Last Spring & Nus masculins. Homophile notes
Sensibility is ineffable. Words, just like images, can serve as an approximate translation, can tear a few sparks off of its immaterial and fluid whole, but can certainly not contain it; it overflows.
Before François Reichenbach became one of the spoiled kids of the international award rosters for his American and French dispatches, he used his camera to shoot some notes about homosexual love. Notes that would then get lost amongst his spectacular reviews. Luckily, producer Laurence Braunberger found it necessary to restore these little films – more precisely, two of them – to the same level as the other grand subjects that Reichenbach’s camera managed to capture. And these truly are grand subjects – if not Paris, Mexico and New York, at least Brigitte Bardot. Brauenberger is the one that granted the French Cinematheque his two 1954 short films, Last Spring and Nus masculins, and their second life began in 2016, when the Cinematheque restored them.
France, the fifties, cinema, homosexuality. The only thing that can follow on this list is, undoubtedly so, Jean Genet, since Un chant d’amour (1950), the writer’s only film, is something that cinema cannot be forgiven for. How can we forgive something so majestic and cheeky, a carceral poem written in lust and mold, sweat, and hormones? But Jean Genet’s film lies at the intersection of two sensibilities – the gay, i.e. homophile one, and the queer one. The first one was in the air at the time when Un chant d’amour was shot and released. A post-war activist movement, homophilia used a humanistic discourse to oppose laws that incriminated homosexuality. One of its recurrent preoccupations was to desexualize the LGBT+ community, an eternal obsession of its detractors. Meaning, if you prick us, we bleed. Well, it’s clear that Genet wasn’t all that preoccupied with homophilia. Because the flaming creatures that he himself sets alight in his short fiction, the thieves, the bandits, the slobs, the immigrants are far from the positive examples that homophilia was trying to push to the front. Genet is too dirty for the homophiles and anticipates the impious attitude of the queer movement. If you prick us, it will turn us on. Just a few minutes from the film, which encompass the short oneiric escapade of the two jailbirds into nature, can be attributed to a homophile heritage. Gentle touches, running around through the trees, flowers as sexual metaphors, a love set in the middle of nature, because nature cannot be dirty, and so any act of love that takes place in its midst is cleansed of its social stains.
It’s hard to overstate Genet’s influence. In the shadows of today’s queer sensibility, for which he is a trick of light, Last Spring and Nus masculins, two profoundly homophile films, could seem dim. We can call them notes, because that is what they actually are, since both give off an air of incompleteness. Even if they are to be taken together, as they should be, the sensation doesn’t dissipate. And it doesn’t even have to, since they are sparks of homophilia, an inexhausted sensibility, and Reichenback offers notes on a homophile reality (Nus masculins) and notes on a homophile fiction (Last Spring).
Reality, what a big word! Nus masculins is, in fact, a series of motion-picture portraits of young and obviously gorgeous men. Be they dressed or not, posing or moving at their own leisure, it’s clear that Reichenbach cannot take his eyes off them. And when he does, it’s just to catch glimpses of painterly landscapes, so eloquent for a homophile sensibility – be it nature, especially water and flowers, “purifying”, be it impressive bits of the architecture of an ancien régime, little palaces with gardens, fountains, and sculptures carved in the ancient Greek tradition, the one that raised the male body to the status of greatness, a tiny sample of the nostalgic homosexual fascination for nobility. Reichenback doesn’t shy away from a speedo that is too tight, from a piece of white lingerie running through a flower garden, of the juvenile nudity imposed by hot summer days, just as he doesn’t shy away from urban glances, either thrown at a sailor or a constructor. A boy like a flower, with a body like a statue, loving as naturally as a gust of wind. Is it naive? Of course. But if the tempering naivete dries up the tenderness which Reichenbach adores his models with, if it thus question the vividness of the colors that the camera robs from the overly stylistic landscapes, then there will be nothing left but to kick moderation to the curb and then follow the lead of the intensity that boils to the surface in Nus masculins.
The very same intensity that rendered a film such as Last Spring possible. The romantic story of two young men that turn a little patch of bucolic land into their premises for loving, in spite of the fact that it begins on a quite cheeky shot, with two pairs of jeans so tight that they give a hint off, will continue in a saccharine tone. Shot in black and white, seemingly in a hurry, from scraps of a film reel that can only bear short moments, Reichenbach’s short film concentrates on the slightly agonizing wait that one of the young men must endure when the other goes to town. Day after day, and increasingly daunting, the realization dawns that the postman has paid a visit, yet has shown up without any letters. The anxiety arises not just from the absence of the loved one, but also from the fact that he is alone in the city, a foreign and dangerous place, a playground of hotels and seamen, subways and dive bars. A place for dirty homosexuality, which the pained one visits in his sleep, guarding his loved one, then chasing him in his attempts to retrieve him. But the loved one runs away even faster, locked in a demented, mystical escape which – in an over-the-top erotic finale – takes places in a temple atop a hill, when suddenly he is engulfed by a pocket of water, an open and improvised reference to the myth of Narcissus. The inebriated dream, which at times is interrupted or superimposed with the dreamer’s visage, is not just an aesthetic ploy, a subterfuge that Reichenbach uses to become playful, but is also a declaration of love that is translated through the imagery of anguish and despair. To lose his loved one is not simply just a bad dream, but a lurid nightmare, and what makes this melodramatic and sentimental episode a great moment of cinema is the intensity with which Reichenbach brings it to its end, without feeling the embarrassment of exaggeration. To see it as it is doesn’t require much, but to truly see it means to become its accomplice, which is exactly what I was describing earlier – to follow the example of its intensity.
Both films can be viewed for free on the French Cinematheque’s streaming platform.