Monday, October 25, 2021

Daniel Sánchez López | Boy Meets Boy

a pearl

by Douglas Messerli

Daniel Sánchez López and Hannah Renton (screenplay), Daniel Sánchez López (director) Boy Meets Boy / 2021

That the structure and improvisatory heterosexual narrative of Richard Linklater’s 1995 film, Before Sunrise, and the kind of desperate intensity of the one-night/one day affair of a beautiful gay film such as Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011) has now become almost a genre is perhaps unfortunate since what was originally a kind of miraculously fresh dialogue-structured encounter of two individuals literally on the prowl for meaning, companionship, and love can quickly become mumbled, fumbled, and even turn a bit sour upon repeating. It’s a bit like whipping up a quick brunch out of the random ingredients of a somewhat empty pantry and refrigerator that seemed so utterly original and delicious that when repeated tastes just a little thin, overcooked, and bitter. What you enjoy increasingly depends upon the memory at that first dining experience.

      In in a manner of just a couple of days I have watched a very pleasant breakfast version of Weekend in Gabriel Motto’s Two Men by the Sea in which the clock-bound lovers wander Tallinn, Estonia—at least through their café-bound conversation—and now another feature film version in German director Daniel Sánchez López’s Boy Meets Boy in which the unlikely pair of midnight lovers tour the streets of Berlin.

      I think perhaps if we can eventually get a little broader perspective of this genre, we might feel much comfortable  with it, allowing ourselves as we have with the various “coming out” movies to realize its a vital narrative structure that certainly allows repeating, even if every variation cannot quite live up to the best of our favorites of the form. But if we think of the genre, which has actually long been with us, as including a work like the Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Leonard Bernstein triumphal On the Town (the somewhat muddled film version by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly of 1949) and the slightly more elongated version The Clock (1945) where under Vincente Minnelli’s direction Judy Garland and Robert Walker have 48 hours to change their lives, then we can relax a bit in recognizing that not every couple who accidentally hook up for a tour of the town can possibly represent the perfect couple if they had more time.

      Certainly the black British junior doctor Harry (Matthew James Morrison) and the young German dancer Johannes (Alexis Koutsoulis) do not at all appear as the compatible couple to head out together on   a whirlwind tour of the town who by the end of the day find themselves deeply in love. They meet after all at gay dance club where the vacationing Harry has just spent the last 48 hours partying, suddenly discovering himself with only 15 hours to find a way to print out his boarding pass and see the city before he flies back to his life-consuming job.

       Coincidently Johannes has just lost his billfold for the second time of the summer, and almost immediately after he hooks up with Harry discovers that his bicycle has been stolen, forcing him to visit the local police station to file a complaint. In short, the two seem to have too much else on their minds to share in the flirtation of a few hours that can never lead to a significant relationship.

       More importantly, Harry, so he claims, is the kind of gay man—they do still exist—who has absolutely no interest in seeing a man for more than a night and detests the idea of nesting, a settling down with one person for the rest of one’s life. He is strictly a Grindr/Tinder kind of guy whose entire interest in getting together with another man is based on “getting off,” releasing his sperm, after which he admits he feels dirty, depressed, disappointed and—in his worst moments—desperate to cut his balls off. Somehow the very idea of a whirlwind romance seems at odds with this central figure.

     Moreover, the boys of Boy Meets Boy are not free to run through the high-rise maze of New York City, the environs of the old remnants of the Habsburg dynasty in Vienna, or in the charming provinciality of the Estonian port, but are let loose in Berlin, that wonderfully vibrant and exciting city that, to be honest, has an architectural landscape that simply doesn’t photograph well. The sunny snapshots of cinematographer Hanna Biørnstad just don’t excite the eye in same way as does New York, Vienna, and even pretty Tallinn. What director Sánchez López and his cinematographer offer up instead is nicely summed up by critic Claire Fulton (Loud and Clear Reviews):

“Cinematographer Hanna Biørnstad uses a 16:9 aspect ratio, as opposed to the standard cinematic 1.85:1 widescreen, that gives the film an intimacy, and lets the camera linger on a caressing hand, a passer-by or a speeding train instead of Matthew and Johannes’ faces, giving the film a lived-in feel and contextualising the time and place. Because while there are two main protagonists, the city of Berlin itself feels like a third. The audience is taken, along with Harry, on a whirlwind tour and there’s a vibrancy and an energy to the city that’s palpable through the screen. It’s almost at odds with Harry and Johannes, bustling and operating as normal, while they experience something together that feels like it could be entirely disruptive to their own personal normalities.”

