Max DeCurtins examines the French coming out narrative in À Cause d’un Garçon in the context of the marriage equality movement, and asks why there aren’t more narratives about being a gay adult after closing the closet door behind you.
As a gay man, I have significant misgivings about the politically correct substitution of “LGBT community” where we might otherwise refer only to one of these letters, or perhaps even to the occasional trailing letters –QIA, for Queer, Intersex, and Allied [Editor’s Note: or Asexual]. Political correctness, by its very nature, attempts to paint a neater picture of ourselves than the reality actually reflects. Each of these constituencies faces slightly different forms of discrimination, and in this era in which we can log on to a website once a day to check that somebody out there still fights on our behalf, we can begin to see less solidarity between, say, the G and the T, or even within the G, than the “community” appellation implies. When we turn our focus inwards we find the divisions, biases—and yes, discrimination—glossed over when we speak of “the LGBT community.” As a society, and even as a “community,” we more or less understand the L and the G at this point, but give short shrift to the B and the T. When pint-sized British Olympic diver Tom Daley released a YouTube video (a popular medium for coming out) revealing that he is in a relationship with a man (but that of course he “still fancies girls”), some of the loudest reactions came from within the “community,” which overwhelmingly assumed that Daley—like other bisexual men—had merely avoided coming out as fully gay by invoking some kind of continued interest in women. Though eventually proven correct, the dissenters crowed so vehemently that the New York Times, among other major organizations, ended up writing about it.
I mention all this because we stand at an interesting point in the history of societal engagement with those of non-heterosexual orientations. With their rejection of key sections of DOMA, the Supreme Court has left a legal patchwork that the justices must surely have recognized as absurd even at the time of the decision (well, all but Scalia and Thomas, because they live in noxious pits of flaming goo). Awareness of discrimination against non-heterosexuals has reached an historical apogee, as have efforts to ameliorate it. Yet the faster we restore equal rights, the more we seem ready to pat ourselves on the back, to seize upon something to which our society can point and cry: “You see! We’re makingprogress!” It all feels sensationalist and vaguely commercial; the first history of the struggle for marriage equality has already hit shelves and e-readers. In case you should need a refresher, fewer than half the states (plus the District of Columbia, whose mostly Democratic population gets zero voting power in Congress) currently support marriage equality. Needless to say, to make money by rushing a history of the marriage equality fight to press before we have achieved a comprehensive victory struck a lot of people as highly crass.
With all due appreciation of and for the restoration of rights that, let’s face it, we should have had all along, I wonder if the cause of LGBT equality is in danger of becoming the latest distraction in the absence of real progress on other things (climate change, ridiculous socioeconomic inequality, global tensions, education, health reform, just to name a few of the humdingers). It is with this mindset that I sat down to re-view À Cause d’un Garçon.
À Cause d’un Garçon is a feature-length “It Gets Better” video from before the age of Dan Savage and the hashtag. Literally, the French title means “Because of a Boy,” though I suppose it could also translate as “Because of a Waiter.” (I’m guessing that the latter translation comes across as less sexy.) Its English title, “You’ll Get Over It,” continues a long tradition of foreign-language films having English titles that in no way correspond to their original titles.
The “It Gets Better” campaign focuses on getting LGBT teens through adolescence and the often horrid bullying that targets them. It doesn’t much address, however, the challenges of navigating gay life once free of the closet. That part gets far less attention, but gay life doesn’t begin and end with coming out, which is kind of what our society—or at least our media—has made of it. We prefer not to think of non-heterosexuals as sexually active adults, as whole people with needs and wants, struggling to find their footing. The recent focus on marriage equality has done much to improve societal awareness of the very ordinary needs and wants of non-heterosexuals (though society still squirms at the thought of non-heterosexual sex). Yet we all need to feel sexually desirable, and this informs a large chunk of our adult behavior. Garçon doesn’t delve into any of this, or even really hint that living life as a gay adult comes after coming out as a gay teen, and I think I find the movie irritating for this reason, particularly given that I came out as an adult and have been trying to figure out how to be a gay adult ever since.
Yet in a sense, this re-view proves timely: gay rights have progressed rapidly in one particular area (marriage equality), but still languish in others, notably in the hypermasculinized world of sports, by which we mean overwhelmingly American sports. Gay men don’t possess the masculine aggression necessary for success in professional sports—or so the stereotyping has gone—and, oh my goodness, they get naked in the locker room just like straight men. Garçon aims itself squarely at refuting this bogus stereotype, and perhaps has more relevance now than it did at the time of its release, given the string of recent high-profile comings-out of various athletes. And yet I can’t escape the feeling that this movie is perhaps also a bit passé; ten years on, it comes off as thoroughly average.
