Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Luchino Visconti | Ludwig

body and soul

by Douglas Messerli

Luchino Visconti, Enrico Medioli, and Suso Cecchi d'Amico (screenplay), Luchino Visconti (director) Ludwig / 1973

Before I even begin writing about Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig of 1973 it is necessary to report which version of Visconti’s great film I saw, since there are now four editions of the work. The original “director’s cut” was over four hours long, far too long argued the film’s distributors—Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (USA) and MGM-EMI (UK)—who cut it back to three hours when it originally appeared in German theaters. Visconti was unable to fight the changes since he had had a stroke during the filming and was too ill to further hold up the film’s release.

     The depiction of Ludwig’s homosexuality, moreover, caused a huge stir in Bavaria where Ludwig was still beloved by many conservatives, among them Bavarian Prime Minister Franz Josef Strauss, who attended the film there upon its premiere. Fearing further controversy, the distributors immediately cut another 55 minutes from the already butchered work of cinema, reducing the film to two hours, and excising any remaining hint of homosexuality along with removing most of the philosophical dialogues which help to explain Ludwig’s difficulties in attempting to serve the nation, the church, and himself simultaneously. Presumably, the people at MGM felt that these extensive cuts would help make the film more popular for mainstream audiences; it did not, only further estranging its audiences because of its disjointed plot and seemingly unrelated incidents. It was this two-hour version which most of the world saw when attending Ludwig in theaters in the US and the rest of Europe.

     In short, most viewers, attending the March 1973 US showing, as film critic Wolfram Schütte put it, “haven’t even seen the film.”  Is it any wonder that Vincent Canby wrote of it in The New York Times Review:

Ludwig, which opened yesterday at the 59th Street Twin 2 Theater, is opera buffa that doesn't know it. Visconti and his writers give us the story of Ludwig's reign (or, at least, the outline of it) in a manner that is meant to be grand but actually is just a frantic inventory of what historians usually call his excesses—his rather superficial appreciation for art and architecture, his love of sweets (which resulted in his teeth falling out) and especially his love affairs with a series of grooms, actors and other pretty fellows. Visconti has been such an intelligent film maker in the past that it's difficult to believe that Ludwig could be quite as bereft of ideas as it is. Is it about kingship? About the genesis of the Second Reich under the domination of the Prussian dynasty? About family? I don't think so. 

     Actually, had he seen the entire film, he might have realized that the movie is very much about just those subjects he brings up, but is also about so very much more. I’m surprised that he even figured it out that Ludwig (the always beautiful Helmut Burger, Visconti’s real-life lover of many years) had an eye for the boys, although apparently the cut vision did retain the later film scene in which we observe the leftovers of an all-male orgy. The posters and film promos, even today, feature the central figure about to kiss his cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider), as if the film’s exploration of his personal life was focused upon a heterosexual liaison between the two. If he loved her it was only because she reminded him so very much of himself, a strong- willed royal who hated having to play out the responsibilities of being one, which cannot help but remind us today’s Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor, better known as Prince Harry Duke of Sussex, the so-called “bad boy” grandson of Elizabeth II. Ludwig, at least if Visconti is to be believed, was a virgin when it came to women, and accordingly had no Meaghan Markle to help him escape. 

     Finally, I’m not at all surprised that a film in which most of the philosophical ideas have been erased, does in fact appear to be a work “without ideas.” The original, however, is very much a film of ideas, of which the issue of Ludwig’s sexuality is only a small part; and even then, Visconti is not at all interested in portraying gay sex as much as it is showing us why Ludwig’s sexuality helped to torture him and bring others to describe his as a mad man.

     The review of another US critic, Roger Ebert, makes even clearer the damage done to this work due to its numerous lost passages: 

I guess the movie might have made more sense in its uncut version, but I can’t be sure. There are all sorts of moments that are either (a) enigmatic, or (b) simply unresolved loose ends. At one point, a breathless courier races into the room and informs Ludwig that Bavaria has been defeated and has surrendered. Fine, but until this moment the movie has made no mention of a war. Nor is it ever mentioned again, and Ludwig stays in office.

      At another moment, a character of little importance suddenly becomes a narrator and tells us what we can see perfectly well: That Ludwig has invited a young actor to spend some time with him in the country. This is the only narration in the film; I suppose it’s inevitable that it would be used to explain one of the few moments in the film not needing explanation. Then again, at the end, there’s a printed epilog that informs us, so help me God, that “In death as in life, Ludwig remained an enigma.”

     Those of us who have now seen the entire four hours and seven minutes of this phenomenal artwork, were not confused by any of these incidents, recognizing them in a larger context of the film. Nor were we told as an afterthought that Ludwig was an enigma, since the character himself described that it as his intentional pose. (Near the end of the film Ludwig tells von Gudden, “I am an enigma. I want to be an enigma forever for those outside my world and for myself.”)

     Fortunately when I determined to watch this film, I couldn’t find a DVD version in print; and when I finally did see one for sale, I had already begun to watch on Mubi the restored version that the film’s editor Ruggero Mastroianni and screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico had created for the 1980 Venice Film Festival four years after Visconti’s death. Apparently, the DVD version I had tracked down was the butchered one. Chance had saved me from mistakenly judging the work for something it had never been. Thank heaven for serious film sites such as Mubi, Criterion, Kino Lorber, and Filmatique for their careful curating and preservation.

     Visconti’s film, in reality, is a long epic that with a careful and deliberative pace establishes several things about the “Swan King,” the truly “bad boy” of the late 19th century who died of apparent suicide by drowning.

