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‘Handsome Devil’ a lively gay romance

Boys will be boys, after all

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What happens at a British all-boys school if you don’t love rugby? (Photo courtesy Breaking Glass Pictures)

What with  “If…” (1968), “Maurice” (1987) and both versions of “Brideshead Revisited” (the 1981 TV mini-series and the 2008 theatrical release) it would appear that British schoolboy romances are a gay sub-genre unto themselves.

That’s one of the reasons why “Handsome Devil” is such a welcome sight. For rather than go through the usual paces of furtive glances, clandestine smooches, tremulous declarations and tears, this Irish-produced yet British-to-the-core production written and directed by John Butler centers on a pair of gay schoolmates who don’t “hook up” or even connect all that much, save for a mutual interest in music. In fact, for the better part of the action they might well be described as “Frenemies.”

Right at the start, Ned (Fion O’Shea) announces to us that this is a story about his “most embarrassing moment.” And by that he doesn’t mean his own “outing,” but rather the very public way he “outed” the classmate who, at the very least, should have been his ally but who instead nearly became his victim. Enter that very British form of football known as “Rugby.” The school the boys attend is utterly “Rugby”- besotted.

So much does the game dominate everything that at one point classes are cancelled so the entire student body can go to cheerleading practice. Ned has no interest in “Rugby” — he’s small, non-athletic and intellectual. His roommate Conor (Nicholas Galtazine) is an entirely different story, being tall, well-built and a wiz at sports. Because of his size and manner he’s also able to get into the local gay bar without even having his I.D. checked. Not the case for Ned. Had he done so he would have learned what Conor already knows — that their favorite teacher, Mr. Sherry (Andrew Scott), is gay.

Sherry has been encouraging the boys to follow the one pursuit that brings them together — music. He helps them rehearse a song number, a la Simon and Garfunkel, for the school’s talent show. Needless to say, this is frowned upon by the “Rugby” coach and the other students devoted to the game.

Homophobic taunting and physical bullying are par for the course. And so, unable to put up with it any longer, Ned outs Conor in public to virtually the entire school. Chaos ensues. Conor runs away. But Ned finds where he’s hiding out and brings him back in time to win the big game. And this in turn underscores the paradoxical nature of “Handsome Devil.”

For while it wants to criticize bullying and homophobia attendant upon “Rugby,” it also wants grand game-winning finale just like the ones in Horsefeathers and Good News. Not fully explored is the role envy and unfulfilled desire plays in all of this.

Ned and Conor share a room. But Ned makes sure to construct an artificial ‘wall’ to separate them. This serves to indicate to the other students that he’s keeping his hands off Conor. But he’s also doing it to stave off the temptation of putting his hands on him. The scene where he’s barred from the bar that allows Conor entry is, in many ways, a turning point. Yet Butler downplays it to the film’s detriment.

Ned’s desire for Conor, and disappointment that he can’t fulfill this desire should be made clearer. Still “Handsome Devil” is a lively gay romance, even though it isn’t all that romantic.

Nicholas Galtazine is a handsome devil indeed.

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LaBruce delivers shocking story of brotherly love in ‘Saint-Narcisse’

Skilled director’s incest tale challenges our boundaries

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Félix-Antoine Duval learns to love himself in ‘Saint-Narcisse.’ (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

TORONTO – It’s gratifying to live in a time when queer stories and characters have become more commonplace on film and television than ever before, but for those of us who are old enough to remember a very different world, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of regret over what we may have lost in the transition.

After all, in the days when mainstream entertainment culture was still pretending that queer people didn’t exist, queer cinema was an underground experience infused with a certain rebellious spirit – a sense of righteous non-conformity, if you will – that is somehow absent from much of the content made possible by the “rainbow explosion” taking place on our screens today. And while nobody is complaining about the increased acceptance achieved by our LGBTQ+ community, it’s nevertheless a welcome pleasure when a movie comes along to remind us that queer cinema can still be transgressive.

For such a film, one can always count on Bruce LaBruce.

