Marco Berger

Ausente/Absent (Marco Berger, Argentina, 2011)

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Martín (Javier de Pietro) is a 16 year-old student, gay, in the closet, and with an insistent gaze that speaks of assertiveness and danger. He wanders around the locker room at the swim club he belongs to, holding that gaze for that second too long, that extra bit of time that creates discomfort. Yet, when the objects of his gaze look back to return or challenge it, he’s vamoosed.

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Encased in the closet, wandering through the locker room

 

Martín tells his gym-teacher Sebastián (Carlos Echeverria) that something’s lodged in his eye whilst swimming. The teacher kindly takes him to the doctor who finds nothing. When the teacher offers to drive him home, we hear that Martín was meant to sleep-over with a friend; that he left his phone is in his knapsack and now can’t use it; that he lives with his grandmother but she is now visiting an elderly relative, and that he doesn’t know where his friends lives. In short, he’s stuck. All this information unfurls in the first half hour of the film and we quickly sense that Martín isn’t telling the whole truth.

 

Sebastián feels he has no choice but to let him sleep over, nonetheless making explicit to the boy the danger he’s placing him in, bringing a student and a minor to sleep in his home. Sebastián calls his girlfriend to relieve some of that tension and bear witness but he doesn’t tell her why. She in turn is too distracted and busy with her own troubles to pursue it and simply says no. Her only concern is whether the boy might steal something from the home.

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copping a feel

The teacher offers the student food, a place to stay, a change of clothes. But the student wants more. In the middle of the night and in a moment which feels both daring and tense, the student goes over to the sleeping teacher, puts his hand on Sebastián thighs and slowly moves it up and places it firmly on his crotch. This eventually wakes up Sebastián and though he senses something is not quite right, when he gets up to see what could be wrong Martín looks asleep, though provocatively positioned like a male Lolita.

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Lilito asleep

Sebastián suffers the snoopy gaze of a neighbour who discovers Martín, coming out of the shower, and flashing the crack of his bum at her. In the morning, the gardener sees them leaving the house together, says nothing, but looks on disapprovingly. The world’s judgmental gaze is on the teacher, who has done nothing but be kind. In the meantime, the boy is wearing the teacher’s deodorant, his perfume, his shirt. He’s found a way of having the older man on top of him by stealth and without his consent.

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Flashing the teacher’s neighbour

The morning after, in the teachers’ common room Sebastián hear how the parents of a boy had come to the school with the police that morning crying that their son was missing only to find him there and the father was so upset that he wacked him. Sebastián realises it’s Martín they’re speaking of but why has Martín lied to him? The discovery of the lie takes place 45 minutes into the film; why Martín lied, and the effects of that lie will occupy the rest of the film.

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External examination

Ausente is a film structured through a series of absences, which begin with the boy’s absence from home the night he tricks Sebastián into letting him stay over, continues through with absences from school, ends with the ultimate absence from the world itself, and is figuratively dramatised for us by what has by now become a trope traced to Bareback Mountain (2005): the sniffing of the shirt of he now loved but lost. But, like in Ang Lee’s film, those absences are in dialectical tension with another structuring device: the closet. It’s a film that begins with the boy’s external physique being examined in minute detail by a doctor and in huge close-up of every piece by the director. But as the film demonstrates no one is taking care or paying attention to the boy’s interior: his feelings, wishes, desires.

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The obligatory sniffing of the shirt

Social oppression is what creates the closet, and Martín having to live in the closet is what creates those sidelong glances, the looking on in secret, the interior yearning facing external barriers and lived through lies, the danger, the endangering and finally death and absence and guilt. And if the first part of the film is concerned with dramatizing the thrill, power and danger of a younger man pursuing an older one; the last half of the film is concerned with guilt over how the older man could have helped the younger one more, a guilt that’s woven through with the suggestion that Sebastián might not be entirely heterosexual himself.

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of furtive glancing

Ausente is a minor film, and the last third is to me quite muddled with all the flashbacks, woven in to make sense of past events and not quite succeeding in doing so. But it’s a film that delights me. It is now possible for gay filmmakers to take a small cast of characters, a small crew, and explore a situation and an idea on film, thus articulating various aspects of gay men’s lives in miniature. Here, the shooting is mainly in the close-ups Berger favours, the leisurely pace; the furtive glances (both the characters’ and the camera’s); the literary allusions (Milan Kundera’s Laughable Loves – ‘The book doesn’t tell me what I would like to hear’);camera moves that linger on empty spaces as spaces of possibility where things may (and sometimes do not) happen; and then there are the open lively faces Berger shows us (the young Javier de Pietro’s in particular), beautiful and full of feeling, a drama in itself. It’s a film that requires and rewards patience.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

 

 

Hawaii (Marco Berger, Argentina, 2013)

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Eugenio (Manuel Vignau) drives into a small town. Martin (Mateo Chiarino) knocks door-to door trying to find work. Eventually, Martin knocks on Eugenio’s door. The premise is almost that of a porn film: the handyman knocks on the door, the householder eyes him up and before you can say ‘Bob’s your uncle’, cut to the bedroom.