      Perhaps most important is that Ludwig was raised and trained to be precisely the aloof connoisseur of arts for which he was later damned for being. Although Visconti does not probe into his character’s childhood, the Ludwig he presents to us obviously was trained dutifully by tutors and Roman Catholic priests to be a pious aesthete, a man highly attune to the arts; and one of the earliest scenes in the film shows him coming of age and confessing to his personal priest, Father Hoffman (Gert Fröbe) that he has finally realized—faced at 19 with the death of his father and his own ascendency to the role of King of Bavaria—how he might best contribute to the well-being of his kingdom. Since he has hardly ever encountered people outside of the wealthy circles in which he was isolated from the rest of the world, Ludwig has utterly no ambitions of seeing to the welfare of his citizens or, although architecture is one of his deep passions, of remodeling the public structures of Münich or other Bavarian cities (yet he did, in fact, lay the cornerstone of Münich’s Cort Theater, now the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz). Ludwig, raised entirely a creature apart from others (history reports that he hardly ever even met with his father), given his noblesse oblige training intends to introduce Bavarian society to great European theater and, most importantly, to opera, in particular the works of Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard).

     But what happens when the gift you’re bestowing upon the entire society is not easily comprehended, the Bavarian audience not quite knowing who the great composer is or what his then experimental operas mean for the history of musical theater? Resentment that your King is focusing so forcibly upon an outsider is obviously one of the first reactions, particularly given the highly conservative, religious cabinet members of Bavarian government who are also appalled that Ludwig was not only paying for the production of Wagner’s new opera, Tristan and Isolde, but would build a new house for the composer, a new theater for the opera’s production, and pay for the composer’s previous debts, to say nothing of paying the salary of the conductor Hans von Bülow (Mark Burns) and his wife Cosima (Silvana Mangano) the later of whom, Bavarian secret agents soon discover, was having an affair with Wagner of which her husband was aware but  remained silent simply to maintain his position.

     In short, Ludwig was betrayed by those receiving his philanthropy and his best friend whom he has brought to Münich as his to the masses. One of the most painfully moving scenes on the first part of the film is when Ludwig must finally request that his “best friend”—one of several men in which throughout his life to whom he bears his soul and puts his trust who does not live up to his demands—leave the city. But even then Ludwig promises continued support and would latter help fund the Bayreuth productions of Wagner’s greatest achievement Der Ring des Nibelungen. Without Ludwig we would not have the Wagner that most of us know and love today. 

     To describe Ludwig as “mostly a rotter,” as Canby does or, even worse, as Ebert characterizes the “Mad King,” “an egotistical little martinet,” rather misses the point. If Visconti is fascinated by his subject, it is not as both critics hint that he pruriently enjoys visiting the Bavarian Royal’s sexual depravities, but because, despite all the horrific epithets that were heaped upon him, Ludwig did truly accomplish a great deal that history has revealed as being of notable worth. And Visconti is not just speaking of what some might describe as a “dabbling” in music and a “hobby” of building fantastical castles such as the wondrous and highly “kitsch” fairy-like bastions of Schloß Neuschwanstein, Schloß Linderhof, and Schloß Herrenchiemsee—all now popular tourist attractions which, it was later discovered were paid for by his royal allowance not with public monies, having since reaped the Bavarian State a fortune over the years, while even at the time of their construction bringing considerable wealth to workers on the poorer regions of Bavaria where  they were built. (Visconti does, however, give us a long grand tour of these castles as Elizabeth inspects each of them after hearing of governmental complaints of Ludwig’s expenditures.)

     What Ludwig accomplished in his abhorrence, as he describes it to Elizabeth, of “wars, weddings, babies” and his family’s “incestuous and fratricidal” activities, the director intimates was to create an entirely new concept of how monarchies might be employed in the many European countries in which they have continued to exist into our own century. By refusing the involve himself in any matters with the disastrous Austrian-Bavarian alliance against the far more dominant Prussians, Ludwig removed himself from involvement with everyday politics and became the symbol of power rather than its executor, much the way the European monarchs serve their countries today. In a sense, Ludwig showed Europe how to deal with its archaic leaders who would soon lead them into World War I, with its ultimate ramifications being the tragic world struggle of World War II. Ludwig, as the Visconti’s film shows us, was radically opposed to the Bavarian alliance with Prussia which clearly foretold both Wars and—particularly given the conservative elements which helped depose Ludwig and the fact that Adolf Hitler spent most his childhood living in Lower Bavaria—would help the Bavarian rightists gain power in Germany long after Ludwig was dead. 

     While these links are simply hinted at in Visconti’s biographically-based epic, they are made quite literal in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s anachronistic film, Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King of a year earlier. As cabinet members late in Visconti’s film plot discuss how to rid themselves of a King who will not politically involve himself, they also recognize that many of their fellow countrymen are absolutely delighted by Ludwig’s absence in the political arena.

      Indeed, Ludwig behaves throughout almost precisely as he has been raised to—except his refusal to attend family social occasions, present himself as a beneficent leader in public, and, by far most importantly, to marry and produce an heir.

      The latter is what is generally described by all as his greatest “eccentricity,” a code world even today for a homosexual, which, although not against the law in Bavaria, was still outlawed in Prussia (which may have played a role in Ludwig’s fierce refusal to join in an alliance with that country), and would have been unthinkable among Bavaria’s social elite. As Jonathan Romney summarizes it in his excellent commentary in Film Comment:

Ludwig’s doom was partly to do with what enemies in his court here term his “eccentricity”—in other words, his homosexuality.