The Canadian iconoclast, who rose in the ‘90s from the world of queercore zines to gain a cult following as a filmmaker, is notorious for assaulting cultural norms. Combining the tropes and formulas of conventional Hollywood cinema with the raw sexuality of hardcore gay porn, some of his films, like “Hustler White” and “L.A. Zombie,” have stirred shock and controversy even among the most hardened queer cinephiles, and while his style may have mellowed somewhat since his earlier career, his latest effort – the dark comedy “Saint-Narcisse,” which hinges on “twincest” between two brothers separated at birth – proves that he still takes delight in shattering even the strictest taboos.

The film, which opens in limited theaters and through VOD platforms on Sept. 17, unfolds a sort of contemporary adult fairy tale centered on a young man named Dominic (Félix-Antoine Duval), who fuels an unrequitable fetish for himself by taking Polaroid selfies. The death of the beloved grandmother who raised him leads to his discovery of a deep family secret: his birth mother (Tania Kontoyanni) didn’t die in childbirth as he was told, but is alive and living in exile with a female companion (Alexandra Petrachuk) at a remote cabin in the woods.

When he reunites with her there, he quickly learns of the existence of a twin brother (Duval again), taken away at birth and raised in a nearby monastery, where a priest (Andreas Apergis) has kept him all these years against his will. Determined to reunite his family and drawn by a desire to be with his beautiful, identical brother, Dominic soon embarks on a path that will embroil him with all the others in a blasphemous web of sex, revenge, and redemption. 

Like most of LaBruce’s work, this latest piece draws on a wide array of cultural influences. Set in 1972 (in the “afterglow of sexual liberation,” as the publicity material puts it), it revels in the aesthetic of the ‘70s genre pictures that have always inspired the filmmaker, evoking and emulating the lurid psychosexual thrillers of the era while reinventing them through a countercultural queer lens.

At the same time, it’s a sly satire of our modern, self-obsessed culture, in which the myth of Narcissus is reframed around a selfie-snapping hero who yearns to be his own lover. Above all, it’s an unabashedly campy affair, a wild and wooly Freudian melodrama that resembles a fable from the Brothers Grimm as interpreted by Jean Genet. 

Yet for all that, LaBruce keeps it grounded throughout. He guides his actors to play their roles in earnest – something they achieve with somewhat surprising excellence, with the handsome Duval earning particular kudos for rising to the challenge of his difficult dual role. Moreover, he underpins the screenplay (co-written with Martin Girard) with a healthy dose of social observation, clearly conveyed yet handled with just enough restraint to avoid weighing down the delicious B-movie goofiness.

LaBruce has a reputation for performing a deft balancing act in his movies between the ridiculous and the profound, in which the line between them seems to disappear, or at least become irrelevant; in “Saint-Narcisse” he earns it anew with the skill of a true master.

Still, one doesn’t see a LaBruce film for its restraint, and for all its measured contemplation of themes, the purpose of “Saint-Narcisse” is to make us squirm. The relationship at the heart of the story, after all, is a forbidden one. Not only are the two star-crossed lovers boys, they’re also brothers – and because it is a LaBruce film, we find ourselves wanting them to be together almost as much as they do. And also because it is a LaBruce film, we know we’ll get to see it happen.

It’s not just the incest that challenges our boundaries, either. There’s also the complex and conflicted relationship between Daniel and the priest who is his father figure/captor/abuser, and the one between an older woman and the daughter of her own dead lover. The film is full of conflicting and conflicted impulses, shaped by the dualities that permeate our social and personal lives – male and female, age and youth, spirituality and carnality, coercion and consent – and our various loyalties to its characters collide with our preconceptions about what is or is not acceptable until our reflex toward judgment simply short-circuits.

By the time his story has reached its suitably over-the-top climax, LaBruce has already set us up so well that we are ready to go willingly with him into whatever wickedly subversive happy ending he has in store.

As to that ending, it’s best to leave the details spoiler-free for effect – but suffice to say it is a logical culmination of all the threads “Saint-Narcisse” has interwoven from the start, and that it will leave most viewers with a feeling of perverse satisfaction despite themselves. In other words, LaBruce has once more succeeded in turning a lot of internal taboos upside down, and whether or not the effect is permanent we are forced to question our own assumptions about self, sex, love and family – along with a good number of other social mores and institutions that have more influence over our humanity that most of us care to recognize.

