Bully's Viewers Should Cry, "How Fake!"

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:39

    "Don't give up on me, sir!" was s&m gay porn code spoken in American Beauty as a teenager, knocked to the floor by his father, licked blood off his lip. Lots of similar sexual dishonesty describes Bully, Larry Clark's latest tawdry voyeuristic fantasy. While the new film The Adventures of Felix presents being gay as part of a way to feel free in the world, that hard-earned fanciful expression is denied by Bully?a regressive film that mixes a lurid gay sensibility with fake seriousness and sham realism. Clark exploits the implicit social failures of working-class life. Sneakily enthralled by marginalization, he presents the frustrations of adolescent sexual confusion and timidity with a pedophile's drool. It's his Columbine wet dream.

    Marty (Brad Renfro) takes punches from high school friend Bobby (Nick Stahl), then strips at a gay nightclub and makes gay porn videos as Bobby commands him. (He calls Bobby "Boss.") Both profess to be straight (evoking the best friends at the start of Pearl Harbor); that, too, is part of Clark's hustle. His shamelessness and sexual stealth pander to middle-class curiosity about poor folks' (and wild teens') sexual habits. Passing as hipster anthropology, Bully isn't about the shy affection that keeps one (possibly gay) kid attached to another, it's just a furtive love story among damaged proles that turns into a killing spree. Think Boys Don't Cry without good intentions, and intentions are basically what separate serious filmmakers from hacks, honest pornographers from dishonest ones.

    Critics praised Clark for the vile 1995 Kids as if he displayed an interest greater than just taking ass, crotch and nipple shots of any youth (especially desperate ones) who'd let him get away with it. Bully encourages more misreading of Clark's motives by stressing more of the same lower-class pathology that Harmony Korine (Clark's spawn) concocted for Gummo. Plus, Clark's got a new alibi: Eminem, the white rapper who inspires Clark's exploitation of white teens' nihilism as they emulate hardcore rap's black machismo. Bully gives no hint that what poor blacks do in society's margins?having just enough room to destroy themselves?makes for a pitiful white fantasy of power. It's merely a source of decadent delectation. Movies from River's Edge to I Know What You Did Last Summer told more expressive tales of adolescent trauma, and Carl Franklin's little-seen Punk braved dramatizing a young neighborhood pederast's isolation. At his most boring, Clark plays Macbeth (one girl screams, "I smell blood! There's blood on my fucking shoe!"), then finger-wagger in the moralizing courtroom finale.

    Instead of exclaiming, "How awful!" Bully's viewers should cry, "How fake!" Marty's girlfriend, the pregnant, unstable Lisa (Rachel Miner), decorates her room with a Dr. Dre poster and International Male cut-outs. Bobby's leering father coaxes him, "You're smart, you have ambition, you have presence!" Rent-a-brat Bijou Phillips tells a boy, "You remind me of my first husband. I've got a kid; it's no big deal, my mom takes care of it." Laughter's probably the best response (in case you forget your raincoat) because Bully only makes sense as a chickenhawk tease. Clark shoots the tanned Marty like pastry?a sweaty croissant?and Nick Stahl is cast as trade, presumably as wish fulfillment of his debut role as boy bait in The Man Without A Face. Clark has earned that title with his smutty sociology; he's got a less trustworthy face than pornmeisters like Paul Barresi and Old Reliable. He's brought shame to poverty, sex and the movies. It's time we give up on Larry Clark.

    The Adventures of Felix directed by Olivier Ducastel andJacques Martineau

    Felix (Sami Bouajila) makes a conquest while hitchhiking on the road to Marseilles. In the front seat of his pick-up's car, their eyes meet, their smiles combust. Later, when both men step out of the woods together?jaunty, post-tumescent?their satisfaction makes you think, "Thank God for the French!" It's the sexiest movie stroll since Sheila E., wearing a one-legged white body stocking, paced downstage in Sign O the Times.

    There's nothing campy or theatrical in The Adventures of Felix, just the joy of living, which is a recurring, surprising part of what must be described as the film's naturalistic artifice. Felix, who is HIV-positive and gay, gets laid off during a labor strike and sets out to find the father he's never known (but whose last letters to Felix's mother bore Marseilles postmarks). En route Felix discovers a lively range of contemporary French people. Whether urban or exurban, these rueful elders, quizzical youth, busy women, desperate men relate to Felix happily or unhappily, and their temporary connections suggest to him his possible place in the world. Sure, the journey's pointed, but it's played with appealing lightness and the buoyancy springs realistically from the politics surrounding labor, immigration, feminism, sexual orientation and the family.