      Budd Wilkins, in Slant expresses Visconti’s focus in this film in more general terms:

Visconti’s film is at bottom the attitudinal antithesis of a traditional biopic, eschewing the grand historical set pieces (an odd blend of battles and opera performances, in this instance) that would’ve been the bread and butter of a more conventional film. Ludwig instead becomes a penetrating character study of an individual isolated from, yet in thrall to, the dynastic royal family that rejects out of hand his natural proclivities and artistic instincts.

       If Visconti, accordingly, seems to some viewers to focus on Ludwig’s homosexuality—which I insist he most certainly does not—it is because the real problem the politicians face is not simply his exorbitant expenses, his isolation from his own countrymen, his “dabbling” in what was considered as the “esthete pleasures” of music, theater, and art, but his refusal to marry Sophie (Sonia Petrovna), Elizabeth’s sister, and bear a male who might take over the country upon his death.

     It’s not that Ludwig didn’t try. After intense counseling by the two men who were closest to him and obviously knew just what his eccentricities consisted of, Father Hoffman and the dashing Count Dürckheim (Helmut Griem)—both of whom attempt to convince him to abandon his natural instincts in service to the national cause—Ludwig struggles deeply to control his sexual inclinations. Both recognize, however, that just as Wagner is a genius, different from the others, so too is their beloved leader. To turn him into an ordinary being will surely be to kill him, just as it destroys his equally sensitive brother Otto (John Mouder), another young man whose “loneliness” we are told (perhaps we might read that as a coded word for his closeted existence) has made him insane.

     After one such conversation, Ludwig suddenly declares that he will marry Sophie, waking up the entire household and calling Father Hoffman to his side to declare his intentions. Yet, Hoffman and even Ludwig’s mother (Izabella Teleżyńska) recognize that the young man’s sudden enthusiasm—today Ludwig most certainly would be defined as suffering from bipolar disorder—is a problematic joy. Hoffman is highly skeptical of the whole event. And Ludwig’s mother Marie and associates higher proceed to hire a stage actress to initiate him into how to engage in heterosexual behavior.

      Without having any of her sister’s worldly knowledge and abilities to cope, Sophie is nonetheless a beautiful and well-trained woman. She, unlike Elizabeth, even shares her fiancé’s love of Wagner. But to hear her sing while playing the piano is, as Berger’s preposterous passive expression reveals, a true torture; he even takes a small revenge by encouraging his friend Wagner to ask her to privately perform for him. Fortunately, the wise and crafty survivor, foregoes the pleasure. 

      Ludwig continually postpones the wedding, ostensibly because of the fact that he will have face an endless series of social gatherings. Eventually he cancels it altogether, sparing Sophie years of suffering.

      Despite Visconti’s own homosexual relationships with the last king of Italy, Umberto II, the notorious director of operas, films, and theater Franco Zeffirelli, and this film’s Ludwig as well as the rich sensuous quality of the cinematic images in almost all of his films, he has seldom  represented homosexual sex as a passionate or sensual affair. And here, once more, we never see Ludwig engaged in sex or even in bed with another man. The clearest evidence of Ludwig’s desire is the gentle kiss he plants on the forehead of a sleeping servant. We observe Ludwig almost having an orgasm as he listens to the handsome stage actor Josef Kainz (Folker Bohnet) declaim passages from a role that has made him famous.

     The sexual energy it releases in Ludwig, however, is not at all what might normally be described as love-making, as in another frenetic episode soon after, he demands that Kainz immediately join him on a voyage to Greece, Italy, and other countries while all the trip spouting passages from his  plays. While Ludwig is ready to offer up both body and soul, the voyage totally exhausts the venal Kainz (the actor expects to be paid for his sexual services with jewel-encrusted rings and watches) who finally collapses on a bench serving as the only bed into which Ludwig has apparently enticed him. Once more, a dear friend disappoints him in love.

     If there is any sign of sex in Visconti films it is that of the voyeur staring into at the body of his would-be lover with desire (as in Death in Venice) or in the aftermath of an orgy of sexual drunkenness (as in the scene of the young SS officers in The Damned). Here Visconti conjures up just such a scene, which I would describe as a tableau or frieze of sexual satiation with an entire small battalion of stable boys, soldiers, and servants—only in sex was Ludwig a true “man of the people”—having fallen to the floor and even hanging out naked in the trees in the lavish imitation of a Bavarian beer-stube that the King has evidently carved out of his castle grottos. We see sex portrayed in Ludwig and his other films only as a consummation, something that has burned away all desire to leave us only a vast portrait of a debauchery of the imagination. It is, like all of Ludwig’s endeavors, a theatrical representation of love having little to do with a literal gathering of men to suck and fuck. Like the movie itself, it is a piece of art in which no prisoners of the heart are left standing.

     I should imagine that was precisely how the Bavarian bourgeoise pictured Ludwig’s grand “eccentricities”; after all, hadn’t he already expressed his sensibility in the extravaganzas of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and three fairytale castles? Could they truly have conjured up the rather pudgy, rotten-toothed, frowzily dressed, worn-out King that Helmut Berger portrays at film’s end? A king being so grandly conceived, must be able to corrupt all those around him, including the society itself. Action therefore immediately necessary, despite the fact that Ludwig now acted only in private and had no longer any contact with the world in his rule. Surely, he might simply have been left alone to die alone in a corner of one of his castles, mourned by a nation of followers who truly conceived the aristocracy as fantastical beings.