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looking through doors, windows, bars

What Hawaii does that extends this basic premise is to offer social context, background, and to dramatise the partial perceptions, lack of knowledge, and barriers to communication that impede romance and act as blocks to the fulfilment of desire.

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outside, looking in, not quite in focus

Martin’s mother died when he was 13 and he went off to live with his grandmother in Uruguay. The grandmother’s now died and it turns out she didn’t own the house they shared. The current owner, a distant relation, let him stay on three months longer. But eventually Martin had to leave. He’s got a promise of a job in Buenos Aires in the Autumn. He’s left his few boxes of belongings in the garage of a cousin but said cousin has barely room in his place for his wife and his three children and Martin doesn’t want to impose. He’s returned to the rural village in Argentina where he grew up to kill time in familiar surroundings whilst enduring scraping a living. He’s homeless. He’s been living outside in the woods, though Eugenio doesn’t know this yet. Martin’s been lying to him about this. He’s a childhood friend but also a homeless migrant. His nickname’s ‘The Russian’, only partly due to his colouring.

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games people play whilst they’re trying to hide what they want

Eugenio is a writer trying to write a novel called ‘The Germ’ about the conflict between a landowner and the young daughter who questions how come it is that he owns the land rather than someone else. Eugenio is a couple of years older than Martin but he’s the baby in his own family, younger than his brothers: Flor by five years; Santi by 7. His family is extensive and they are close: an uncle bought his childhood home so he and his brothers could enjoy the money it brought but also continue to enjoy the use of the house. In the beginning we see him pictured reading, writing, doing yoga, typing away in the dining room on his mac, at a handsome table on which rests piles of books, a soup tureen and other signifiers of bourgeois respectability.

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the body outside, looking in, both object an subject of desire

What separates Eugenio and Martin is class and this is depicted in the starkest of terms. But throughout the first part of the film what keeps them apart is also the uncertainty about the other’s sexual orientation, the false clues they give each other regarding their sexuality, the insecurity that their own desire will not be returned. They play peekaboo games with each other. But what they hope to win by doing this is at the cost of real understanding and becomes a block.

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Longing, partial and distorted

Eugenio leaves pictures of himself with a naked woman for Martin to find. What does he hope Martin will think of this? He asks Martin to not be a faggot and feel free to undress in front of him. But where is this leading? Eugenio’s desire for Martin is shown palpably, even as he gives all these mixed signals to Martin. Martin’s desire is less clear, though at one point we do see him going into Eugenio’s room, sniffing his shirt à la Brokeback..and well.

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Anticipatory space in a narrative that’s full of anticipation and barriers to consummation

 

All this is brought to a head when one of Eugenio’s brothers comes to visit, quickly assesses the situation and is not shy to share it: ‘You like him. Do you think I’m an idiot? You gave him work because you fancy him. What are you going to do? Are you going to fuck him and then are you going to tell him, ‘Hey sorry, I gave you a job because you turned me on?’ Do you want to be his boyfriend? Did something happen already? Does he know? And if you fuck him and the summer ends, what are you going to do. You’ll take him to Buenos Aires, to a Levi’s store you buy him some clothes. You take him to Palermo and support him? Or you’ll send him to work on a construction site and you’ll wait for him at six with tea prepared at yours?’ A bourgeois’ perception of the horrors of cross-class elected affinities of any kind.

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Just when you think you understand….wrong!

The brother’s choices are stark and brutish. But it’s the first time in the narrative that we’re certain that Eugenio is gay and out to everyone but Martin. And this spins the story onto another level. Martin is only certain of Eugenio when he’s helping him move things, a bunch of explicit homoerotic drawings drops on the floor, and they’re clearly ones that Eugenio has been doing of Martin on the sly since the beginning. But then the plot gets complicated further because Eugenio then interprets Martin’s coming onto him for all kinds of reasons that have little to do with simple shared desire. And Eugenio’s rejection is so frustrating and hurtful to Martin that he leaves.

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the game of childhood

Eugenio wins him back by finding viewfinder slides of a shared childhood experience of marvelling at images of Hawaii, fixing the old machine, and leaving it in the woods where Martin previously took shelter so he may find them. And it’s this shared love of being in accord and at ease doing things they’ve enjoyed since childhood that finally brings them together at the end.

