There was a time not so long ago when a same-sex movie romance was almost unheard of. Today, a quick search for LGBTQ titles on Amazon or Netflix will yield enough such films to keep an avid viewer occupied for a good long while.
With such a bounty of queer cinema so readily available, the thrill of seeing something that tells a queer love story has largely worn off, and featuring a non-heteronormative couple is no longer enough to guarantee audience appeal. As a result, many of these movies end up being overlooked in the sea of similar-looking offerings – but If you’re a fan of smart, sophisticated cinema, make sure you don’t let that happen with “The Blonde One (Un Rubio),” a new work from Argentine filmmaker Marco Berger that opens for a limited theatrical run on Sept. 6.
The title character is Gabriel (Gaston Re), a woodworker at a Buenos Aires factory who moves in with his co-worker Juan (Alfonso Barón) when the latter offers to rent out his extra room. Juan’s on-again/off-again girlfriend makes frequent overnight visits, and there’s a constant crowd of heavy-drinking work buddies coming around to watch football; but despite the macho façade, an undeniable attraction sparks between the two men, overcoming Juan’s mixed signals and Gabriel’s timidity until they are on their way to becoming much more than roommates. Even as they settle into comfortable domesticity, however, social taboo and cultural expectation soon encroach upon their tender fantasy, and each of the would-be lovers must grapple with the pressures exerted by their own preconceived ideas if they have any chance of overcoming the obstacles that seem destined to keep them apart.
That could easily be the synopsis for any number of gay romantic dramas from world cinema; with so many countries still struggling with issues of acceptance around LGBTQ people, there’s no shortage of movies exploring the same themes. What makes this one stand apart from its first few moments is the nuanced simplicity of its storytelling. With only the sparest dialogue to establish details, the film’s essential plot is revealed almost entirely through observed behavior on an extremely intimate scale, aided by the effortless flow of visual cues provided by Berger’s skillful direction and the deft handling of its complex subtext by his two leading men. The love story unfolds wordlessly, in the spaces between words and the subtleties of glance and gesture, until it becomes almost too much to bear.
Indeed, that’s part of the point of “The Blonde One.” The blue-collar Buenos Aires world in which they live make the feelings between Juan and Gabriel literally “the love that dare not speak its name,” and the two are already having some of the steamiest and most authentically passionate sex scenes in recent memory long before either of them ever works up the nerve to talk about what’s happening between them. The intensity that comes from this is great for building sexual tension, but the resulting lack of communication means that neither man is ever sure exactly what this relationship is – they can only fumble through on assumption, hope, and a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” compartmentalization that sends red flags flying for anyone who understands the dynamics of healthy coupling.
That, too, is part of the point. Berger’s film (which he wrote as well as directed) happens in an environment that might be unrelatable to audiences used to the freedom of a city like Los Angeles. For such viewers, Juan and Gabriel’s plight might come across as just another woeful tale of doomed queer passion; but these star-crossed lovers don’t have the luxury of living in a culture growing more open to things like sexual fluidity and polyamory – both subjects that emerge, among others, in the mix of Berger’s spicy narrative – and they remind us that for many LGBTQ people around the world, it’s still much easier (not to mention safer) simply not to talk about it.
Yet it’s also true that most people, regardless of orientation, have difficulty communicating their secret thoughts and desires. In our modern world, it’s easier than ever to avoid those uncomfortable conversations by staring at one of the omnipresent screens that surround us. Berger shrewdly highlights this with numerous scenes in which the characters sit staring at a television, while their unspoken passions broil silently beneath a carefully neutral exterior. Most of us will find these scenes more familiar than we would like, but it helps to deepen our identification with these two men.
It also helps that Re and Barón, in addition to being easy on the eyes, are tremendously talented actors; they make it easy to empathize and not to judge, and their chemistry – not just the kind they exhibit in those aforementioned sex scenes, but their emotional chemistry as well – is electric. It’s the strength of their performances that breathes thrilling life into “The Blonde One” and elevates it to the level of that “great gay love story” that so many of us crave but rarely get from these kinds of films. Handled with a heavier touch, it might have little more than a shallow tearjerker with gratuitous sex and full-frontal nudity, or just another well-meaning-but-dreary “social agenda” movie. Instead the irresistible pull of their attraction comes through loud and clear, even if they can’t speak honestly about it.
How things end up, of course, is directly related to that lack of honesty – or perhaps, more precisely, that lack of trust, which comes from living an entire life in a culture where some things can simply never be said out loud. We want these two attractive, endearing men to find a way, but we know from the start that the odds are against them, and even when they finally start opening up to each other, the consequences of all that silence – tangled up in generations of homophobia – continue to stand in their way.
That doesn’t mean Berger’s movie is without hope; there’s a palpable undercurrent in which can be felt a younger way of thinking that is fed up with the prejudices of old, and Juan – by far the more repressed of the lovers, though Gabriel has considerable baggage of his own – proves capable of surprising growth as he recognizes the depth of his long-buried feelings; and it’s proof of the power of the filmmaker’s gifts that the film’s ending packs an emotional wallop that catches you completely off-guard, the cumulative product of a layered and deeply felt narrative meant finally to deliver the message that, after all the years of toxic silence, maybe it’s time to start speaking up.