     The only way the government could imagine for destroying the beast they had created, however, was to pretend to use science in order cure it. A psychiatrist,  Professor Bernhard von Gudden (Heinz Moog) was called upon to access the situation and certify Ludwig as being of unsound mind. His report read: 

             His Majesty is in the advanced stage of a mental disorder

             known as paranoia. Such a disorder does not allow freedom

             of action. And such incapability will continue for the rest

             of his life.

Even if we were to forget the fact that just such plots to depose the King—which he long before suspected—might have led to any signs of paranoia Ludwig might have shown, the real tactic was to describe his “eccentricities” (his sexual “disorder) as representative of mental illness. It certainly wasn’t the first nor the last of many such proclamations used to silence homosexual individuals Although it is hard to imagine, even I, in my youth, would have been labeled mentally ill by The American Psychiatric Association and possibly arrested by the local police for illegal activities if I had been found acting out my sexual desires.

     The Ludwig we see at the end of this film, moreover, seems utterly enraged but totally sane, releasing the cabinet members he had briefly imprisoned for their actions, and recognizing that he had no choice but to obey their demands to be locked up in Berg castle on Lake Starnberg, just south of his now hated Münich. He is sane enough to know that his enemies are insistent upon “keeping me alive by killing me just as my brother (Otto).” He seeks the keys to the parapets of the castle in which now resides so that he might hurl himself to his death and, when that fails, he seeks out poison from his only ally, Count Dürckheim,” his request refused by the man who still loves him.

     When he was finally allowed to walk the lake paths with von Gudden, he seemingly strangles von Gudden before drowning himself in the lake. Rumors persist even today, however, that since Ludwig was a strong swimmer and no water was evidently found in his lungs that he was shot to death, perhaps by Count von Holnstein (Umberto Orsini), who told others he would notify them of Ludwig’s discovery with one shot. In Visconti’s film two shots are fired.

     Visconti’s film suggests that King Ludwig II, perhaps unintentionally, performed the role as an existentialist gay man—so different from Oscar Wilde who a few years later would suffer out his imprisonment—who one might describe as the first modern gay hero. He did not destroy himself out of infamy or shame, but rather to escape the imprisonment and silence imposed upon him, to retain his freedom. We can even imagine his killing of von Gudden as representing a kind of revenge against the society that could not embrace the gentle Frankenstein it had created. His desire to remain an enigma, finally, might be perceived as an attempt to fully claim his strangeness, the queerness that stood against everyday social niceties, pious complacency, and the petty hate that begat warring, while buggering body and soul, beauty and art. 

Los Angeles, March 31, 2021

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


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Patrice Chéreau | Ceux qui m'aiment prendront le train (Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train)

fighting for love

by Douglas Messerli

Danièle Thompson, Patrice Chéreau, and Pierre Trividic (screenplay) Patrice Chéreau (director)Ceux qui m'aiment prendront le train (Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train) / 1998

Imagine joining Mike Newell’s film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) only for the funeral of Gareth (Simon Callow); and instead of Matthew, Gareth’s long- time lover Matthew (John Hannah)—the two representing the only gay couple in this hetero-normative celebration of marriage the two having been in a kind of marriage the others in Gareth’s intellectual clique could not recognize—delivering a beautiful eulogy by reading another “splendid bugger” W. H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues,” he were to deliver a short and bitter diatribe against his elderly lover. Or—if you haven’t seen that movie in which once again more demands that the gay charismatic  figure must die so that the heterosexual others may celebrate their normative couplings—what if you were to attend a showing of Sidney Lumet’s stylish 1974 retelling of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express—featuring nearly every available British and Hollywood star of the day: Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins, and Wendy Hiller—set in a far less grand and crowded 2nd class train without the help of Hercule Poirot to untangle their relationships, some of them seemingly queer, and their connection with the murdered man Lanfranco Cassetti, alias Edward Ratchett onboard.

     Patrice Chéreau’s 1998 work Ceux qui m'aiment prendront le train (Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train) puts it audiences in much the same position as I’ve just suggested, and takes it one step further by peppering his group of acolytes surrounding the painter/sculptor Jean-Baptiste Emmerich with just a few women (one elderly self-declared lover of Jean-Baptiste, Lucie, and the wives of some of the artist’s close male friends) among a group of gay and bisexual men, lovers of Jean-Baptiste or one another all endlessly milling about in the crowded train from Paris to Limoges where the pedagogue has determined to be buried—one of the largest cemeteries in the world. The Jean-Baptise character and the film’s title were said to have been based on the documentary film-maker François Reichenbach, some of whose films I’ve reviewed in these volumes.

     One of the great joys—and frustrations—of the film is the requirement to piece together the soap-opera-like interconnections of the various characters we encounter on this mad train ride where cinematographer Eric Gautier’s hand-held camera weaves in and out of the train seat- and aisle- conversations while a child, Elodie (Delphine Schiltz) behaves almost as badly as Zazie in Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le métro (1960) as she steals candy, grabs photos central characters are studying, and basically attempts to create general havoc throughout. It is she, we later discover, who may inherit the dead man’s estate.

