name, a job, any family members or friends other than the nebulous if constant interloper François (who, incidentally, is employed), but he has utterly no interests in life other than sex. Throughout, he barely eats and never seems to sleep. This may certainly help to explain why he is a bit morose.
But, more importantly, it is nearly impossible to make sense of his sexual excursions. Savel interrupts his first sexual encounter with the soccerboys, continuing it grand finale only after Le principale motors home and falls into bed, soon after, to be jacked-off by François. Not only is the hiatus confusing, but it suggests that what we see as the actual sexual culmination as simply being a fantasy.
This certainly helps to explain how our hero can ejaculate throughout the film almost non-stop, sometimes minutes apart from his last sexual interlude.
In the incident at the bar with the pinball players, moreover, his sexual diversion is interrupted by the patron/barman. And his first encounter with the gas-station attendant on the motorcycle seat might similarly be seen as interrupted by the arrival of the other two cyclistes.
Even their shacking up for sex seems fantastical when the director immediately after plants the hero upon his bed having sex, yet again, with François, followed, more strangely still, by him suddenly being rolled out on a huge waterbed that could not possibly have fit into the small room in which he have just seen him.
The men from his past sexual encounters seem not all to be there “spontaneously” as Semerebe describes it, but as part of a seemingly planned event wherein each of them has been invited to what might be described as a kind of theatrical event. And one by one they come forward, as the “hero” motions to them, with almost balletic-like movements, as if they were performing at a version of a theater try-out. In fact, the entire orgy is accompanied by off-screen laughter of a man and a woman (the only heterosexual voices that this film presents, certainly the only female voice).
Throughout this work, windows appear where we previously saw none, spaces suddenly enlarge and contract. People with whom Le principale is consorting suddenly disappear into thin air.
Except for the sex he (the first time somewhat reluctantly) has with François, it appears that our sexual non-entity is living in a rather predictable gay porno-film of his own making, all the pretty boys, their large penises and tight asses, being a product of his own imagination. It is, in some senses, like a nightmare world in which the central, unnamed figure” “can’t get no satisfaction.” Certainly, that terrible lust for totally predictable illusion of endless pleasure might explain his and all the others’ melancholia.
Without being able to ever touch the fantasies you’ve conjured up for yourself—or worse yet, what others have conjured up for you—joy is impossibly out of reach. The only joy we recognize in this film derives not from his present escapades but from the hero’s past on that bicycle with François. In this film we have to wonder if even François, who makes his first appearance from a window not shown in the previous scene, truly exists except as a loving memory.
Living only in future fantasies, with a past that cannot again enter the present, our unknown figure is himself already dead, a nonentity. I don’t know precisely when Savel filmed this movie, but by the date of its release, AIDS had already killed thousands. Accordingly, even what Gonzalez imagines is a beautifully hedonistic portrayal of sex in the past, is not real, but another fantasy itself, with the author showing the viewer just how fantasies are brought into being—and most importantly, how the dreamer himself is destroyed by them. The pattern is clear: take two people, four, numerous of them, put them in a room and rub their bodies together. The juices that run from orifices is called pleasure. But whether or not they can create a fire, something to sustain them throughout life is dubious.
Let us restate the “equation,” E (the imaginative energy of the dreamer) equals m (the mass or time put into the effort) both unknown, but add + c to the second power (the speed of light, the source of any film put upon screen, results when multiplied in this scientific formula is an atomic reaction) where all is totally destroyed. The soldier is now thrown back into his unknown grave.
Los Angeles, September 13, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2020).