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Hawaii as symbol of childhood and fitting together

Hawaii, though in a way less successful than Plan B, has deepened my love of Marco Berger’s films. The way the viewer is always shown things at a distance, through a corner, via bars, glass, windows. The way the protagonists’ own mode of looking becomes a barrier to seeing and understanding. The way sexual reverie means the sound goes off, one isn’t listening, and thus one doesn’t understand anything other than one’s own want.

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What Eugenio’s been drawing. A revelation that results in a misunderstanding

 

I love the the kindness evident throughout; the confident gazing on people’s faces so that they might reveal; the intermingling of fear of rejection with desire. In other words, whilst his films provide quite a bit to incite desire in the viewer – these are handsome and charming men, gazed at longingly – the desire for going deeper, for finding character and understanding in people, over-rules and subsumes the libidinal desire that drives the narrative. Sexual desire is seen and dramatised but also put in its place. It’s only carnal, and carnality is not all there is to people in Berger’s films. There’s hugging and sharing and trust and companionship, and all those marvellous things that continue to glow in memories of childhood companions. I have two quibbles: a) the music is better than in Plan B but not good enough and the film ends too abruptly.

 

 

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I’m amazed that this was a Kickstarter project, delighted to see Manuel Vignault again. It’s a slow film in which nothing seems to happen unless you concentrate and look. But look; at the faces, the shots, the composition, the way things come and in go out of focus, the way spaces are places for feelings, and looks a way of suturing not only space but hearts and minds. A film that I liked the first time but learned to love by looking and looking better, the second time around.

José Arroyo

 

Plan B (Marcos Berger, Argentina, 2009)

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A film that begins as a slacker sex farce and develops into a poetic dramatisation of changing desires. Bruno (Manuel Vignau) regrets dumping his girlfriend (Mercedes Quinteros) and wants to win her back. She’s now got a new boyfriend, Pablo (Lucas Ferraro) and whilst continuing to shag Bruno on the side claims no desire to get back together with him. Bruno hears from one of Pablo’s friends that he’s known to have expressed an interest in men and decides to seduce him in order to break up their relationship and win back his girlfriend. You can guess how it will end.

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One of the pleasures of watching foreign films is to learn about other cultures. Here the bodies, faces, flats, utensils; the ways of being;  the spaces people inhabit and the norms of the culture in which the protagonists dance their game of seduction; all seem strange and appealing to me.

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The film depicts an interesting tension. The protagonists watch TV, have sleepovers, talk about treasured childhood toys, they get to know one another and in doing so discover feelings for each other they didn’t know they had in them. Dramatically, the physical dimension of desire in the film is always blocked, sometimes literally as when half-way through the film, Bruno and Pablo are sleeping together, Pablo goes to cuddle up with Bruno in the night, and Bruno’s arm rises up like a shot to block him. The film seems to take place in a world of feeling — confusing, unexpected, troubling — where homosexual desire is seen as burgeoning but with no release. Characters are confused by their own feelings, uncertain of the feelings and motives of the other, scared to express for real what has heretofore only been expressed as a joke. It’s very beautifully done.

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The formal aspects of the film tell a different story. one that is in productive tension with what we are shown. The camera lingers on these young men’s faces, finding beauty in a glance, a gesture, a way of speaking. The camera is often fixed so that we first see characters from their crotches or bums before they sit down so we can get a big close-up their faces. The camera is often placed low so that we get particularly sexualised views of the characters bodies. And yet it’s only a look at. The faces and bodies themselves are not fetishised by make-up, lighting or lenses. It’s almost as if the rapt attenuation of desire inherent in this particular way of filming  sexualises the relationship in a  way the protagonists restrain themselves from until the end.

In attitude, if not in looks, Bruno is like John Malkovich’s Viscomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, a better looking but equally charming sexual mercenary who ends up hoisted on his own petard. However, the filming of it reminded me of Ozu or Takeshi Kitano. Scenes often begin on empty spaces, anticipatory of the people that will soon inhabit them; and scenes often end on empty spaces; characters have lived a moment; and the irresoluteness of it lingers and overhangs the scene.

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The characters speak of feeling; the use of the camera speaks of sex; the editing of that deeply felt but as yet unresolved. The combination spoke to me of a sexual awakening with all the urgency, hesitation, confusion, humour and embarrassment one remembers from life.

A friend recommended Marco Berger’s films to me in the light of my appreciation of Lucas Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. And I can see why to an extent: there’s a shared theme of sexual awakening here, and with a much more complex rendering of the spectrum of sexuality than in most movies (and one that Call Me By Your Name still hasn’t been given credit for). But the styles are very different.

Plan B is slower, more meditative, with leisurely editing, sparse shots composition, terrible music, and many shots where the audience is only half informed and where what the characters are reading or even saying to each other remains unheard by us. It’s a film with mystery, beauty and feeling; all achieved with the simplicity one has to be very skilled in order to achieve. I look forward to seeing the rest of Berger’s oeuvre.

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José Arroyo