Fleeing to paradise

A bridge too far: Stephane Rideau and Dimitri Durdaine in Our Paradise.

A bridge too far: Stephane Rideau and Dimitri Durdaine in Our Paradise.

What with the fest spread in bits over the year, it kind of feels like it never went away. Wasn’t it just the other day I was watching a stylish European movie about a love triangle?

That was Tom Tykwer’s Drei (Three), and with Spanish movie The Sex of the Angels on at this festival, it seems there may be a new genre emerging: instead of the love story focused on a duo, it’s the trio love story. We start with an established dyadic relationship, which is then put under pressure by the entrance of a third person; there are various hoops of self-discovery, realisation, conflict and rapprochement that are then jumped through.

The Sex of the Angels is filled with sexy young people doing sexy young things, but it is still rather vapid.
Bruno (Llorenç González) meets Rai (Àlvaro Cervantes) when Rai rescues him from a thief, and Bruno ends up staying over at the luxurious pad Rai and his street-dancing hippy-type confrères are temporarily inhabiting. Bruno and Rai get closer, bit by bit, and of course this is a bit of a shock and a strain for Carla (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), Bruno’s girlfriend. What ensues is much soul-searching and renegotiating as these three work out what to do with themselves in relation to each other.

They are at least all good-looking, which one wasn’t able to say about Drei, though in Drei the characters were more complex and interesting — they even had meaningful jobs. In The Sex of the Angels, the protagonists are at something like undergraduate age and don’t seem to be doing much work, though Carla’s job as a photographer on a student magazine is meant, I think, to add in some social background as well as to give her a plot trajectory other than simply dealing with her boyfriend and his lover.

The parts of the movie that focus on the magazine are fairly awkward, with barely a sense of credibility — maybe these magazine people just aren’t professionals. The same goes, unfortunately, for most of the moments in which one or the other character stares into another character’s eyes and they have one of those serious love-related conversations. The characters seem so callow that they make the whole movie feel callow.

As for the sex (and this is a movie about sexual desire, right?), when it’s done it’s done well, but I feel shortchanged on the gay-sex front. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie we get Bruno and Carla engaging in a very passionate passage, but the non-heterosexual sex is not presented with nearly as much of the same vigour and attention. The viewer is teased with a dedicated Bruno-Rai sequence towards the end (at last!), but it has barely got going when we cut to the next scene.

Our Paradise, the other festival movie I saw, has no such hesitancies. Not that this French feature goes all the way to arty pornography, but neither does it feel like it’s leaving such moments incomplete. Given that it’s about rentboys, it certainly should be able to deal with sex with reasonable frankness, which it does; rentboys have to handle clients with some really odd tastes, too, and there’s one scene in Our Paradise that induces such a squirm that it’s actually a relief when it ends in violence.

The lead is Stéphane Rideau, who may be recalled from André Téchiné’s lovely Wild Reeds of 1994, when Rideau was a mere 18. (He was also in François Ozon’s Sitcom, which played at an Out in Africa festival a few years ago, but I seem to have deleted that mental file.) Here he does sterling acting work as Vassili, a sexual gun for hire who has just reached the age of 30 — the age at which, it seems, most rentboys begin to consider retirement if they haven’t already.  

Vassili feels decidedly homicidal towards his clients, but when he finds a younger, blonder man (Dimitri Durdaine) who’s been beaten up in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris’s cruising park, a whole lot of suppressed love and caring instincts well up in him. We are told zero about this youth’s background, and Vassili discovers zero; he just names him Angelo and takes him home.

A touching interaction between Vassili and Angelo develops, but, as befits people who already have at least one foot in the world of criminality, they are soon on the run. This places Our Paradise squarely in the tradition of À Bout de Souffle and Pierrot le Fou, to name just two French on-the-run movies, and it is towards some notional paradise of family, warmth and connection that they are fleeing.

It’s beautifully done, with strong performances all round, but one sees from pretty early on that this movie is in a genre at which the French excel — Beautiful but Depressing. All too easily, paradise becomes inferno.

Out in Africa is on until October 28

• For more information, go to oia.co.za

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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