Marginalization and Sexual Distress A Look at Three Fiction Films from Rotterdam

in 43rd International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Guilhem Caillard


From The Netherlands, Helium follows Frans Weeling (the great actor Hans Dagelet), meticulously painting a portrait of a disappearing man. The Dutch gangster world that Frans has long been a part of, and that he helped to establish, is undergoing profound changes. Newcomers are now laying down the law. This vision of weakness and marginalization is at the heart of the film. Avoiding showiness, the film unfolds leisurely.

Director Eché Janga uses everything at his disposal to illustrate the immeasurable weight that slowly suffocates his main character. Helium is more memorable for its mannerisms than for its well-worn subject, creating a neatly organized compilation of small gestures that can transform everyday life into hell. Janga’s editing is clearly well planned and far from approximated. He also gets impeccably thuggish performances from his band of actors. As for gangster movie clichés, it is true that they pile up and risk taking over the story, but Janga fully embraces them. In doing so, he easily reaches the climax of what he sets out to accomplish — especially in lending such eerie, unusual importance to the Dutch landscape. The lighthouses and seashores seem to be such ideal backdrops for Hans to begin understanding his own slow unravelling.

Something Must Break

In January 2012, the Göteborg International Film Festival (Sweden) introduced director Esther Martin Bergsmark to the world, with the screening of his first feature film. A cross between autobiographical documentary and experimental poem, She Male Snails tackled the director’s own preoccupations as a young person of transgendered identity. The profound admiration that he felt towards his partner and best friend, Eli Levén, was depicted without restraint. Bergsmark created an aesthetic of confidence, with long bath scenes during which the two friends talked for hours. Similar sequences appear in Something Must Break (Nånting måste gå sönder), the Swedish director’s second feature, though the main character now appears alone more often than not.

Adapted from Eli Levén’s novel You Are the Roots That Sleep Beneath My Feet and Hold the Earth in Place, the film tells the story of Sebastian (Saga Becker), a trans person looking for a love connection that he thinks he may have found in the arms of Andreas (Iggy Malmborg), a young heterosexual punk. However, despite claiming to be free from all social constraints, and despite his deep attraction to Sebastian, the young would-be lover is not ready to deal with his feelings. As well as observing the painful stagnation of this relationship, Esther Martin Bergsmark follows his hero as he embarks on risky sexual encounters. The director uses these moments — Sebastian seeking to put himself in danger — to punctuate the film. Often quite crude, yet filmed in exquisite slow motion, these encounters with strangers also serve to elevate the heart of the film’s matter: a love affair mixed with failure, the kind from which one emerges stronger. Also noteworthy is actress Shima Niavarani, who excels in the supporting role of Sebastian’s roommate and confidante.

Eastern Boys

Among the most popular titles for Rotterdam festival-goers, is Eastern Boys, and it’s at the top of the list. The French director of Les Revenants and Laurent Cantet’s co-screenwriter on many projects, Robin Campillo had been conspicuously absent from the big screen since 2008. With this new film, he lays the foundations for an intimate drama. With obvious respect and without voyeurism, he delves into the private life of his main character Daniel, a single, forty-something homosexual (Olivier Rabourdin).

The long opening sequence set this tone remarkably well. Bringing viewers gradually into Daniel’s personal story, Campillo plays with a variety of different shots and long focal lengths, slowly fixing our attention on the character as he appears, wandering through a group of young men. They are wandering too, just like Daniel, whose intentions are transparent: he is on the hunt, testing the waters as he searches for negotiated sexual services. Hesitantly, he moves towards a Ukrainian boy, who will become Eastern Boys’ second hero.

With care, Campillo develops his story patiently and respectfully. The first exchange between the characters is marked with hesitation, fear and determination. Their synergy will take time to establish itself and it is this very process, the creation of trust, which constitutes the film’s main point of interest. Unequivocal at first, the relationship will soon take on an unexpected form.

If Campillo is able to transform a banal subject into something fresh, with such precision, it is because he is interested in communities that are still underrepresented in contemporary French cinema. The filmmaker appears to have researched his subject thoroughly in order to depict the way of life these illegal immigrants live (the seedy hotels on the outskirts of Paris where they are housed by the police as they await their visas), as well as the hierarchical organization of their exchanges (the youths move in a pack, guided by the charismatic Boss). Besides, it is not insignificant that Rotterdam programmers put this film in the Grand Tour section, under the theme ‘The State of Europe’ reflecting on Europe and discussions over its future. In its own way, Eastern Boys is sounding the alarm.

Edited by Tara Judah