“Adolescent” best describes the narrative, the acting, and the dialogue: neither childish nor mature, but damned self-confident…arrogant, even? Garçon presents a great number of truths about the lived experiences of gay youth, bullying in particular, but unfortunately it doesn’t take these elements and synthesize them into something greater than the sum of its parts. Story-wise, we might well call Garçon a conventional high school drama. Vincent Molina (Julien Baumgartner) epitomizes that most tried-and-true character of high school stories, a good-looking, popular athlete with a fetching ladyfriend, Noémie (Julia Maraval). He swims, and well. His best mate, Stéphane (François Comar), not exactly shabby himself, has a none-too-subtle crush on Noémie. His miscreant of an older brother, Régis, generally snipes at Vincent every chance he gets and picks fights with their parents Sylvie and Bernard, who seem ensconced in their “traditional” marriage dynamic. And finally, as an escape from this Norman Rockwell of a family and school life, he has clandestine visits with Bruno, an older fuck buddy in Paris.
Vincent’s closet starts to constrain him when, one day at school, he spies Benjamin (Jérémie Elkaïm), a swarthy young (dare I say exotic) guy, checking him out. A true marker of adolescent irrationality, Vincent finds Benjamin attractive despite Benjamin’s decidedly stalker/rapist behavior, and they have a few bizarre, lightly flirtatious interactions until one day, Benjamin turns up—in extreme stalker fashion—in the doorway of Vincent’s apartment building. Some idle neighbors spot Benjamin and Vincent standing extremely close to each other and draw an immediate conclusion.
Vincent arrives at school the next day to find a bit of graffiti painted on the wall: Molina est un PD il suce D! – “Molina’s a fag; he sucks cock!” (the subtitles carefully omit that last bit). The initials “PD” actually refer to the slang term pédé, a truncation of pédéraste. Nevermind the wild inaccuracy of the term as applied to gay individuals; if slang made sense all the time it would hardly find such widespread use. Vincent’s teammates, despite lacking any sort of evidence whatsoever, immediately reject him. Once accused, convicted. This speaks to a broader problem with societal perceptions of male sexuality: simplistic, no flexibility whatsoever, with perceived homosexuality as acceptable proof of actual homosexuality. When Benjamin and Vincent actually do kiss, there’s no-one around to witness it.
At dinner the next day, Régis outs Vincent to his parents. While siblings don’t typically do it, “outing” does happen, and many people don’t realize how much it can harm the person outed. Vincent’s life—from his teenaged perspective—goes into a tailspin, and it takes encouragement from Stéphane, his coach, and finally his literature teacher to get Vincent to see a way forward. He breaks it off with his fuck buddy Bruno when Bruno suggests a night out in the Marais, historically the Jewish district of Paris but apparently of late an epicenter for Paris gay life. Upon arriving at the gay bar where he meets Bruno, Vincent immediately finds himself ogled by overly aggressive (or just plain drunk) guys, gets overwhelmed, and leaves. And though they start off with the usual ignorances (“it’s just a bit of adolescent fun; it’s just a phase, he’ll grow out of it”), and despite Vincent’s fear of their rejection, Vincent’s parents eventually do come around, in particular his father, and Vincent regains enough self-confidence to win the regional swimming competition and reclaim the respect of his teammates.
Scenes of swimming competitions more or less bookend the movie, as if to illustrate that coming out doesn’t change your personality, interests, or skills; if you’ve spent long hours training in the pool, or practicing the violin, you won’t become any less a good swimmer or violinist by coming out. Yet something more complex lurks beneath the warm-‘n’-fuzzy feels. A subtle, subliminal message emanates from Vincent’s situation: it does indeed get better, provided you’re young, fit, physically attractive, and have mainstream interests. I wish the movie had not glossed over this nuance; in fact, it very quietly reinforces this idea when we observe Vincent’s literature teacher being asked by the school administrators to talk to Vincent, and then later when he does end up talking to Vincent. His visible discomfort in both scenes seems to say that, as the presumably quiet, bookish type of average physical attractiveness, it didn’t get much better.
Several things bother me about this movie, not the least of which concerns one of Vincent’s very first lines, as the three friends discuss how life changes after high school: “Moi, je dis, le vrai difficulté, c’est d’être soi-même, ici et maintenant”—the real challenge is to be oneself, here and now. In retrospect, the hypocrisy of this statement becomes painfully obvious, and I resent Vincent just a little bit for it. (They then recite lines from one of my favorite French poems, Le Pont Mirabeau, which in my opinion only becomes meaningful with the acquisition of life experience, but that’s for another re-view.)
I also find myself bothered by the behavior of Vincent’s best friend. Stéphane alternates between acts of admirable friendship and deplorable douchebaggery. Drunk with Vincent and Noémie, his attraction to Noémie bubbles to the surface and he makes a physical advance on her, the kind of drunk, frat boy behavior that easily degrades into rape. Vincent and Noémie shrug it off as they have a laugh over Stéphane’s passed-out form lying on the floor, after which they proceed to have sex on his parents’ bed. After Vincent finds himself outed, Stéphane unequivocally supports him, first with reassurances of friendship and later standing up to their swimming teammates. But Stéphane also physically and verbally bullies Benjamin, leaving us to wonder if he’s actually learned anything from Vincent’s situation. Noémie doesn’t come across as particularly sympathetic herself, either. Perhaps true to high school (or at least the high school drama genre), Stéphane ends up having sex with Noémie. When Noémie decides at the end of the movie to spend her summer in America babysitting a friend’s kids, Stéphane can only manage to say to her that it’s a pity she didn’t love him. Smells like future frat brother to me.