All of this is precisely the point, of course. And while “Saint-Narcisse” (like all of LaBruce’s films) is unquestionably a piece of queer cinema, the product of a queer sensibility and a lifetime of living outside cultural norms, it is ultimately not a movie about queer experience. It’s a movie about human experience, and its observations about the way our lives are programmed by the things we believe about ourselves and the world around us are meant for everyone.

Of course, by this point it should be obvious that it’s NOT for everyone’s tastes. While it may not be as explicit as some of LaBruce’s previous works, there’s still plenty of full-frontal nudity and intense sex involved; combine that with the twisted sensibility that drives the story and dictates its outcome, and you have a movie that should be approached with caution by anyone who is faint of heart. 

For the rest of us, though, it’s a sinfully satisfying cinematic snack.

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Lesbian survivor of sexual abuse reveals her ‘Untold’ story

“Untold: This is My Story” a remarkable film debut from Gina Garcia has been a longtime dream project for the U.S. Navy veteran

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Terri Ivens portrays director Gina Garcia in UNTOLD THIS IS MY STORY (Image courtesy of Traveling Buddha)

HOLLYWOOD – Even though her film is about to get a premiere at Hollywood’s legendary Chinese Theatre, Gina Garcia is not your typical filmmaker – and her movie is not your typical movie.

“Untold: This is My Story” has been a longtime dream project for the U.S. Navy veteran, who was already a successful entrepreneur before starting her film career. And even though she made it about herself, it’s far from a vanity project. Instead, it’s a bold testament aimed at helping countless others who, like her, carry the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

As an 8-year-old growing up in Orlando, Fla., Garcia was at the mall with her mother and sister when she was abducted by a man who coerced her into his car before sexually assaulting her at knifepoint. Remarkably, she was able to escape by jumping out of the moving vehicle, half naked, and running away through the parking lot. The incident was never discussed by the family; and young Gina, who had only vague memories of what happened to her, went on to experience years of self-destructive behavior and strained relationships with her parents and siblings. Twenty-five years after the fact, she finally sought help at a Veterans’ Administration hospital, where she was diagnosed with PTSD and began the difficult process of healing.

Fast forward to 2009, when Garcia enrolled at a film school in the Philippines. It was a bold step that started her on the path to tell her story for the many other anonymous survivors she knew were out there needing to know that they were not alone. She wrote a screenplay, and when she attended a screening that gave her an opportunity to meet filmmaker Patty Jenkins, she approached the “Monster” director with the thought that here was someone who could direct it. Instead, Jenkins told her, “No Gina, you have to tell your story.”

That meeting led to an ongoing mentorship, and three years later Garcia was filming her screenplay with a cast that featured former Calvin Klein model Jennifer Rubin and esteemed womens’ rights attorney Gloria Allred. 

The resulting movie is rough to watch, and that’s not because it has a DIY feel – although it does, which somehow gives it an even more searing authenticity. It is shot through with first-hand awareness of the way trauma affects not just the victim, but all those around them, and manifests itself in every aspect of their lives. It’s painful, horrifying, heartbreaking, and sometimes uncomfortable to watch, with a realistic depiction of mental health treatment that is a far cry from the kind of overwrought psychodrama treatment Hollywood usually gives to subject matter like this.

Why then, did it take nearly a decade for it to premiere?

Talking with the Blade, the first-time director explained what happened.

GINA GARCIA: I’m not a Hollywood person, I wasn’t going to be a director. My goal in making it was to peel off the Band-Aid, to show the rawness of trauma. I wanted to show the real – but when you’re raising money, everybody wants you to do something that isn’t real. Initially, when I wrote the script and I was sending it out, I had feedback like, “Can you make it a boy? Can you make it a white family? Can they not be gay? Do you really have to be a lesbian?” But then I would be telling somebody else’s story, and I wanted to tell my story.

BLADE: Obviously you didn’t go with all those suggestions.

GARCIA: No, but still I had all these people telling me to put in a little of this, a little of that. I ended up with this love story in there, and all this other stuff. And I did a couple of screenings, and I got everybody else’s opinions on my movie – and I hated it and I didn’t want to release it. So I put it on the shelf.

BLADE: What made you change your mind all these years later?