    Yet it's during the countryside trek that Felix shakes off all that anxiety and becomes unselfconsciously hopeful. He sings a song, "Lift up your eyes to the blue sky/The sky will show the way to Marseilles/Go to the sea/Father awaits there." For a moment, the diagnosed gay man of Algerian descent?a poster boy for Difference?exults in being a part of France, a part of nature. Felix's sense of citizenship?of belonging?is quietly moving, similar to the esprit Jacques Demy created in the quaint towns and fanciful communities of his best films (Lola, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).

    Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, the writing/directing team behind The Adventures of Felix, are the most sweetly daring of committed filmmakers. They share Demy's charmed view of the world but update it to an era when love and sex and art have been subjected to political scrutiny, thus quantified and disillusioned. Either their talent is very close to Demy's genius for everyday piquancy or Ducastel and Martineau know more than almost anybody out there about combating disillusionment intelligently, joyously. They evoke the exuberance of a Rufus Wainwright track but without the grating drone (the actual soundtrack features an uncanny choice: Blossom Dearie). Attuned to the art of filmmaking, they use the wide Cinemascope frame, always taking in more of the world. (This is the only new movie I've seen that doesn't seem measly in the wake of A.I.) Befitting The Adventures of Felix's picaresque storyline, the vivid settings allow us to enjoy the pictorial and social balance of each elegant composition.

    In their 1998 debut Jeanne and the Perfect Guy (not an opera but a sung-through musical), Ducastel-Martineau presented a tale of cultural, sexual and political identity?a response to the AIDS crisis with uplifting political faith. The Adventures of Felix is even more beguiling. They're smart enough not to make Felix a paragon, yet they honestly show how he and his boyfriend Daniel (Pierre-Loup Rajot) stay together through loving, open negotiation. The key to Ducastel-Martineau's schematic fiction is the humor they find as characters work toward politically correct situations. Esthetic and political activists, they use farce as force?which is not so simple as it sounds. Martineau-Ducastel transcend point-making by emphasizing actors' personalities and intellect. When Felix confesses his fear about witnessing and reporting a crime (which Bouajila acts with even more endearing desperation), Ducastel-Martineau show that his trepidation makes him a moral being, if not always a p.c. one. In a way, they're ideal filmmakers; they know that by positing political facts of gayness, race, nationality, morality they vivify Felix's lust for life.

    It's bold of Ducastel-Martineau to make the dark-skinned, winning Bouajila their cultural archetype. Felix's confrontation with the world, and with himself, reveals complexes that few gay artists have articulated. That sudden assignation with the traveling salesman (Antoine Marneur) is so exhilarating because it appreciates genuine, clear, erotic attraction. Most other gay feature representations of sexuality seem inhibited and old-fashioned, or brazen yet confused. Over-agonizing undoes the current Come Undone, a typically worried coming-out story not helped by being French. Stephane Rideau, the rough trade symbol of France's gay art cinema, plays Cedric, the working-class babe who opens Mathieu's (Jeremie Elkaim) closeted eyes. Director Sebastien Lifshitz explores the purely amatory conflicts of coming out. Cedric obsesses Mathieu until he opens up and moves on to Pierre (Nils Ohlund). It's a simple tale stuffed with typical French bourgie filler. Ducastel-Martineau and Andre Techine (who discovered Rideau in the memorable Wild Reeds) have made us want better.

    Felix's various encounters provide classic delight?the doctor's office discussion where several patients trade reactions to "bitherapy" and "pentatherapy"; matriarchal Mathilde's (Patachou) discourse on regretful love; a family outing with Isabelle (Ariane Ascaride), the mother of three children with three different fathers; even the running gag of Felix's idiosyncratic tv habits. Each segment (titled "My Little Brother," "My Grandmother," "My Cousin," "My Sister," "My Father") recalls Demy's wishful operatic narratives that simplified?and beatified?domestic crises. Instead of anti-family propaganda, Ducastel-Martineau (probably taking a cue from Patrice Chereau's Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train) enrich our conception of society by suggesting the extended family Felix creates to substitute for the family he doesn't have.

    In the extraordinary "My Little Brother" segment, Felix befriends Jules (Charly Segue), a teenager who develops a fast crush Felix cannot return. For both, it's a quintessential (though rarely shown) step toward self-knowledge. Ducastel-Martineau feature the overlapping platonic, fraternal and sexual feelings that frequently confound gay men (though I defy any viewer not to smile in warm recognition). This complex and tender negotiation aces anything in the British Queer as Folk series. It's a bracing denial of "transgressive" gay cliches in favor of more humane complication?as in the ambiguous resolution of the "My Father" segment. Teaching an old man in Marseilles to fly a kite, Felix assumes the longed-for filial role and?surprise!?he doesn't sacrifice his own maturity. That's the one relationship Jacques Demy's great films never showed. Demy had children in real life (with filmmaker Agnes Varda) but Ducastel-Martineau are his spiritual offspring. They may always be in Demy's shadow, but it's breezy there.