   But it’s not the city’s sights and buildings where that action is, but in the people on its streets and parks. And Sánchez López makes sure we realize this by having the two wanderers permit an encounter with two Seventh Day Adventist zealots, taking us into the boys’ favorite computer images (weirdly, in Johannes case, of documentary photos of divers taken by Leni Riefenstahl at the Nazi-sponsored 1936 Berlin Olympics), plopping us down into a long segment in a restaurant, sitting for a long while in a city park, stopping by an empty dance studio, and finally, when the  boys become dispirited with one another and frankly bored, taking them to a rooftop from which there isn’t a great deal to see. They end up, as the genre requires, in bed in Johannes’ rather stripped-down apartment where Biørnstad focuses entirely upon close up frames of the two undressing, kissing, touching, and exploring one another’s bodies only to repeat it again out of sequence almost as some porn film’s repeat the final ejaculation.

    But it’s not only Harry’s view of sex and the city landscape that poses difficulties for this romantic story. The two are simply opposite personalities. True, that is often what gets the dialogue in these generic works moving. But these young boys, like all youth, fortunately perhaps, see their desires and ideals in capital letters, expressed as Harry announces them in the kind of headlines you might find in any liberal newspaper or TV broadcast. Although he’s working as a junior doctor which Johannes sees as an important societal contribution, Harry, unhappy with his job, imagines himself as a tree surgeon, an abortion advocate, and various other hands- on immediate cultural saviors instead of recognizing the importance of his current vocation.

     Johannes, on the other hand, is almost completely devoted to the values of the bourgeois society in which he has grown up. He wishes he might be a happy businessman, is totally committed to loving monogamous relationships which his parents have, and is totally devoted to the socially uncommitted arts. For him, the world is not falling apart as Harry sees it, but functioning beautifully even if flawed.

     Fortunately, also like most youths, these appealing young men are also filled with contradictions. It is Harry who patiently engages the religious zealots in conversation, not Johannes who would simply shoo them away. Harry is the reticent figure when Johannes suggests that after eating they skip out of the restaurant without paying. And it is Harry who truly crushed with the news that his new friend is already in a relationship with a man who, strangely enough, insists upon a sexually open relationship. Accordingly, we gradually come to perceive, it is ”one night stand” Harry who has become so romantically attached to his inevitably one-day friend that he is crushed to hear of Johannes unavailability for....what? Another later meeting? A possible cross-country liaison? Even he is unable to define what it is now that he wants of the boy he has accidentally “picked up.”    

      Finally, in full contradiction of his comments, Harry is resistant when Johannes offers, against his principles of monogamy, to his apartment for what both of them recognize means a sexual conclusion to the day’s journey.

      When Johannes awakens after what we have cinematically been told has been a gloriously sensual sexual incident, Harry has disappeared, now on his way back home and out of Johannes’ life forever. 

     For the first time we actually catch a full glimpse of Johannes’ somewhat older lover as we observe them dining that night in what appears to be cold silence, and the next morning Johannes brushing his teeth while his companion shaves in the mirror—the same images with which the film began—equally appears be a speechless event. Despite Johannes’ earlier insistence that love can sometimes be best expressed in silence, we can only wonder whether there is any real love between  the handsome young German dancer and the man with whom he shares his bed.    

      Who can resist now imposing new meaning upon the final image as we observe it again: something is missing in Johannes’ heart—the boy, obviously, with whom he had spent the previous day. So the film ends with Harry being the romantic and Johannes the unhappy lover ready, we surmise, to make a break which might radically change his life forever if he only can be as courageous as Harry has claimed he would be in altering his career.

       Clearly we sense a difference in this boy who has spent his life expressing his inner emotions to others through dance. Strangely, he refuses to dance when asked again and again by Harry. Is he afraid of the torrent of desire that his movements might express, of the pain he might demonstrate for love he has not found in his “permanent” relationship?

       If nothing else, we now recognize Harry and Johannes as beings other than who they describe themselves as being. Something magical has happened in their rubbing up against one another for those short 15 hours: a pearl has been created just for our viewing pleasure. 

Los Angeles, October 25, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).

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