the closeted narcissus
by Douglas Messerli
Fernand Nault (choreographer), Norman McLaren (director) Narcissus / 1983
For years Canadian film director/animator Norman McLaren, a gay man long living a semi-closeted life through years of public homophobia, had struggled to find a way to express in his films his homoerotic concerns, but felt that his conceptions would not be acceptable for his productions distributed through the National Film Board of Canada. I discuss some of his animations and films with coded images elsewhere in these volumes; but in the 1970s, when he was working on early sketches for a piece on the Narcissus legend, McLaren came upon a different version from the standard Echo-centered presentation of Narcissus. As McLaren writes:
“Around 1970, when I was making a 35mm b & w rough sketch of the film with Vincent Warren... I came across a version of the [Narcissus] legend that contained the homo episode (in fact it recounted that Narcissus was besieged by hosts of girls and young boys). The three or four other versions I had read until then had mentioned only Echo... When I discovered the encounter with Ameneius, I got very excited and dead set on including both the girl and youth encounters, as they would not only throw Narcissus’ auto-philia into even greater relief but would give me a very justifiable opportunity to portray a homosexual relationship on the screen. A thing I had often wished to do. I am not sure if at that time (1971) stirrings of gay lib had filtered into the backwoods of my secluded life!”
Other projects intervened, however. And even though McLaren was now ready to finally come out, announcing his homosexuality to the world, he resisted due to the wishes of his partner NFB producer Guy Glover, with whom he had lived for 45 years.
When in 1979 he returned to the Narcissus project, things had radically changed given the various gay liberation movements, and he felt not only emboldened to include the long scene of gay love between Amenieus and Narcissus, but believed that he would have been a traitor if he had deleted it from his work. McLaren, however, notes that the scene might have been even gayer had he had more control over the project:
“Choreographer, Fernand Nault [b. 1921] who is one of us [gay], handled that sequence of the film very gently. I would have wished for him to have done it a bit more boldly, but I didn’t see his choreography until the first days of rehearsal and it was impossible to ask for any radical changes, since we were so pressed for time...”
The final result is a narrative of potential possibilities of love in three parts, two romantic pas de deux danced by Narcissus (Jean-Louis Morin), first with a nymph (Sylvie Kinal) and then with what the program describes as a “hunting partner,” Narcissus’ friend (Sylvain Lafortune). Although both are traditional representations of sexual possibilities, ending with the hero sadly rejecting both heterosexual and homosexual love, there are clear important differences: “the male duet,” as MediaQueer commentator Thomas Waugh puts it, “has a stunning effect as an unprecedented representation [in film dance] of gay male sexuality.”
To the music of Maurice Blackburn, Narcissus awakes very much in the manner of Nijinsky’s L'Après-midi d'un faune, lying flat upon the floor, gradually lifting himself up into a sitting position to reveal his beautiful face and chest, the latter of which he clearly takes self-adorating pleasure, stroking his nipples and upper chest. Suddenly the nymph appears behind him, at first almost blocking her own vision apparently in the shock of the boy’s beauty, but gradually peeking out of him through her fingers, obviously intrigued. She quietly tiptoes toward him, reaching out to touch his hair. For a moment Narcissus pulls her toward as if inspecting this new being, but immediately thrusts her away. She continues to try to entice him, pulling him again toward her, a gesture he pulls away from as she gracefully dances about him, he leaning back while still registering a look of curiosity.
Finally pulling him into an upright position, she leans back to bring him forward, while he, in counter-turn, leans away, she pulling him again toward her, and he leaning away as they were playing a childish game of pull and drag. When she touches his face he shakes her hand off. Through gentle leg lifts and turns she eventually allures him into to mimicking her as they move into the more traditional holding and lifting motions of the standard pas de deux. Yet when they finally reach a moment of a face to face in which she ends a position a sitting on his lower stomach, he quickly pulls away, making it clear that he is disinterested in the traditional male-female position symbolizing sexual ecstasy.
Narcissus returns to his seated position, once more stroking his own breast. But at that very moment his friend leaps it a bit like a naughty Puck. This time Narcissus seems delighted and gladly takes his hand as they almost immediately leap into an erotic duo, imitating and mocking each other’s moves as they twist and turn—the camera sometimes alternating between fast and stop motion. This time Narcissus gladly moves toward his friend, taking his arm and joyfully moving into some of the similarly erotic positions of traditional male and female dance movements. Yet their duet is far more playful, involving imitation rather than sexually assigned movements.
As the friend leaps back to continue his gestures of touch, Narcissus rejects them. Yet when the friend leaps into his arms, putting himself precisely in the same position as the nymph had, hanging Narcissus’ waist just above his crotch, Narcissus allows him to remain in position undergoing what is quite clearly a moment of intense pleasure from coitus. When completed, however, he pushes the other away, and the friend soon after disappears.
This delightful portion of the work is, given the beauty of Morin’s body, obviously also highly homoerotic, but is missing almost all sexuality since the two parts of the same image can never truly touch except as they cross electronically through each other’s bodies.
When finally Narcissus attempts to kiss the other, he discovers that he has given up his heart to a brick wall which, which, as turns toward us, is revealed to be the other side of a prison cell wherein he has locked himself away from all human communication. I cannot imagine a more potent visualization of Vito Russo’s celluloid closet.
Waugh brilliantly summarizes McLaren’s work:
“It would be too easy to dismiss this film as yet another arty piece of closet beefcake, and to see the McLaren's lavish stylization as yet another mechanism of avoidance. Still the prison‑bar ending comes across as an image not so much of the tragedy of self‑absorption but of sexual repression, even of the thwarted self‑realization of the closet. As tragic as it is beautiful, Narcissus stands up well as the testament and the yearning of the shy Scottish‑Canadian civil servant who was one of the more isolated queer contemporaries of Visconti, Cadmus, and Burroughs.”
Los Angeles, March 17, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (March 2021).