    The train sequences were filmed over a fourteen day period in two carriages attached to regularly running trains between Paris and Mulhouse. It’s estimated that the cast and crew traveled 12,000 kilometers during two weeks in filming these early scenes. As Sight & Sound commentator Chris Darke wrote, “...The journey to Limoges is a triumph both of exposition and choreography.....Éric Gautier's use of handheld 'Scope cinematography gives the feeling of both buffeting movement and swooping detail." And, I might add, it helps to confuse our attempts to piece out just who is who, who they love, and, just as importantly, who they once loved or want to.

     As I mention, this is much of the fun of the first half of Chereau’s film, and if you desire that pleasure you should perhaps put off reading the rest of this essay until you have seen the film for yourself. But I do think that it is important to outline the interconnections I was able to unravel— particularly since numerous critics of the film were utterly flummoxed by these crucial facts, which help to explain the rather melodramatic actions of the film’s characters in latter half.

      Let us just begin by restating what by the end of the film is easily discernible: the painter Jean-Baptiste, who has a twin brother Lucien (both played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) has not only served as a blusteringly ingratiating guru for most of the males in this film, but has shared his bed  with them. He has also apparently had a loving relationship with Lucien’s wife, who in reaction to Lucien’s revenge of silence, eventually kills herself, having remained in their relationship only for the sake of their son Jean-Marie (Charles Berling), who out of bitterness for his father also became an acolyte of, and perhaps was also buggered by, his uncle. The family fortune, overseen by Lucien, was apparently obtained through the production of shoes (rooms of their home are still filled with them), which, along with porcelain, is one of the two major industries of Limoges. Late in his life Jean-Louis evidently also had an affair with Lucie (Marie Daëms), who, having kept in regular contact with the artist, describes herself his “impossible woman”—an epithet to which another member of the group responds is perfect for the “impossible man”— evidently has made the travel arrangements for this group outing, and is the only one who actually seems to be grieving Jean-Baptiste’s death.   

      In the early scenes, we observe François (Pascal Greggory, Chéreau’s longtime lover) looking over slides and scrapbooks of the artist’s work, in seeming preparation for a eulogy he never delivers, the fact for which Lucie later criticizes him. He is later described by others as Jean-Baptiste’s “favorite,” and has been working for years on a book on the painter without evidently finishing it. Indeed, one of the subplots of this movie is how all of Jean-Baptiste’s friends and lovers, although sustained by him, broke with him due to the artist’s abuse, his fickleness, or insatiable demands.

     François’s lover of the past few years, whom another of the group members, Bernard (Olivier Gourmet) gauchely refers to as François’ fiancée, is Louis (Bruno Todeschini), a beautiful man who seems to be attending the funeral simply as François’s friend, but who apparently has also come to know Jean-Baptiste through their mutual visits. We never know if he might have been one of the original disciples or whether François met him through the artist. But, oddly enough, it is Louis who becomes one of the major figures by film’s end.

     Before I describe the complexity of Louis’ character, however, I should finish Bernard off, since he is later characterized by Jean-Baptiste himself as an “a loser and an ass-kisser,” who when he is mocked by the others, presumes it is because his wife Lorette is mad. If nothing else, he actually has written a small book about the author. But in his sudden recognition that he being laughed at for his own behavior, not his wife’s, he is so hurt he abruptly leaves the wake—which we might better describe as an “awakening” for the guests. But enough about this hanger-on.

      Louis has a problem from the very beginning of this masterwork of death, desire, love, and rejection. Even as he arrives at the train station, he encounters a stunningly attractive young boy named Bruno (Sylvain Jacques) from whom he asks directions. Soon after Louis has joined the group at a railway coffee shop, he again spots the boy at a nearby table, the two glancing at each other with an intensity that goes far beyond mere “cruising,” and would surely result in a sexual encounter had Louis not been involved with the logistics of imminent travel.

      On his way to the train itself, he again spots the boy, and when Lucie becomes terrified at having lost one of their members, Louis quickly volunteers to go back in search of her, obviously to seek out the mysterious boy once again.

    In fact, he does reencounter him, this time on the train itself. After sitting for a while with François he rises to seek out the boy, discovering him in a train aisle, where he tells him a strange story that seems almost stolen from Alain Resnais’ L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961)—the many film associations I make throughout are obviously not unintentional. As the two furtively embrace and kiss, he tells Bruno, whose name he is now told, that he has seen him once before, three years earlier at the same station, Gare d'Austerlitz, almost to the same day. It’s possible, the boy responds, since he often travels from Paris to his home in the south of France. Louis suggests they go for a coffee, or jokingly asks, “or should we retire the men’s bathroom for a quickie.” Actually they eventually choose the latter, kissing, embracing, and Bruno pulling down his pants, but allowing Louis only to stroke his ass without actually having sex.

       This brief encounter clearly effects Louis, and when he returns to his seat next to François he tells him “I love you.” His lover responds, “We’ve been together too long for such declarations.” And when Louis asks if he still agrees with their original commitment to being completely honest with each other, François hands him a handkerchief which, he jokes, his mother sends him in large quantities. “She thinks I’m too sensitive. Everyone knows I’m not.” He pauses before delivering the zinger, “So don’t use kid gloves. I’m listening.”

    Louis goes on to describe the boy, admitting that “I love him.”

    “Has it been going on long?”

    “No, just since the station. I’ve known him for ages. But we never met or spoke.”

    “Are you kidding?”

    “It’s sudden, I’m crushed.”

If this appears to be a slightly surreal conversation, it almost immediately turns even stranger as François inquires: 

             Did he tell you he was HIV positive? [Pause] Bruno.

             Because he didn’t tell me. He told me long after.

