A question that came up during the marathon haze of films that was the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2023: Why can’t we revel in fuss-free depictions of desire when it is just there, with neither provocation, nor any intention to provoke? Not as a steamy, sidelong glance as a film ravages you with nudity, but as a statement of fact: That people love, that clothes come off, that flesh glistens alongside flesh.
Then there is queer desire, a strain that emerged palpably to the surface over course of the festival. Here, it seems, the Europeans are armed with a profound indifference and nonchalance. Take Christian Petzold’s gleaming Afire, the German submission for the Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film. It begins with two guys, Leon (Thomas Schubert) and Felix (Langston Uibel), in a car as it sputters to a stop. They are in the middle of a forested nowhere and have miles still before they reach their destination, Felix’s parent’s house by the Baltic Sea. Are Leon and Felix lovers? Friends? Floating hazily between?
The film does not even try to push this question at the audience by teasing its possibilities. Scenes don’t take on the shape of answers, reducing us to the bearer of questions. When, somewhere in the tangled intermission of the film, Felix sleeps with a man and Leon’s fixations sediment on a woman, their desires are clarified, but it never feels like answers to questions that had been long simmering. A central character emerges as bisexual, a bisexuality we never assumed; and having emerged, they don’t leave us feeling like a rug has been lugged from under our feet. This is as it is.
Or, like Yonfan’s restored Singaporean trans romp Bugis Street, Pedro Almodóvar’s intoxicating capsule-film Strange Way Of Life, and Zacharias Mavroeidis’ horny Greek comedy The Summer With Carmen — there are films so profoundly heated, sex charging up every scene and every interaction even if it never quite materializes into undress. (Almodóvar’s film offers a fascinating complication — old lovers are pulped, when they meet after decades, through flashbacks of their younger selves. We see the young couple kissing, but we never see them naked; we see the older couple naked, but never having sex.)
These films liquidate queerness to its desire and thickly apply it over their world. Who can resist the Almodóvarian image of two beautiful, young men showering under a leaking wine casket, kissing as though they just discovered the pleasures of sex? Then, there is the twink and the bear in The Summer With Carmen, their almost-always friendship that feels like, any moment, it could tilt into a shot of them thrashing in bed.
It is rare and rapturous to see queerness depicted as this unstable, intensely narcissistic, but ever-gorgeous performance; self-involved and self-unserious. This unwillingness to seal queerness shut is best exemplified in Marija Kavtaradze’s tender Slow, a Lithuanian film about a couple trying to navigate one of them being asexual. Love is not enough. Or as one of them puts it, “I love you, too. What good is that?”
They are constantly worrying about the sexual appetite of the other, prioritizing them, and jeopardizing their relationship. In one of the most fragile scenes of the film, Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas), an asexual man, is asked by his lover, Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė), with accusation in her eyes and hurt in her voice, why he jerks off when he is sexually not excited by people, by her. Like 20,000 Species of Bees, a Spanish drama about a child who feels unsettled in her body, Slow refuses to explain the body. It is what it is, contradictions and comforts. It is hard to express why the body feels what it does in neat, eternally transposable explanations. The best one can do is express the whatness of the body with both thoughtfulness and playfulness. Sensitive without being righteous, complicated without being evasive, these films offer new possibilities, not new solutions or new explanations.
That Elena is a dancer, whose entire life revolves around trying to elude meaning through the body’s expression, is all the more striking. And yet, when push comes to shove, that’s all she wants — an explanation.
“Queerness is that thing that lets us feel this world is not enough,” writes Jose Esteban Munoz. Then why do so many films pretend that it is resolved, that its questions are answered? Its answers are expected to produce resolutions, sealing an idea into a tradition, a possibility into a conclusion.
In the midst of this thickening genre of queerness, when you are confronted by a Sahela, there is this strange surge of ambivalence. Raghuvir Joshi’s debut film is “inspired from real events” and about a married couple in Australia whose life comes undone when the husband comes out. A smooth, clear-eyed portrait of both immigration — first and second generation — with Niladri Kumar’s sitar strumming the film along, Sahela croons longingly, painfully in the manner of Kishori Amonkar namesake song.
The film feels stuck at times, unable to be both modern and traditional, profound and effortless, and you can see the strains in its attempts. Lines leap off the film’s surface like someone has cobbled at the verbs and adjectives carefully for days. Even with seasoned actors like Sheeba Chaddha and Vipin Sharma, the film, whose core is heartfelt and raw, seems to forever be explaining itself. It wants both clarity and empathy.
Sahela begins, for example, with a Grindr notification burping — a tuduk sound — which, for a closeted, discreet man, feels odd. Why would you blare your sexuality so brazenly if the point of your arc is to insist on your initial meekness? But the film wants us to know that he is gay, and creates a parade of scene-building to prop this claim. Antonio Aakeel’s performance, dripping in pathos, cannot make smooth what is — by design, by flaw — rough.
Queerness as an arc you chart, with self-realization being the end is something that not just Sahela, even Hirokazu Kore-eda Monster and Patiparn Boontarig’s debut Thai film Solids By The Seashore do. It is a well worn out trope, one that both films try to play with — that latter swivels perspective till it forcefully engineers empathy, and the former stretches it languorously with gorgeous boredom.
I was left asking, is it the film or is it the trope? Is queer self realization, coming into one’s own sexuality, parsing apart one’s inhibitions, too treaded, too trite? Are there new ways of making a familiar thing feel foreign, fresh? Do we discard the planks of storytelling on which we have built a genre? Surely, that sounds like some kind of complicated progress, letting things go to lug other things ahead.