The following are preview capsules for ten films screening at the 39th edition of Frameline, the world's oldest and largest LGBTQ film festival. This year's fest runs from June 18 to 28.
Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands (Denmark dir. Christian Braad Thomsen)
The insanely prolific queer German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have turned 70 this year, had he not died at age 37 after directing some 40-plus feature films in 15 years. This new doc from a longtime Danish friend attempts to psychoanalyze Fassbinder and his work via some fascinating, never-seen-before interviews (including one that was filmed immediately after his first feature, Love is Colder Than Death, got booed by critics at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival). Those interviews mingle with appropriate film clips and contemporary conversations with surviving members of Fassbinder's un-merry band of actors. Amongst the latter I was particularly thrilled to hear from pasty-faced actress Irm Hermann, the ex-office worker whose masochistic on-and-off screen relationship with the director got played out in 19 films. While To Love Without Demands should be essential viewing for Fassbinder aficionados, it's probably overwhelming and a bit academic for neophytes who would be best served by simply watching a handful of his films. To that end, Frameline39 will also be screening the director's final feature, 1982's phantasmagoric sailor's wet dream, Querelle.
54: The Director's Cut (USA dir. Mark Christopher)
A highlight of the recent San Francisco International Film Festival was director Mark Christopher's reconstruction of his much-maligned 1998 movie, 54. Starring Ryan Philippe, Salma Hayek and Breckin Meyer as three romantically linked employees at NYC's famed discotheque, this new cut features 44 previously unseen minutes that essentially put back all the gay stuff expunged from the original release. While this new edit isn't quite the "minor masterpiece" some critics have proclaimed, it's an awful lot of fun – whether you're vicariously reliving your own misspent youth or nostalgia-tripping for an infamous era not actually lived firsthand. 54: The Director's Cut is already available on VOD, but it should really be experienced in the company of an exuberant Castro audience on the Friday night of Pride weekend. Director Christopher is expected to attend.
In the Grayscale (Chile dir. Claudio Marcone)
Seashore (Brazil, dir. Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon)
These two low-key indie dramas from South America are all the more impressive for their being works by debut feature filmmakers. In the Grayscale captures a period in the life of Bruno, a serious-minded 35-year-old Chilean architect who's been hired to design a large-scale public monument in Santiago. The titular grayscale refers to the ambivalent existence he inhabits midway between leaving a 17-year marriage and embarking on a same-sex relationship with Fernando, a high-strung local tour guide from whom he seeks inspiration. Claudio Marcone's film impressed me with its naturalistic, intelligent adult dialogue and a recurring symbolism which manifests itself brilliantly in the final shot.
The two male leads in Seashore are a generation younger and their still-unformed sexualities place them in a sort of "grayscale" as well. Lifelong best friends Tomaz, who's gay, and presumably straight Martin drive to a beach house where Martin is expected to wrap up some sketchy family business. They spend time quietly hanging out until the idyll is broken by an overnight bacchanal of booze, loud music, drugs and for Martin at least, sex with a female friend. The morning after finds the hungover buddies hazily reminiscing about the night's events and it's also the first time we're privy to any discussion of Tomaz' sexuality. One thing leads to another, and well, you can guess where this one's headed. Like everything else in this lovely and enigmatic film, the welcome denouement feels neither false nor unearned. The meaning of the final scene is sure to initiate some post-screening discussions.
Love Island (Croatia dir. Jasmila Žbanic)
In 2006, Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanic won the Berlin Film Festival's top prize for Grbavica, a searing drama about a mother and daughter in the aftermath of the 1990's Balkan genocide. One decade and two additionally well regarded features later, she returns with this silly and overbearing comedy set at an all-inclusive beach resort in the Adriatic Sea. Greek actress Ariane Labed (Attenberg, Alps) stars as Liliane, a very pregnant French landscape architect on holiday with her sweet but boorish Bosnian husband Grebo. Also on the scene is Flora, an ex-lover of Liliane's who works as the resort's social director. The trio is put through a contorted sexual roundelay as Liliane works out whether to stay with Grebo or leave him for Flora. There's a half-baked gay subplot involving Grebo and a male resort employee to boot. In all, it's an innocuously diverting 86 minutes with some genuinely inspired laughs. A handful of musical numbers help lend Love Island a Mamma Mia-like¬ vibe.