Shocked by his lover’s intense knowledge of the boy, he also discovers that he didn’t find out until six months later.

    “Then it wasn’t a fling? It was a real affair.”

    “Since about a year. Didn’t Jean-Baptiste tell you?”

    Louis turns toward François, rising to say, “You’re a scumbag.”

    During their conversation, the train has made an unscheduled stop at La Souterrane, and Louis gets off and enters the station, Bruno soon joining him. When the train is finally ready to move on, Louis does not reboard, while Bruno does, making it apparent that the boy is still in some sort of relationship with François. As the elder later asks the boy: “Was I such a bastard because I left, or because I stayed.”

    Previously, we have seen Claire (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) in the bathroom taking a pill and stuffing several boxes of pills into her coat pockets. When she enters the main car to speak to her husband, Jean-Marie (Lucien’s son if you recall) will not even speak to her. We soon learn that because of her drug addiction the two are breaking up, and she has refused to even answer his letters with regard to property rights and other matters. The two rightfully are furious with each other with seemingly no means of reconciliation.

     What Jean-Marie doesn’t know is that apparently Claire has given up drugs, and the pill she has just popped, and the others stuffed inside her coat are to help relieve her body from the complications of her being pregnant. She is afraid that if she were to tell him, he would even doubt that it was his child. Throughout the rest of the voyage the two glower and snip at one another, and because of their broken relationship Jean-Marie has grown so bitter that he delivers the spiteful eulogy of which I’ll soon report. Certainly, there seems to be no hope for their reunion, particularly since Jean-Baptiste has long warned his pupil about the dangers of a woman like Claire, obviously resenting that his nephew has chosen to marry a woman.

     Also on board is that obnoxiously charming girl and her mother Catherine (Dominique Blanc). We only discover their reason for traveling with the others as they all see, out the window, Elodie’s father Thierry (Roschdy Zem) speeding by in a station wagon carrying the coffin of Jean-Baptiste to take the body from Paris to his designated burial plot in Limoges. Thierry is clearly another of Jean-Baptiste’s many male lovers, but not through his tutelage, but rather through meeting the artist after he had a serious heart attack and was hospitalized in the institution where Thierry worked as night nurse. When the frail man finally was released Thierry, as he describes it, carried the body home in his arms and nursed him to health, obviously developing a relationship to him so close that Jean-Baptiste eventually came to describe Thierry and Catherine’s daughter Elodie as his granddaughter, and accordingly, bequeathed her his part of the Emmerich estate.

     Thierry, as we gradually begin to discover, is a kind of wild man who picks up a hitchhiker—who understandably is a bit wary of riding in a car with a corpse in the backseat—tossing him out of the car when the driver discovers that he has to take a detour. Later, Thierry, who since it is later intimated provides drugs to Jean-Marie may himself be on drugs, spins off the road steering the car to a rest in the middle of a wheatfield. The car eventually arrives in Limoges via a tow truck.

     As we slowly untangle their relationships over the first frenetic hour of this film, we realize, as Lisa Nesselson observes in Variety, “There’s not a happy camper in the bunch.” This ensemble, she asserts, “makes the average Woody Allen film seem like a picnic for the well-adjusted.”

      The first thing Jean-Marie does upon the group’s arrival in Limoges is visit the impossibly gargantuan cemetery in order to visit his mother’s grave, the only woman we feel that he was ever truly able to completely love. There he encounters his father who admits his own faults, particularly his ineffectual attempts to offer his wife something that might take the place of Jean-Baptiste’s attentions. Lucien is now even afraid in facing the group of mourners, that they might blame him for his wife’s suicide, as Jean-Marie has already made clear to others, he does. Yet here, actually confronting the man he has hated for so many years, Jean-Marie assures him that his mother was a manic-depressive and that everyone know that fact. 

      Yet only an hour or two later, Jean-Marie, speaking to the small band of would-be grievers blames all of them, including himself, for letting down Jean-Baptiste, for not living up to his expectations. Obviously still furious with his own failed marriage and stung by the artist’s condemnation of it, he virulently expresses viewpoints that we know and further discover to be completely false:

                  He [Jean-Baptiste] wouldn’t have wanted to be a

                  father. I wonder whether anyone wants to be a father.

                  He didn’t want any children.

      Of course we know, as he has recently discovered, that Jean-Marie is about to have a child, like it or not. And there is a stranger, a somewhat attractive woman at the gathering at the grave, who Claire soon uncovers is Frédéric, Jean-Baptiste’s son who is in the process of transitioning into Viviane. She is likely the off-spring of Jean-Baptiste and Jean-Marie’s mother, of whose existence Jean-Marie is evidently unaware. So Jean-Baptiste did indeed have a child as well, who should have obviously been his heir instead of the girl he pretended was his granddaughter.

     The battle ground is set up for a violent encounter between the two sexually confused married bi-sexual men, both bitter for their own failed marriages, and also both now fighting for the right to inherit what Jean-Baptiste has left them—although it is really in Lucien’s hands who has told Catherine that he does not intend to contest his brother’s will. In the midst of the battle Thierry slugs his wife as she attempts to intervene, upon which she warns him that if he ever strikes her again she will take her daughter and leave him. Jean-Marie, having attacked nearly everyone in sight, goes running off for rest of the night. 

