Tuesday, 10 April 2012

LLGFF 2012: Absent/The Green

Interestingly, the last 2 films I saw at the London Gay & Lesbian Film Festival this year had a somehow similar theme. Yet they could not have been anymore different. In the Argentinian "Absent", a young student plays a dangerous game when circumstances mean he has to spend the night over at his swimming instructor's house. In the American "The Green", a teacher is accused of improper behaviour towards a student in his class. The former was probably the best film I have seen so far this year. The latter was, well, not the best film I have seen this year.

I had not seen Marco Berger's first film, Plan B, which had earned some great reviews two years ago, and now he is back with Absent, a film that won the Teddy Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2011 (why did it take so long to get to the UK?). The story of a younger man who is playing with fire when he seeks the affection of his swimming instructor, and who, through deception, spends the night at his place, made me worry this was going to end up as one of those worthy, issue films. I need not have worried. Or in fact, not until I saw The Green, but more on that later.

Here the Argentinian director develops his own unique style and plays with our expectations, by pretty much using the style and artifice of thrillers in general, and by copying the whole first act of Psycho in particular, not with the storyline obviously (nobody dresses up as his mum and stabs people in the shower) but with its dynamic. What begins as a seemingly banal set up, that sees high school student Martin (Javier de Pietro) unable to go home, takes an almost sinister turn as, having nowhere to spend the night at, he ends up staying over at his swimming instructor Sebastian (Carlos Echevarria), that we quickly understand he developed a crush for. But was the student telling the truth or was it all set up? And who is playing who? Because at this point begins a seductive game of cat and mouse, full of subtleties, and an untold but so obvious and burning desire as this fateful night slowly unfolds, taking up nearly half of the film's running time.

It is not just the influence of Hitchcock that can be traced in here, but also, as the director himself admitted at the Q&A, horror films in general and even Japanese ghost films (the ones with long haired ladies), as he uses a very unusual sound design. And it is the originality of Absent that it uses these seemingly out of place techniques with much success creating an unconventional thriller full of lust. This is a slow paced film that demands the audience's attention. Yet if you are willing to give it, you will be handsomely rewarded by a rich drama full of untold subtleties.

The Green, in its storyline and structure, is much more conventional. And sadly, it turns out to be the sort of worthy, issue films I usually flee like the plague. In it, teacher/write wannabe Michael (Jason Butler Harner) and his boy friend Daniel (Cheyenne Jackson) have fled the big city for their little corner of green paradise in Connecticut, hence the title. But obviously, the grass is always greener elsewhere (hence the title again). Seemingly very well accepted within the community, events take a turn for the worst when a gifted but troubled student that Michael had taken what might had been seen as an unhealthy interest in, accuses him of improper behaviour.

There are a couple of aspects I liked about The Green. First of all, there was a very revelant description of how a small, seemingly accepting community can show its true colour in the face of such an event. It does ask the question as to whether the gays really are as well accepted nowadays as we would like to believe. And the film tries to address the issue of discrimination in general, as the story could easily had worked had the accused been a foreigner or any kind of outsider.

Also Sam is not exactly the most likeble character, he has his weaknesses, and I often found myself wanting to shout at the screen and tell him to get away from his student, who had trouble written all over his face.

But despite all this, The Green braces some pretty brash and stereotypical situations, typical of a certain kind of worthy film. And then it undoes whatever good work it might have done with a truly disappointing third act that completely avoids tackling the issues it had raised so far, ending up with a truly unsatisfying, far too neat resolution of the story.

A couple of supporting characters do help elevate this. The too rare and precious Illeana Douglas makes the most of her character as the supportive, cancer-stricken, wisecrack best friend. It sounds awful but it is all the tribute to her talent that she makes it work. And Julia Ormond also shines as the sympathetic lawyer who takes on their case when everybody else is turning their back on them, and offers a warm and subtle performance that makes you wonder why this great actress is not being used more often.

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