The New Girlfriend (France dir. François Ozon)
France's most entertainingly subversive director attended Frameline exactly 15 years ago, presenting his second and third features, Criminal Lovers and Water Drops on Burning Rocks to an appreciative Castro audience. Ozon's 15th film is an intricate and witty transgender dramedy that affixed a permanent grin to my face when I caught it at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. French superstar Romain Duris stars as a widower who dresses in his deceased wife's clothes, solely as a way to comfort their infant daughter. Or so he says. After his wife's BFF (Anaïs Demoustier) catches him in drag, the pair embarks on a surprise-filled adventure encompassing gender fluidity, confused sexual desire and plenty of red-herring dream sequences. Restrictions put upon Frameline by the The New Girlfriend's U.S. distributor is undoubtedly why this sublime film screens just once during the festival, late on a Thursday night way over in Piedmont.
Reel in the Closet (USA dir. Stu Maddux)
This fascinating documentary celebrates the importance of archiving and preserving LGBTQ moving images from an era predating ubiquitous smart-phone movie cameras. Highlights include footage shot in the North Beach lesbian bar Mona's Candle Light in 1950 (with audio!) and an all-male skinny-dipping pool party filmed sometime in the 1940's. Amongst those lending authoritative commentary are Susan Stryker (Screaming Queens: A Riot at Compton's Cafeteria) and renowned photographer Dan Nicoletta, a Frameline co-founder and Harvey Milk compatriot. The film also spotlights the organizations leading the charge to archive these materials, from the Lesbian Home Movie Project of Bucksport, Maine to the U.S. Library of Congress (whose eloquent spokesperson Mike Mashon is a familiar face to San Francisco Silent Film Festival attendees.) Reel in the Closet closes with the advent of video, which was cheaper and allowed people to shoot longer. Regrettably, it resulted in lots of Pride parade footage but little in the way of intimate moving images revealing how LGBTQ people lived their lives (the documentaries of the Queer Blue Light Video Collective being a notable exception).
Tab Hunter Confidential (USA dir. Jeffrey Schwarz)
With his acclaimed bio-docs on Vitto Russo (Vito), Divine (I Am Divine) and Jack Wrangler (Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon), Jeffrey Schwarz has established himself as our foremost chronicler of notable gay personalities, a talent for which he'll be honored with this year's Frameline Award. Schwarz' excellent new project surveys the turbulent life and career of iconic 50's actor-singer-horseman-heartthrob Tab Hunter, cleverly employing public archival materials to comment upon the man's clandestine private life. Lining up with salient commentary on Hunter (née Arthur Gelien) are such diverse voices as Robert Wagner, Connie Stevens, George Takei, Rona Barrett, Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Muller (the Bay Area's Czar of Noir and co-author of Tab's autobiography) and of course John Waters, who revitalized Hunter's acting career by starring him in 1981's Polyester. One of Confidential's many highlights is hearing Hunter open up about his long and complicated love affair with Anthony Perkins. While the film's "Hold Review" status keeps me from divulging more, I promise Frameline39's Castro screening of Tab Hunter: Confidential, with Hunter and Schwarz in person, will be a major highlight of the festival.
To Russia With Love (USA dir. Noam Gonick)
A special sidebar at this year's Frameline is Game Changers: Sexuality & Sports, comprised of six features and 17 shorts. Although I couldn't be more disinterested in sports, I found much to appreciate in this documentary about the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The film skillfully braids several trajectories, starting with that of its executive producer and poster boy Johnny Weir, the figure skating champ and NBC commentator who comes off as an unaware, haughty fur-clad diva. Then there are the LGBTQ Olympic athletes who struggle with their desire to make political statements during the Sochi games. Ultimately, none do, but who can blame them when arrest and prison enter in the equation. We also follow the valiant efforts of one Konstantin Yablotsky to stage Open Games, an LGBTQ athletic competition scheduled to take place in Moscow three days after the Olympics close. Every Open Games event gets shut down by authorities except for one, a table tennis competition attended by heroic Greg Louganis. The heart of To Russia with Love, however, belongs to Vlad, a gay Sochi teenager who endures intense, daily persecution for his sexuality. Efforts to publicize his plight pay off big time in the film's uplifting climax, when a prominent American athlete selflessly comes to the rescue.
The Yes Men Are Revolting (USA dir. Laura Nix, The Yes Men)