By Alistair Ryder (@YesItsAlistair)
A World Not Ours- **
Stranger by the Lake- ** ½
Due to the fact I’m not being employed as a professional critic (a shocking oversight on behalf of all top media organisations), I very rarely see films before their general release. Well, like the old maxim about waiting all day for a bus and two coming at once, I saw two films getting full cinema releases this week at advanced screenings at last year’s Leeds International Film Festival, where I did volunteer work (basically ripping tickets and cleaning up sweet wrappers, but with the joy of watching a film in-between duties).
The first of the two releases is “A World Not Ours”, a documentary following the lives of different generations living in a Lebanese refugee camp. Director Mahdi Fleifel clearly benefits from knowing the Ein el-Heiweh camp and all of it’s residents like the back of his hand, and for such potentially bleak subject matter still manages to get warmth and humour out of all his subjects (especially his dad, the undisputed highlight of the film).
Fleifel has recently started a kick-starter campaign to get the film into consideration for next year’s Oscars, but has said that he doubts a Palestinian film would ever make it to major awards contention. I have to agree with him that the crowd funding campaign is similarly likely to fail to generate awards buzz, purely because of the film’s content; as a documentary it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about the situation and it’s effect on both sides of the Middle East. Although it’s always welcome to put a human perspective on such bleak issues, the film does so in incredibly clichéd and contrived ways (Fleifel’s recount of his spiritual awakening and acceptance of his own heritage and identity is a particular offender in this case) that it becomes ultimately uninteresting in spite of it’s good intentions.
Far more interesting, albeit still not “good” in any conventional sense, was French drama “Stranger by the Lake”. I’ve had some awkward cinema experiences in my time, from a friend answering his phone in the middle of “Dinner for Schmucks” and speaking loudly in Polish (far funnier than anything in that film), to another friend falling asleep and snoring loudly in the middle of “Captain America”. These pale in comparison to “Stranger by the Lake”, a murder mystery set at a gay cruising spot that appears to be populated entirely by people who don’t actually have proper jobs to go to (seriously, you’re going there every day of the week looking for sex? How do you pay your taxes?). After watching this film I can now live the rest of my life knowing I won’t have an experience as awkward as sitting in a room full of strangers watching two men fully penetrate each other, repeatedly, with a disregard for any contraceptive devices, whilst an overweight man with a tiny penis looks on and masturbates (I know I saw it on volunteer work, but I really should have got paid to sit through it- although an overweight person with a tiny penis is funny in pretty much every language). If it wasn’t clear from the sexual explicitness, the film is French.
If you take away all the sex scenes, which don’t add anything other than to needlessly re-establish that the film is taking place at a cruising spot, the resulting film has an incredibly under-cooked plot. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) wants to get with Michel (Christophe Paou), despite the fact he’d drowned his previous lover in the middle of the titular lake, for a reason that’s never explained or hinted at (although secondary characters assume it was because he “got bored”, which is good a reason as any I suppose).
The film doesn’t really indulge the murder plot until the last 15 minutes, and it feels like director Alain Guiraide is uninterested with following through with that plot to a natural conclusion; for a film that prides itself on featuring so much male ejaculation, it’s ironic how anti-climactic the end result is. Although it’s a remarkable achievement (and one which means it is narrowly better than the other film I’ve reviewed) for a film to treat homosexuality in a way that’s both honest and free of stereotype (in the characters at least- setting a film at a gay cruising spot isn’t exactly a representation of gay lifestyle as a whole), to completely ignore the most interesting aspects of the plot in order to make a social comment is a foolish move. I was left assuming the murder plot was only ever included so the film wouldn’t be categorized as pornography and film festival volunteers like me would have to sit through it.
The film won the “Queer Palm” at last year’s Cannes film festival- something which is quite surprising considering lesbian drama “Blue is the Warmest Colour” (a far better film, albeit with equally awkward sex scenes to sit through) took home the best film prize for the festival as a whole. I can only attribute this to the reaction of Julie Maroh, whose graphic novel formed the basis for “Blue is..”, who complained that the central sex scene was from a “male, pornographic” perspective and would likely be laughable to lesbian audiences. The sex scenes in “Stranger by the Lake” are practically identical, save for the fact it’s two men rather than two women, and are equally pornographic, and yet gets coveted awards on gay representation due to the fact it’s director shares the same gender and sexuality as the characters. “Blue” makes up for it’s needless sex scenes with an emotionally honest coming of age story that made for one of my favourite films of last year- “Stranger” is emotionally hollow, and will likely be forgotten about once cultural commentators stop writing think pieces on it’s sexual frankness.