     Viviane seems the most rational being still standing, and as Lucien—hearing that she is a “shoe freak”—offers her a pair of new shoes from the enormous stock that still remains in his house, the  two actually seem to gently engage one another in a romantic interlude that would, if carried further, strangely, perhaps without either of them knowing, reverse the actions of Jean-Baptiste stealing away his son, by him stealing the heart of his now step-daughter. The relationships here are so convoluted and incestuously perverse that we can hardly imagine their actualization, and fortunately the plot carries their mutual admiration no further.

     Despite all the fury, Thierry eventually makes up with Catherine. Returning early the next morning, Jean-Marie is told by Claire that she is planning to leave him with his unborn child, but still feeling love for one another they quickly find themselves in each other’s arms and soon after engaging in sex.

      Having made his way to Limoges, Louis has been trying to telephone, and finally reaching the house talks to François with Bruno listening in on another phone. He restates his intense love for Bruno and attempts to convince his lover that since they both love him they should take him under their care as a kind of son. François scoffs at the idea, and when Louis repeats that he cannot live without him, the self-declared “insensitive” man queries Louis if he truly believes he will be able to care for Bruno as the inevitable begins to happen. But Louis is implacable and is certain, if nothing else, about his love die Bruno.

      Unpredictably, François, the man who as Nesselson posited is the “one serene presence...whose cynical acceptance of every possible chamber in affairs of the heart allows him to glide above the fray,” at film’s end is only one left without someone else. As he witnesses from the taxi Louis and Bruno hugging in the hotel window, sees Claire and Jean-Marie walking together along the street, and watches Thierry, Catherine, and their daughter driving off, the art historian returns to Paris almost as a villain, a man who because he has been unwilling to fight for love, to shed tears into those dozens of handkerchiefs he is sent by his mother, will have no one but himself to blame for his lonely nights ahead.   

    Patrice Chéreau died in Paris on October 7, 2013 from lung cancer at 68 years of age. He was not buried in Limoges, but in the great Paris cemetery Père Lachaise. The film above was not much appreciated by US viewers, despite the fact that it won the Best Director and Best Actor César Awards. I loved the film so much that although I wrote the piece above based on a DVD viewing from Netflix, I also ordered my own copy so that I might watch it over a regular intervals for the remainder of my life.

Los Angeles, March 28, 2021

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




Friday, March 26, 2021

Nigel Finch | The Lost Language of Cranes

family secrets

by Douglas Messerli

Sean Mathias (screenplay, based on the novel by David Leavitt), Nigel Finch (director) The Lost Language of Cranes / 1991, 1992 general British TV release

Rose Benjamin (Eileen Atkins) is an editor, working throughout this film on what appears to be romance novel. Her son Philip (Angus Macfadyen) also works as an editor, although we do not see him engaged in his vocation but rather observe him mostly cuddled up in bed with his lover Elliot (Corey Parker) a mercurial American who appears torn between his love for and an inclination to break up with Philip. Rose’s husband and Philip’s father Owen (Brian Cox) is a successful academic, teaching at a university. Accordingly, the British Benjamin family, although not financially well off—indeed during the period when we enter their lives Rose and Owen are fearful of not being able to find an affordable new apartment, the owner having demanded the flat in they have been living for many years be vacated—they nonetheless seem to be a fairly comfortable and well-adjusted urban trio.

       In US terms—the country wherein David Leavitt’s novel on which this film is based occurred—the Benjamins might be described as having achieved the American dream. To the outsider their home surely is a comfy expression of what appears to be their satisfaction with their lives.

       Yet, as we soon discover, the Benjamins are a family unable to communicate their deep differences and pains, not just to the world, but more tragically, to themselves. Without actually knowing it, they each speak a slightly different but utterly incomprehensible language to one another. Philip lives with a female roommate, Jerene (Cathy Tyson) who is working on a PhD thesis that focuses on private languages, describing to Philip a pair of young twins who created a private language among themselves and another young boy, who left alone in his crib for most of his life, developed a language from his observation of the large working cranes outside his window. Hence this film’s title, The Language of Cranes, a secret way of expressing not unlike the way Rose, Owen, Philip, and perhaps even Elliot each speak languages that to the others appear to defy communication while openly living lives secreted from one another.

       To give him credit, Philip is the first to try to break the unspoken taboo, declaring to Elliot that he is planning soon to visit his parents and tell them he is gay. It is not that he is closeted; all of his friends know that he is a homosexual; all, that is except Rose and Owen. He is also determined to fully express to Elliot his love and commitment to a permanent relationship.

       The fact that Elliot—who has grown up as the adopted son of a noted queer author, Derek Moulthrop (John Schlesinger) and his partner Geoffrey (René Auberjonois)—still warns Philip about admitting his sexuality to his parents and soon after runs off to Paris, writing that he has found Philip’s love too demanding, should have given Philip some warning of just how difficult it is to describes one’s own identity to others. Yet, fortunately one might argue, Philip pulls open the living room drapes which we see Rose closing in a deep moment of isolation and confusion.

        Hoping to become as honest with his family as he has been to everyone else, the son tells them of his sexuality and reveals how painful it has been over the years to reveal it to the people he most loves. One might think that in 1991, the year this film was released—presumably contemporaneous with the incidents in the film itself—that to such enlightened professionals that Philip, after a moment or two of dismay about having not been told before or simply not having been able to read the signs of his sexual preference, would be greeted with open arms. Yet Rose particularly is angered by the news. Like many a mother, she begs him for some time before she can come terms with what he has told her. More telling is her response to his explanation that “everybody knows it, except you.” 

              “We all have our secrets,” she declares. “I’m not sure they ought to be revealed.”