GARCIA: Well, I know now that I had more healing to do. I was still broken, going through issues with trauma and triggers. But at Thanksgiving of this past year my brother watched the film, and he said ‘You have to get this out. It’s gonna help a lot of people.’ I struggled with that, because I felt like I made myself look like a victim, but he said, ‘You need to recut it, then. You’re not a victim, you’ve gotten to the other side, you’re a different person now. You have fresh eyes.’ So in the beginning of 2021 I recut the entire movie. I took out all the Hollywood fluff, and I went back to the very basics of my original script.

BLADE: Not many directors get the chance to set a project aside and come back to it later.

GARCIA: Taking that time to be able to step away from it for a couple of years and work on myself as a human, and then get to come back and recut it – I love my movie now!

BLADE: What’s the next step after your Hollywood premiere?

GARCIA: Hopefully a distributor will buy it and not want to recut it their way. But either way, my intention is to do a city-to-city tour of the film, kind of like the “No Hate” campaign. I have a non-profit that I’m starting with my tribe back home, it’s called the ‘Untold Project,’ and with the tour we’re going to start doing videos of people telling their own untold stories, and hopefully helping other sexual abuse survivors to have their voices be heard.

Because for me it’s more than a movie. There are one in three women and one in six men who are survivors of sexual abuse. If you do the math that’s over a billion people on the planet. We can talk about heart disease and all these other diseases that people die from, but people are also dying from this kind of abuse – through suicide, alcohol, and drug addiction. If you think about people who dealt with abuse in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, even into the ‘80s – I mean, there’s a reason why all the Catholic Church stuff happened, why the Boy Scouts stuff happened, the Sandusky trials, the gymnasts. It’s because nobody was talking about what was happening. Nobody wants to put a magnifying glass on the dirty little secret when it’s the uncle, the cousin, the coach, the babysitter. 

If we can create the resources, maybe we can have the ability to have real conversations so that people can heal from this kind of trauma.

BLADE: And you want to show people that healing is possible.

GARCIA: Put it this way: I used to want to hide the fact that I was broken. Now here I am wanting to project it on a 45-foot screen.

If you live in LA, “Untold: This is My Story” screens at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on Monday, Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. If not, Gina Garcia will soon bring it to a town near you.

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‘AIDS Diva,’ ‘Boulevard’ offer history lessons not to be missed

Two outstanding LGBTQ documentaries arrive

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Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley flank Gloria Swanson in ‘Boulevard: A Hollywood Story.’ (Photo courtesy The Film Collaborative)

It’s a great time to be alive for queer documentary fans. It seems as if every month brings a whole new crop of titles, covering a broad array of subjects and offering new insights about the LGBTQ history you thought you knew – as well as introducing you to pieces of it that you’ve never even heard of.

That’s a good thing. It reassures us that our queer cultural history, once in danger of being buried in the homophobic haze of a past that wanted to pretend we didn’t exist, is finally being recorded for posterity, and that the stories of our unsung heroes will be preserved.

One such hero is the subject of “AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman,” which screened at Los Angeles’ venerable Outfest LGBTQ Film Festival last week. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Dante Alencastre (“Raising Zoey,” “Transvisible: The Bamby Salcedo Story”) it spotlights a remarkable figure who rose to prominence during the AIDS crisis, but who would seem right at home in today’s era of “woke” activism. Indeed, she’d be front and center, teaching all of us a few things about how to keep the movement advancing ever forward.

For those who don’t know – and unless you were in Los Angeles during the early ‘90s, chances are good that you don’t – Connie Norman was a masterful spokesperson for ACT UP/LA in the late ‘80s and early ’90s Los Angeles, a self-appointed “AIDS Diva” who described herself as “an ex-drag queen, ex-hooker, ex-IV drug user, ex-high-risk youth and current post-operative transsexual woman who is HIV positive.” Above all, however, she called herself simply “a human being seeking my humanity.” 