The scene in the school principal’s office with the literature teacher also grates on my nerves. Though Garçon dates from Jacques Chirac’s tenure as President, France—along with other EU members—has tacked rightward for some time, which bolstered first Nicolas Sarkozy and lately has tolerated advances by the reactionary, right-wing Front National party. When the French Parliament debated marriage equality legislation in 2013, the opposition got just about as ugly as you’d expect. Sensitive treatment of LGBT individuals there lags behind the English-speaking world, as does civic support of their needs, so when the principal and the counselor ask the teacher to speak to Vincent so that he doesn’t fall behind, it comes off as contrived. In America, even now, most high school administrations wouldn’t have lifted a finger to help that kid.
And finally, the two “it gets better” speeches that Vincent receives don’t quite succeed at sending the positive message the scriptwriters intended. Garçon tries to refute the stereotype that gay men can’t compete in the world of sports; by extension, this refutes the broader stereotype that all gay men are alike—some like fashion, yes, but some also like sports. A positive message indeed. Yet Vincent’s coach tells him that he has to show the others that “even though you’re gay, you’re not about to abandon swimming and open up a flower shop.” Whoops. Let’s try that again. Towards the end of the movie, Vincent’s teacher finally decides to say a few words to Vincent, some of the only words in the movie that speak to life after coming out. Observe, however, the way in which this meeting happens: the teacher waiting covertly in his car to catch Vincent on his way, speaking hurriedly, under his breath, casting fearful glances around to make sure nobody can see him talking to Vincent, and, most significantly, never directly acknowledging his own homosexuality. His affect completely contradicts the message he tries to impart to Vincent; he tells Vincent to grow thicker skin, to ignore the stares of others, all while trying to avoid being spotted himself. It’s a behavior redolent of adolescence, and in some ways it’s apropos given the adolescent quality of Garçon as a representative example of the adolescent state of gay-themed cinema.
I’d like to take this opportunity to explore why so many gay-themed films—the vast majority, in fact—suck, and to express my frustration at the fact that so many gay-themed films, well, suck. Actually, I don’t mean to generalize to quite that degree. Firstly, I do not speak for more recent specimens, such as The Normal Heart and Bridegroom (neither of which I have seen), nor do I extend this generalization to films featuring lesbian relationships, such asThe Kids Are Alright. Nor do I refer to films featuring homoeroticism, in which category Y Tu Mamá También stands out in particular, as in such films homoeroticism often manifests itself as a facet detail floating atop a typically deeper narrative. Gay-themed films about coming out, as well as those about finding romance, tend to go wide of the mark. Too many gay-themed films fail to provide a positive narrative; they dwell on stories about gay crushes on straight guys (which usually lead to some kind of heartbreak or falling-out), injustice and persecution, AIDS, and other negative experiences.
Most coming-out stories face the same basic problem in their adaptation for the screen: coming out often happens relatively early in life, particularly during the teenage years, and in order to approach this depiction on film, such movies generally require a young, and therefore relatively inexperienced, actor to fill the role of the closeted-then-liberated character. Examples abound of movies that, to varying degrees, just plain suck: Get Real(coming out while British), Edge of Seventeen (coming out while growing up in the ‘80s),Latter Days (coming out while Mormon), Shelter (coming out while being a California surfer dude), and Juste Une Question d’Amour (coming out while living in small-town France), among others. Some are more terrible than others.
I don’t mean to beat up on gay-themed films. No-one challenges Brokeback Mountain’s emotional punch, and I think it entirely fair to say that we view it differently in the wake of Heath Ledger’s death. Another good title, the quirky but charming 2008 musical Were the World Mine, re-imagines A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the framing device for a tale of social change. Though not without its problems, it has something of a Twilight Zonecreativity, and its foundation upon Shakespeare’s play gives it more solid story than most gay-themed films. But not every film has Ang Lee to direct it, or the weird but cool art and music direction of Were the World Mine. Wilde and Maurice both offer glimpses of homosexuality in nineteenth-century Britain and have strong backgrounds in literary history, which to my mind makes them stronger gay-themed films than most of the titles on offer. Still, the genre as a whole undeniably suffers from a lack of quality material, experienced actors, and dedicated directors, and I wonder—like I do about comprehensive equality for non-heterosexual citizens—when this will change.
For once, I have no idea what the fuck is going on with the music in this movie.
Jérémie Elkaïm gave a much better performance, for my money, in the somewhat darker, more complex 2000 film Presque Rien, which tells the story of his teenage character’s summer romance with the equally-cute Stéphane Rideau. And if you thought Americans squeamish about sex in film, Presque Rien features explicit male masturbation within the first ten minutes.
Are sports homoerotic by nature? Sometimes I feel as if a large chunk of the culture that surrounds organized sports developed specifically to deal with a surfeit of homoeroticism. The fact that some of the (extremely hot) soccer players now contesting the World Cup have been known to do some extremely homoerotic things on the field may or may not have influenced my thinking.