       “It’s better,” Philip insists, echoing what anybody in his position or what any open-minded individual might argue.

      “Better for whom,” she snaps.

      Even at a later point in the drama, Rose seems still almost bitter about the revelation. And given her first response, we now see her in a different light, as a woman who herself has been holding deep secrets inside, not only about her own affair which we realize was a temporary fling with another married man, the couple’s friend, but out of her own resentment for her husband’s inattention and her doubts about his fidelity. These reactions give a dimension to Rose that Atkins quite brilliantly embodies in her character’s private struggle with inexplicable ghosts and her own slow attempt at translation of the secret language used by her husband.

      Owen at first seems more accepting of his son, but strangely remains silent as a tear drops from his eye and, soon after Philip leaves, he bursts into a seemingly endless crying jab, requiring that Rose not only deal with her own emotional responses, but to comfort her inconsolable husband.

       What we already know by this point in the story is that Owen is not crying for Philip as much as he is crying over his own lost life, his life-long resistance to admitting about himself what his son has just been brave enough to express.

      On regular Sunday outings Owen attends a local porno movie center (apparently at the time there were no such places in Great Britain but in order to remain true to the story, they nonetheless created one) seeking out quick sexual liaisons with other male theater-goers or occasionally joining another man for hotel sex. At another point, Owen gets up the courage to actually visit a male piano bar, picking up a man his age, and joining him for sex.

       Suddenly, it appears, no one in this previously “ordinary” middle-class family is happy; and we realize none of them live in a manner that the majority hetero-normative society would deign to describe as “normal.”

       Encountering a good-looking new faculty member, Winston (Nigel Whitmey) Owen invites him to their home for dinner, ostensibly—so he tells his son on dinner meeting where he also pumps Philip on how to recognize whether someone is gay or not—as a possible companion for his son. But at the family dinner itself it quickly becomes clear to Rose that real reason why Winston has been invited to enjoy her lasagna is because Owen is attracted to him. Throughout the scene Rose remains stolidly quiet as director Nigel Finch’s camera focuses in on a suddenly loquacious Owen describing the joys of Greece and Italy to his would-be lover.

        His apparent attempt to seduce the younger man is, indeed, as Rose later tells him, embarrassing, particularly since the attractive American is quite obviously straight, as Philip confirms when he reports to his new boyfriend that all the young professor could talk about as he drove him home was his girlfriend.

        In the quiet aftermath of Owen’s performance, his wife confronts him about his sexual interest in men, to which, at last, her husband admits he was attempted sublimate throughout most of their marriage. The New York Times television critic John J. O'Connor nicely summarizes their intense encounter:

“While Owen and Philip grapple with the meaning of it all, clear-eyed Rose survives with tenacious dignity. ‘How many times have I looked the other way,’ she asks whimpering Owen, "drawing ridiculous conclusions." Still another superb performance from Miss Atkins (A Room of One's Own) makes Rose a far more defined character than she is in the novel. She commands our attention and sympathy. ‘Think of me for once,’ she tells her husband. ‘My life's like the punch line of some stupid joke.’"

        For Rose, Owen’s admission is suddenly a kind Rosetta Stone that lines up a lifetime series of inexplicable actions, allowing suddenly for a translation from a uknown language she only now can read.

      Through Philip’s honest “coming out,” the Benjamins’ lives have been changed forever, but at least they have the consolation that in the remaining years they might find fuller meaning while living out their true identities.

       This powerful 1991 film was produced by the feisty Ruth Caleb on BBC, in another instance of the bravery of that network compared with the three US network giants. The original featured frontal nudity in the gay scenes and gay sexual activities in the porno movie as screened that year in the London Film Festival, and later in February 1992 on British television. For the US airing in June of the year for the PBS Great Performances series, the frontal nudity was cut from the work as well as much of Owen’s visit to the porno cinema. But even then the PBS airing caused a great deal of controversy, with some sponsors, such as Texaco some claim (which they deny), withdrawing future funding of the series.

      The uncensored film is available on Region 1 DVD in the US, and on Region 2 DVD in The Netherlands. Despite its being a BBC production, it has not been released on DVD in the United Kingdom even though it has been scheduled for release several times before being postponed indefinitely.

      As I have written elsewhere in these pages, Howard and I met one another and became a gay couple openly living together in 1970. The idea that almost 30 years after Warhol’s raunchy gay videos, that 20 years since such significant films as Visconti’s The Damned, Fellini’s Satyricon, and even, in the US, Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band that audiences still could not tolerate the open presentation of gay life seems almost incomprehensible, as meaningless to many of us as the language of homophobic hysteria.

      One must recall, however, in 1992 even seemingly sophisticated audiences were still reeling from the news of AIDS—absurdly described as the “gay” disease—and that very year a second wave of films about AIDS were making their way to theaters. My editorial assistant, Pablo Capra, who came of age in those same years, describes them as representing the most virulent anti-gay attitudes imaginable—although I most certainly might point to other periods such as the early 1960s, an even more powerfully homophobic era, in my view, than the notorious re-bating 50s.

      I am well aware that there still many TV viewers today who would, like Rose, prefer not to have such “secrets” revealed. Sorry folks, the very book you have in your hands testifies to the fact that there are simply no more secrets to be told. Anyone today who doesn’t know about the lives of LGBTQ people is intentionally placing their hands over their eyes, ears, and nose while reaching out to cover my mouth like one of the many-armed angry Indian gods.

Los Angeles, March 26, 2021

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