Standing proudly in her multiple, fluid, and evolving LGBTQ identities, she became a fixture in the campaign to raise awareness about the terrifying epidemic that was decimating the queer community – and the inadequate, often inhumane care afforded to its stigmatized victims. In addition to her work with ACT UP, she shared her soulful and salty rantings and intersectional politics through her local LGBTQ newspaper column and her pioneering LGBTQ cable television show – the first daily talk show about gay issues hosted by a gay rights activist on a commercial Los Angeles-area station. She charmed even the opposition with her piercing and compassionate voice, building bridges in gender issues and politics and evoking a humanitarian, neighborly, transcendent vision of life and love not just for her own queer tribe but for all. Herself diagnosed with AIDS, she continued to work tirelessly until her death from complications of the disease in 1996. A few months later, her ashes were scattered on the White House lawn as part of ACT UP’s “ashes action” in protest of government inaction against AIDS.

In Alencastre’s brisk but engrossing documentary, Norman emerges through extensive archival footage as a larger-than-life personality that nevertheless exudes authenticity and the kind of “real talk” attitude that somehow acknowledges the value in everyone, whether on her side or against it. The footage, much of it little seen (if at all) in the quarter century since her death, is largely rough by today’s standards – after all, most of it is culled from local news and cable broadcasts of the time – but that technology gap does nothing to mute her passionate voice nor dim the brightness of her light. Indeed, there’s an immediacy about her in every appearance that transcends time and seems directed entirely at our contemporary world, urging modern viewers to once more wake up, take action, and fully engage with our collective lives and our world. From an activist standpoint, it makes Alencastre’s film a powerful journalistic call to action, a reminder that the struggles of our past are connected in an unbroken line to those of the present. Just as importantly, as a filmic portrait of a one-of-a-kind icon, it introduces Norman, in all her defiantly eccentric charm and glory, to a world that will likely always need to hear what she had to say.

Tackling what might (at first) seem a lighter topic is “Boulevard! A Hollywood Story,” which also screened at Outfest for its world premiere presentation. The latest documentary from Emmy winner Jeffrey Schwarz (“I Am Divine,” “Tab Hunter Confidential,” “The Fabulous Alan Carr”) takes viewers on a forensic deep-dive into the archives and filing cabinets of Hollywood history to unearth the little-known story of a musical that never was – an ambitious adaptation of “Sunset Boulevard” commissioned by none other than that classic film’s star Gloria Swanson herself.

Swanson, of course, was a one-time silent cinema goddess whose electrifying performance as faded-and-psychotic movie star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s dark, noir-ish satire of the Hollywood dream machine had given her a brief return to the limelight 20 years after her own silver screen heyday had ended. When further roles failed to materialize despite the movie’s success and the rave reviews it had earned her, she hit upon the notion of turning the film into a Broadway musical as a sure-fire vehicle for herself. In pursuit of this goal, she hired Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, two young songwriters and romantic partners, and the three of them began a three-way collaboration that soon began to have unsettling parallels with the story of “Sunset Boulevard” itself. The aging star developed an infatuation with the handsome Stapley, creating a tense dynamic into the creative threesome. It drove a wedge between the couple, and ultimately ensured that the project – a tentative proposition to begin with – would never reach fruition.

If that were all there was to the story, “Boulevard!” would still be an entertaining nugget of show biz ephemera and worth watching every one of its 85 minutes. But there’s much more to be revealed in Schwarz’s detailed excavation of this footnote in Hollywood history; within the remarkable tale he unearths is woven a moving, bittersweet love story between two young men at a time when such things were hard enough already without a movie diva inserting herself into the mix. In the process, the seasoned documentarian delivers a powerful, observational document of gay love in mid-20th century America, bringing a cumulative emotional power to his film that is sure to bring tears to many viewers’ eyes before the final credits role.

What’s particularly striking in Schwarz’ film is the kindness it bestows upon its subjects. Swanson, despite her role as a would-be femme fatale coming between two committed lovers, is never treated with anything but dignity and respect, and her two erstwhile collaborators – whose post-Swanson stories each took unexpected turns – come off as a pair of imperfect “everymen” who achieve a kind of grace even as success eludes their grasp. The result is a film that far transcends the trivial pursuit at its center to provide an empathetic contemplation of life, love, growing old, and rising above our failures.

It’s Schwarz’s best movie to date, and that’s saying a lot.

No release date has yet been announced for “AIDS Diva” or “Boulevard!” – but keep your eyes open, because each of them is a history lesson you won’t want to miss.

AIDS Diva, gay news, Washington Blade
‘AIDS Diva’ Connie Norman. (Photo courtesy OutFest)
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