Monday, March 14, 2011

Man at Bath (2010, Homme au bain)

I feel sorry for François Sagat.  A prolific and somewhat mainstream gay porn star, his first two non-industry films—his first two legitimate films—have him nude, erect, and having lots of sex.  I expect more from the artists who choose to take a non-conventional casting choice like Sagat for a non-porno.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  Obviously we are dealing with a much sexualized, almost inhuman, figure given his physicality, but in the case of Man at Bath (I have not seen L.A. Zombie) he makes his looks and type-casting work in his favor.  He comes off as the most impressive, and the most sympathetic, character in a world filled with selfish, pretentious people.

Man at Bath is supposedly a very spontaneous film from writer / director Christophe Honoré, one of the most exciting contemporary French directors and one of my personal favorites.  Spontaneous might be another word for uneven.  I like the movie more than I expected to, in fact I adore this movie in spots, but a more assured approach by the director would have made his points more effective.  Sagat plays Emmanuel, a hustler who’s shacked up with Omar, a young filmmaker, a stand-in it seems for Honoré himself.  Omar is going to New York with real-life actress Chiara Mastroianni to promote their newest film.  Emmanuel, first seen toweling himself off after a shower, essentially rapes Omar before he leaves.  As an aside and I don’t mean to offend, I would not consider this a rape as we understand the word today.  Emmanuel and Omar are a couple, they live together.  If one partner wants sex and forces the other, it seems to me it’s not so much rape but a marital argument.  You’ve given yourself already to this person and in part it is selfish to deny someone you love (or at least care about) pleasure.  Omar tells Emmanuel to be gone when he returns home.  From here the film shifts between New York, with Omar and Mastroianni, playing herself, and Gennevilliers, France, where Emmanuel visits or runs into many people who seem to want or have had him.

When I first read of this film, I figured the scenes in New York with Mastroianni, a gifted actress, would be the more honest, impressive, etc, material in the film and the scenes with François Sagat would be boarder-line unwatchable given the stereotypical bad acting chops porn stars are graced with.  I was quite surprised to find the opposite.  Sagat is very good here.  At first he seems to be posing, from the very beginning, right out of the shower, even as he looks at Omar, someone we learn he did love in his own more violently masculine way.  Either Sagat grew on me or, the more I saw of him, the more I understood that this very sexy man with a god-like physique is still a man, someone who is constantly objectified and judged on his looks and the fact that he trades on his looks.  After Omar leaves, Emmanuel visits the apartment of an American art collector who up until now had been paying for Emmanuel’s services.  This man, a very pretentious prick, says some very honest and some very bullshit things as Emmanuel gets nude and poses.  Honoré makes a good decision here.  The only time we see Sagat full-on nude, everything hanging, he stands there facing the camera as this man degrades him, tells him he’s like a sculpture, he’s bad art, he’s kitsch.  Sagat stands there, fidgeting, and at one moment scratches at his thigh.  He becomes human in this moment and I felt very sorry for him.

The New York scenes amount to little more than hand-held material Honoré shot while promoting Making Plans for Lena.  Mastroianni’s presence is a mystery.  She has no purpose in the film and in fact has little screen time.  Omar, who operates the camera, is barely scene, and the story of these scenes encompasses an explicit relationship Omar finds with a young college student.  Here the explicitness is uncomfortable.  The actor playing the fling looks very awkward and embarrassed as he is seen sucking on Omar’s penis.  These scenes are darkly lit, look like amateur hand-held stuff found on YouTube, and in a way make the explicit shots even dirtier.  In hindsight my respect for François Sagat grows.  You need to be a certain kind of performer in order to have sex in front of a camera.  But in the grand scheme of things, Omar’s scenes, while not completely bad, distract from the real material, the humanizing of Sagat’s persona.

In one way Man at Bath might be a very important film.  Few porn stars have sustained a career in the movies.  In fact I can't think of a single one.  While Sagat thankfully hasn’t given up the trade, Man at Bath might give the actor much deserved attention in the mainstream media.  Both Man at Bath and L.A. Zombie played at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2010, making François Sagat the only actor with two films showing at the festival.  This could be a positive step for a male porn star, let alone a gay porn star, to be recognized as a serious talent.

Could this part have been played by another actor?  It would miss the point really.  Honoré has said that Sagat has redefined masculinity, and his presence in the film becomes the major reason for recommending it.  The director shows his talent for brining vibrant, authentic energy to his images, and if you’ve seen Honoré’s more recent films Man at Bath is a return to the more explicit, less whimsical material that has come to define a transgressive contemporary French cinema.  One thing to note is that none of the characters are really sympathetic, including Emmanuel.  Sagat’s character is the most developed and therefore relatable, but everyone here is unpleasant.  Any fiction writer will tell you that unlikeable characters are the hardest to write because the audience will not invest in the material.  I think the director / actor combination here makes the film work.  It’s relatively short running time only helps.  Honoré’s more improvisational style lets the material find its own way, and yes it dawdles some, but it’s impressive to simply observe movie characters for moments in their lives.  The film never tries to be more than observations, and perhaps subconsciously the hand-held camera was to aid in this tact.  A more clearly developed story, at least in the New York parts, would only have helped the film, but I’m glad I saw the picture, and happy too that Christophe Honoré remains one of the constant great filmmakers of his generation.

This film, however, may not be for everyone.  Most people won’t want to watch it.  This is not Brokeback Mountain.  These are honestly written gay characters.  None of them are saints, some are sinners; they fuck, they make a mess, and they bail.  Straight people, men in particular, probably won’t care for this film.  Gay people might also be offended because political correctness has homogenized the gay community in the United States.  The few published reviews for Man at Bath dwell on the sexual explicitness but there is a lot of honesty coming through the screen.  It’s an honesty that belongs to the cinema.

Man at Bath (2010)
(a.k.a. Homme au bain)
Director: Christophe Honoré
Writer: Christophe Honoré
Stars: François Sagat, Omar Ben Sellem and Chiara Mastroianni
In French and English
Runtime: 72 minutes

To purchase Man at Bath on DVD, visit Amazon (France):
(unfortunately, the DVD does not contain English subtitles)

IMDB link:

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