Monday, October 5, 2020

Lasse Nielsen and Ernst Johansen | Du er ikke alene (You Are Not Alone)

a boyhood idyll
by Douglas Messerli

Lasse Nielsen and Bent Petersen (screenplay), Lasse Nielsen and Ernst Johansen (directors) Du er ikke alene (You Are Not Alone) / 1978

1978 was a particularly mean year for LGBTQ characters in film. In Chile, La Manuela, of Arturo Ripstein’s Hell Has No Limits, a transvestite, was killed by the one she most loved; the German transsexual Elvira Weishaupt in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year with 13 Moons,  ignored by the man she loves, slit her wrists before slipping into death; in Paul Aaron’s A Different Story, a gay man and a lesbian, both unhappy with their lives, fell in love and married into a heterosexual alternative; in Herbert Ross’ version of Neil Simon’s California Suite, Diana Barrie (Maggie Smith) was panic-stricken while lamenting her marriage to a gay semi-closeted antique dealer (Michael Caine); in Arthur I. Bresson, Jr.’s Gay USA, the gay rights movement began to face their backlash in the form of Anita Bryant; in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express an American, convicted in Turkey for attempting to smuggle out a small amount of hashish, was locked away in a Turkish prison for 30 years, where he rejected the love of a sweet fellow prisoner (the Swede) and killed a guard who was planning to rape him [in truth, Billy Hayes, on whose memoir this was based, did not kill the guard and had consensual sex with some of his prison mates]; in David Hemmings’ Just a Gigolo pretty singer-actor David Bowie unhappily went to work in Marlene Dietrich’s male brothel; in Nighthawks Ron Peck made trawling the bar scene in London seem like Waiting for Godot.

And then there was the light and breezy Danish film by Lasse Nielsen and Ernst Johansen, Du er ikke alene (You Are Not Alone), where nothing  bad happens to anyone. True, boarding school student Bo (Anders Agensø), gradually discovering over the summer break that he is sexually attracted to other boys, is a bit nervous about returning to his all-male boarding school, particularly given the fact that his fellow students have transformed into suddenly post-pubescent heterosexuals who can’t get enough of masturbating to the magazine photos of women which they have illegally plastered across the walls of their rooms and, far more importantly, recognizes that the rector (Ove Sprogøe) of this Christian-based school is a strict authoritarian who seems to have forgotten, as their sex education teacher makes reminds them, that “sex is wonderful.”

       For a while, as he is greeted with the somewhat predictable reactions of hormonally over-charged young male teens who suspect someone in their midst might be a bit different, gently punishing him with pushes and shrugs, and even an occasional verbal taunt. Bo is clearly a bit lonely, a good kid whose very caring attitudes make him a favorite of faculty and other adults, while remaining an absolute puzzle to his classmates.

    Well, not really “absolute,” since so many of these boys have such long beautiful blonde hair that they don’t at all mind getting confused, once in a while, for the opposite sex, or simply sharing an off-hours shower. We immediately perceive, accordingly, that Bo is not at all alone, particularly when he soon finds love with a boy a few years younger than him, Kim (Peter Bjerg), who just happens to be the headmaster’s son.

      Kim, despite his parents’ warnings, likes to hang out with the older boys around the school in which he lives, and so open-minded are the directors and their fictionalized student body that we hardly can point to the moment when Bo and Kim catch each other’s glances; all we know is that suddenly Bo is sharing his bicycle with Kim’s slender thighs as well as whisking him away to a secret hut of hay he has built deep in the woods; for his part, before we can even catch our breaths, Kim is shimmying down a rope each night and slipping into Bo’s boarding room bed. 

      Obviously, if his father and mother got wind of the relationship there would be hell to pay; but Kim’s folks are so fixated on the horny heterosexual boys that they can’t even imagine, presumably, that there is even such a thing as same-sex love between two young boys of any community, let alone their own.
      Most of the other students are so nonchalant about issues of gender that they hardly blink an eye during a picnic outing when Bo and Kim gently tickle one another’s chin and blow gentle wiffs of air across each other’s body. Even though Kim gets drunk and arrives home to have face his unforgiving father, the reaction of the elder consists of more bluster than actual punishment.
      Indeed, Nielsen and Johansen’s lovely boyhood idyll might have gone on forever, a bit like the long-selling 1964 softcore book by Georges St. Martin and Ronald C. Nelson (that apparently Michael Jackson kept on a bookshelf near his bed), except for greater perceived evil in this lovely film that threatens the status quo. A young student who has been ordered to remove all the girly pictures from his bedroom has secretly repasted them in the boy’s bathroom. When the headmaster’s faculty stooge, Andersen (Jørn Faurschou) catches a glimpse, all students are called into the little gym in the middle of the night where the rector demands the guilty one admit his crime. After a long wait, Ole (Ole Meyer) steps forward to be sentenced the next day by the headmaster and faculty to expulsion.

     This is the real issue behind the film’s title, as most of the students now refuse to attend classes while creating banners and filming interviews of faculty members and the more than ever flustered rector until finally, in a new faculty meeting, the adults are forced to drop Ole’s punishment. They have almost all stood with their friend, who suddenly discovered, despite his bad parenting, that he was not alone.

     Now realizing their newfound powers, moreover, the enlightened boys, upon hearing that the only real danger to their existence, the motor-cycle riding townies, have cornered Bo in the woods and are busy torturing and humiliating him, hurry en masse to save him. Ole demands that the leader of the cycling boys kiss his ass! Which he finally does.

      The final scenes take place at a of student-parent dinner celebration where Bo and others, on the advice of their teacher, tackle the subject of one of the Ten Commandments, “Love thy neighbor.” They do so through a rather amazing early performance piece, in which a young man is attacked and killed in the streets followed by a lovely long camera shot of Bo and Kim standing half-naked in the forest innocently kissing.

It is hard to know whether this short film-within-the-film is the one actually being shown to their parents and, of course, to the headmaster himself, or whether it symbolizes the spirit of some other such film; but whether it be the actual thing or merely a simulacrum, the point is made: sex and everything leading to it is truly wonderful!

      When asked whether the long kissing scene was always planned to be the end of the film, director Nielsen responded:

Lasse Nielsen : No.  We actually shot more scenes after the parent’s night film screening, where Kim runs out of the room after being scolded by his father. Bo and Kim meet down in their secret spot in the woods. Unfortunately, however, that scene turned out too dark and we didn’t have enough money left in our budget to re-shoot. So the new ending was created in the editing room. But of course it was always meant to be a happy ending!

     In Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and elsewhere this film, soon after its release, came to be seen almost as a classic “coming-of-age” film. When it was originally shown in Denmark the censors  classified the film as “forbidden for children under 12,” believing that younger children would not understand the homosexual theme. But even that was later lifted and nowhere else where it was shown was it censored.

     Obviously, the film which even the directors didn’t quite realize was the first Danish film to celebrate homosexual sex without the characters suffering pain and unhappiness, with often one of the couple dying, was an amazing statement in 1978, and for years after.

     I think had this film been made and shown in the early 1960s my parents might never have let me attend a boarding school in Norway in 1964, where I might suggest the values were already very similar to ones presented in Nielsen and Johansen’s work. I might have easily “come out” at that time and been happily accepted; indeed several males even encouraged my nascent sexual desires, but I was too much of a US product to even realize it was possible. Lucky Kim, lucky Bo.

Los Angeles, October 5, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (October 2020).  

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