Perched as it is at the start of Hollywood’s award season, the annual AFI Fest (sponsored by the American Film Institute and presented by Audi) has become a showcase for potential Academy Award contenders. This year’s edition, now running through November 14th, is no exception. It opened last night with the gala Los Angeles premiere of Saving Mr. Banks, Disney’s Mary Poppins-inspired character study, and will feature the local debuts of August: Osage County, Nebraska, Ben Stiller’s remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Spike Jonze’s computer romance Her before concluding with Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from those Oscar-winning Coen brothers.
To its credit, AFI Fest annually incorporates many less-ballyhooed movies by both US and international filmmakers. Among these in 2013 are a handful of provocative GLBT-themed dramas. French and Canadian, or in some cases French-Canadian, filmmakers have seemingly cornered the market this year in GLBT cinema (see also Blue is the Warmest Color, now in theatrical release, for further evidence of this). Fest organizers generously shared three such offerings with me in advance of their screenings this weekend.
Alan Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake is probably the most gay-specific and definitely the most sexually-graphic film in any genre that I’ve seen at AFI Fest in my six years of covering it. Set entirely around a remote lake popular among gay men for cruising, it is darkly comic and ironic in true French style yet sexier and surprisingly compassionate. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a younger, “fresh meat” arrival to the area who finds himself intensely attracted to the older Michel (Christophe Paou). They connect and things are going well until Franck surreptitiously witnesses Michel murdering another cruiser. Uh oh. An officious detective (Jerome Chappatte) is soon on the case and zeroes in on the pair. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the path of true love rarely runs straight. Guiraudie and his attractive cast capture well the rituals and risks associated with cruising. I was disappointed by the film’s unresolved ending but it is well worthwhile until then. Prudish viewers, however, should steer clear.
Meanwhile, 24-year old Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan (Laurence Anyways, I Killed My Mother) returns to AFI Fest with what I consider his best film to date, Tom at the Farm. Dolan stars — and sports a shaggy blonde hairdo — as Tom, the secret boyfriend of a suddenly, unexpectedly deceased young man. He travels to the rural community his boyfriend grew up in for the funeral, staying with the late lover’s bewildered mother (Lise Roy) and sexy but sadistic brother, Francis (played by the Ben Affleck-ish Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Tom finds himself increasingly drawn to Francis even as he subjects Tom to physical and emotional abuse. Things come to a head between them during a pseudo-romantic tango in the barn. The screenplay was adapted by Dolan from a stage play by Michel Marc Bouchard (Lilies), and Dolan’s direction gets downright Hitchcockian (Gabriel Yared’s Psycho-esque music score drives this home as well). A couple of hours with Tom at the Farm shouldn’t be passed up.
Then there’s Vic+Flo Saw a Bear, the latest from acclaimed writer-director Denis Cote. Despite its title and the fact that Cote’s last film was the animal-centric documentary Bestiaire, there are no actual bears or any other animals for that matter here. Rather, Vic (short for Victoria and played by Pierette Robitaille) and Flo (short for Florence and played by Romane Bohringer) are ex-convicts and former lovers who reunite at Vic’s family cabin following her release on parole. Whereas Vic welcomes their newfound peace and quiet, the bisexual Flo finds it unsettling and begins acting out, unbeknownst to Vic, in risky ways. Vic’s genuinely concerned, gay parole officer (Marc-Andre Grondin, consistently clad in Izod shirts and tight pants) tries to keep them both on the straight and narrow, but Flo’s past starts to catch up with her and Vic in disturbingly violent fashion. The cast’s performances are uniformly excellent. Cote has crafted a memorable study of romantic need and attachment, though viewers may never hear the phrase “just take things one step at a time” in a comforting way again after watching it.
Watch for more on AFI Fest 2013 from me next week. Also of note this weekend, no less than three gay-themed movies are opening theatrically in Los Angeles. today: the Lebanese drama Out Loud, in which six friends of both gay and straight persuasions test the conservative strictures of Middle Eastern society; The Falls: Testament of Love, Jon Garcia’s sequel to his popular 2012 film about Mormon missionaries in love with one another; and the hilarious-sounding Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings, a Filipino horror-comedy wherein a lunkheaded, straight jock is cursed by a vengeful drag queen and begins “turning” gay. I regret I wasn’t able to watch these by press time but I will review them fully here in time for their home video releases later this month. Catching them in theaters though is a great way to support the work of gay and gay-friendly filmmakers.
Stranger by the Lake: B
Tom at the Farm: B+
Vic+Flo Saw a Bear: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.