the living doll
by Douglas Messerli
Luiz De Barros (writer and director) Hot Legs / 1995
The short film (27 minutes) Hot Legs begins—after its color credits and an eerily nervous musical score by Dean Hart—somewhat like a gay noir, one of the first of a slew of such works after, that also toys with being a kind of existentialist mind teaser:
“Imagine waking up...naked...in strange place, say like a motel room (wakey wakey)...find yourself sitting up facing a man with a rather large gun (fuck). I’ve been thinking to myself. What would be the first words I would say? Like in the movies...what the...or where am I or some shit like that. So think carefully because I’ve giving you a chance here to come up with something a little more...original.”
The stuttering answer of the victim to whom these words are spoken are even less interesting...”I...where am I....” He has clearly failed the test.
Who might have been a goon in the typical Hollywood movie is a trim handsome man smoking a cigarette, a well educated figure whom we later discover is a medical doctor who was educated in the same private boarding school as the “pretty boy”—this South African director Luiz De Barros’ earliest film from 1991 was titled Pretty Boys—sitting in the nude before him.
Dave hardly even recognizes the individual who, turning the tables so to speak, is now tormenting him, and even when reminded that Tim was his boyhood friend, can only repeat that it seems so long ago. Why is he being so obsessed about something so far in the past, Dave wonders.
It’s clear that the now heterosexually-inclined Dave is not the most intelligent of beings, claiming that he deeply loves his wife who provides him with good sex, although as Tim reminds him, he has regularly had sexual encounters with other beautiful women.
As Tim attempts to dig into his hostage’s past, to comprehend how and why his once homosexual lover so radically shifted his sexual desires, we eventually perceive that Dave has not given those painful events or any of his other actions much thought. Like Maurice’s friend Clive Durham in James Ivory’s film version of E. M. Forster’s novel, he has almost effortlessly abandoned his homosexual life when faced by the normative demands of South African society.
Although Tim has clearly plotted out his actions to enact a revenge fantasy, as the subtitle of this film suggests, that will end in his ex-lover’s death, as he teasingly and at times brutally feeds, strokes, toilets, washes, and shaves the now “doll-like” figure he has raped (using that word in its original Latin meaning, “the act of seizing and carrying away by force”), he eventually shifts his intentions.
But it is at that very moment of shifting when we sense a different balance occurring between the two. Earlier, despite his claim that he can never remember his dreams, Dave manages to reveal a particular dream in which the two of them went hiking and it was “really beautiful as we walked around the mountains. It was hot, the sun dancing on my back. It was so hot. ...As we set up camp for the night I remember it being very quiet. Just the sound of wild animals. As we were lying next to the fire you came close and you started touching me and I...well I started spitting in your fucking face, you asshole.”
As he spits now into Tim’s face, we cannot but wonder whether the memory itself has been a creation simply to taunt his captor. But if so, we suddenly recognize that Dave may have some inner resources of survival and with those an inner life that all these years he has worked intensely to sublimate.
There is an almost Harold Pinter-like quality about this narrative shift, as the seemingly unfeeling Dave admits that he had beat Tim because, regarding their sexual involvement, “he liked it too much,” an admission of homophobic guilt that absolutely terrifies Tim, who gradually loses control, his captive suddenly spinning out of his chair to beat him just as he had as a child. With the shaving knife he is able to cut the rope that binds his hands together.
When he turns back to the fallen Tim, he sees the now equally naked Dave once standing erect, holding the gun aimed at his body. After attempting to calm him, to reassure him that he will not go to the police, that they should just “forget” all that has happened—a true reversion, I would argue, to his simplicity of thinking. When that fails, he lunges again toward Tim yelling out, “You want me to fuck you?”
The gun explodes. When the police arrive, in what the “epilogue” describes as 40 minutes later, we see Dave once again sitting in the chair, his hands still tied behind his back just as in the very first scene, except this time with blood rubbed across his face.
“He killed himself,” he insists to the police. “He kidnapped me. He’s dead.”
There are several ways of interpreting this ending. Perhaps, fearing the rape and not being able to face the trauma of his youth yet again—in the short flashback clips we briefly observe a previous rape, perhaps one of the torments Tim was forced to suffer—the doctor truly did kill himself. The blood on Dave’s face, according to this scenario, is Tim’s blood that splattered upon the attackers’ cheeks.
But how to explain the bound hands? It is far more likely that the gun went off accidently, killing Tim, or that Dave actually shot and killed him. Within the 40 minutes before the arrival of the police, who presumably Dave telephoned, he returned to the chair and retied his hands, in so doing obviating any guilt that might be attached to him, and allowing himself the possibility of denying any knowledge about the logic of his own abduction.
Yet, in so doing, he has once more been forced to shut himself off from any emotional or intellectual consciousness, to play the role of the complete passive innocent whose outward beauty is the only thing he has to offer others. Perhaps Tim realized that, after all, he did not need to kill his “living doll” since inside it was already dead.
Los Angeles, November 29, 2020
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (November 2020).