Christophe Honoré has cranked out a series of critical favorites over the last few years, garnering enough praise to place him among the giants of contemporary French cinema. Popularity often gives artists room to play around, a freedom reflected in the relative smallness of his latest feature, “Man at Bath” (“Homme Au Bain”). Honoré’s minimalist portrait of two gay lovers spending time apart should go down as a footnote to his more ambitious works, but functions competently enough on the level of a focused character study.
At a fleeting 72 minutes, “Man at Bath” could lose a few of its many sex scenes and become a short film. The pacing is economical, to say the least: An opening bit shows the couple’s relationship on the rocks, with filmmaker Omar (Omar Ben Sellem) gearing up for a business trip to New York, while Emmanuel (porn star Fracois Sagat) looks at him with resentment. Before Omar steals out the door, his lover pounces on him for a forced quickie. It’s a sudden, vulgar moment that establishes immediate tension in the air — the movie’s dominant tone.
Filmed with a shaky cam style and predominantly built around a series of sexual encounters, “Man at Bath” constantly shifts between Emmanuel’s aimless, philandering lifestyle in the Parisian suburb Gennevilliers and Omar’s trip to New York, which is seen exclusively through the lens of his camcorder. Although both men invest their energies in forgetting about the other, and neither gets a monologue to explain their feelings, leaving much of their turmoil up for interpretation. They express more through sexuality than dialogue. That element obviously played a part in the decision to cast Sagat, who spends most of the movie in various stages of undress.
Sagat’s goods are on constant display: He picks up strangers and friends alike, poses nude for a radical art collector in his building, and shows off his muscular rump to a female companion. Looking very much like the model he’s known to be, the actor suits Honoré’s goal of capturing the essence of the male physique.
“I wanted above all to film bodies,” the director explains in press notes for the film. In doing so, he suggests that Emmanuel feels trapped by his extreme masculine figure. “You’re bad art,” someone tells him. “You’re kitsch.” (Many will fire off the same complaint against “Man at Bath.”) Taking cues from a 19th century painting by Gustave Caillebotte, which contains the back of a nude man bathing, Honoré gives Sagat the opportunity to use his physicality in the service of narrative. In Bruce LaBruce’s new gay genre experiment “L.A. Zombie,” Sagat mostly serves as a prop, the very same kitsch appeal noted in “Man at Bath.” Honoré’s movie actually forces Sagat to deliver a substantive performance, and it’s the best part of this otherwise middling experience.
The rest amounts to little more than an extended vignette in two parts. Omar’s POV of city streets, as he wanders from a talk at the School of Visual Arts to another in Lincoln Center and finally to his own risky liaison, has a mesmerizing effect — but it relegates the actual character to the sidelines. Accompanied by his actress (Chiara Mastroianni, actually traveling to promote Honoré’s “Making Plans for Lena,” which opens in New York on August 20), his camera captures offhand chatter rather than exposition.
The meandering style and setting recalls the production approach of Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” which used non-professional actors and similarly lingered on the edge between fiction and documentary. “Man at Bath” also bears a similarity to “Girlfriend” in that it provides Honoré with the opportunity for a digression from larger projects and the greater storytelling challenges therein. Unlike his last two outings, “Making Plans for Lena” (Non ma fille, tu n’iras pas danser) or “The Beautiful Person” (La belle personne), “Man at Bath” has no precise turning point or major revelatory moments. Instead, Honoré adopts a lyrical sensibility.
The chief appeal lies with his ability to let viewers inhabit the perspectives of his protagonists — literally, in the case of Omar. Honoré’s own handheld camera work enhances the idea that the New York half of the movie is designed as a diary film, particularly since it includes winking cameos by the likes of IFC Films exec Ryan Werner, indie publicist Susan Norget and Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Peña. The non-fiction components of “Man at Bath” don’t turn the movie into anything more than a creative squiggle, but it’s evidently one with personal resonance.