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The Queer Films of Patrice Chéreau

The Queer Films of Patrice Chéreau

The Film Society
of Lincoln Center has assembled a highly worthwhile retrospective of films by the
late gay filmmaker Patrice Chéreau that runs February 28-March 5. The program includes nine of the only eleven
features written and directed by Chéreau. (His tremendous success in opera and
theatre likely curtailed his filmmaking efforts).

Chéreau is
perhaps best known for his historical epic Queen
(1994), and the hardcore romance, Intimacy (2001). But he made several intriguing films about queer
men throughout his career, including L’Homme
Blesse/The Wounded Man
(1983), Those
Who Love Me Can Take the Train
(1998), and Son frère (2003). His films are distinguished by the sensitivity he
displays towards his isolated lovelorn characters, as well as the intimacy with
which he films his actors. There is almost always an erotic undercurrent and an
air of mystery that permeates the characters’ lives. The frisson is what makes the director’s films so stimulating.

In most of Chéreau’s
films, desire has an obsessive quality to it, and this often leads to dire, if
not fatalistic qualities. The haunting ending to L’Homme Blesse proves this theory best, but it is far from the only

L’Homme Blesse translates as “the
wounded man,” and this is another key theme in Chéreau’s cinematic output.  His characters are always physically or
psychologically damaged. The wounded quality creates a sympathy that draws
viewers into their lives. Even as Chéreau films his characters in handheld
close-up, there is a feeling of detachment; most of his protagonists are socially
and emotionally isolated.

The filmmaker’s
debut The Flesh of the Orchid (1975)
is a peculiar adaptation of James
Hadley Chase’s novel. The opening sequence has a gardener entering an asylum,
undressing, and climbing into bed with Claire (Charlotte Rampling), a rich
neurasthenic. She blinds him and escapes. On the road, Claire meets Louis
Delage (Bruno Cremer), whom she hopes will save her. Louis, however, is on the
run from the Berekian brothers, murderous circus performers. When Louis is
wounded, Claire seeks medical assistance, only to be kidnapped. Throughout the
film, Claire and Louis experience a series of reversals of fortune as they try
to give in to their desires and cheat death. It’s a queer film, and not just
because of a curious scene of Claire’s male cousin receiving romantic attention
from a male asylum inmate. Flesh of the
is also highly stylized, but it is slightly risible at times. Nevertheless,
the film has a strange, alluring quality to it. It deserves to be seen and not
just by completists.

Chéreau’s last
film was Persécution  (2009), which exerts a hypnotic pull of a
different kind on viewers as Daniel (Romain Duris) grapples with his strained relationship
with Sonia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). He is also troubled by finding a stranger
(Jean-Hugues Anglade) lying naked and face down in his bed one evening. The man
claims to love Daniel, but Daniel’s response is to throw him out and threaten
to kill him. Persécution has many
readings—is the lovesick man a symbol of Daniel’s fragile psyche?—and does this
obsessive love have something to do with Daniel pushing away both Sonia and his
best friend Michel (Gilles Cohen)? Chéreau offers no easy answers, but he does
offer some solid clues as when a character admits, “I can’t love without being

The bond between
two estranged brothers, one of whom has a blood disease, is the subject of
arguably Chéreau’s best film, Son Frère. Luc
(Éric Caravaca), who is gay, reunites with Thomas (Bruno Todeschini), who is
straight, when the latter contacts him and reveals, “something in my system has
gone haywire.” Thomas’ platelet count is dwindling, and he must undergo a
series of tests and surgeries. He has asked Luc to be by his side, even though
the two men have not spoken in years. Luc agrees, because, he says, that’s what
people do when asked for such favors. However, he admits “I don’t know why.”
when his inquisitive lover, Vincent (Sylvain Jacques) asks him about his
caregiving efforts.  

Son Frère toggles back in time and hints
at the dispute that distanced the brothers years ago; when one brother tells
the other “You deserted me when I needed you most!” the effect is gut wrenching.
But the film also depicts Luc’s later, tender confession to Thomas, “You saved
my life plenty of times.” Chéreau chronicles the psychic restoration and
physical deterioration brilliantly. A scene of Thomas being shaved for a
splenectomy—a potent visual metaphor for his transformation and change—is
especially masterful.

and Jacques from Son Frére played
lovers in Chéreau’s earlier film, Those
Who Love Me Can Take the Train.
This ambitious, but not entirely successful
drama concerns a group of friends uniting for the funeral of Jean-Baptiste
(Jean-Louis Trintignant), a bisexual artist. The first half, which unfolds in
the crucible that is the train of the title, is terrific. A dozen plus
characters are casually introduced, as are their mini dramas in various overlapping
vignettes. These scenes are set to a fantastic pop soundtrack.

There is even
some palpable sexual tension between Louis (Todeschini) and Bruno (Jacques), two
men, each with partners, who meet in the train station and are attracted to one
another. However, their bathroom tryst ends abruptly when they both claim they
are not in the mood for lovemaking. One admits he would rather have a cry.

Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train is
a moody film. It is also a talky and dense one. When the main characters start
revealing secrets—a pregnancy, an HIV status, and even a sex change—the soapy drama
is only mildly interesting. The film disintegrates as the characters do; they
all try to reconcile their conflicting passions and emotions, but they are as
likely to have breakdowns as breakthroughs. The “wounded man” here is not
necessarily the late Jean-Baptiste, but all his emotionally distraught friends
and relatives who scream and fight, make up and break up.

if Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train is
a lesser film in writer/director’s cannon, it deserves attention. Chéreau was a
fascinating filmmaker who artfully plumbed the depths of human desire.

For more the Film Society of Lincoln Center program click here.

Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer
Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and a
contributor to Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News and other queer alternative weeklies.

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