Man at Bathby Kavish Chetty / 23.08.2011
What is François Sagat? It’s a question of some perplexity. We can ask ‘who’ he is and the answer burbles up rather cursorily: the French gay male porn star of such charismatic films as Hole Sweet Hole and Pompiers mis à nu. But the question ‘what’ strains. In one of Man at Bath’s earlier sequences, Sagat – or rather, his character Emmanuelle – is seen performing a speechless and feminine dance of seduction while he cleans his apartment with whatever the French equivalent of Domestos is. It’s one of the only properly provocative scenes in the film because it makes an utter chaos of the values we usually accrue to a man of his aesthetics. You’ve got large hunks of muscled male – with a butchness (butchery?) impossible without the aid of supplements – moving with an improbable femininity and performing a domestic ritual “sexily”. Man at Bath’s director, Christopher Honoré said of Sagat, “he redefines the notion of masculinity”. But to what precise effect?
Man at Bath played at the Out in Africa festival and at my screening, the cinema boasted the rather royal figure of two women. Three if you count the exuberant queen who shrilled “me too!” when the film’s host was in pursuit of double-x chromosomes. Glancing around, the other attendees mostly looked like the sort of guys who would answer to the name “Gavin”: in other words gay folk, running through the full gauntlet from fabulous to closeted. So, is this what ‘gay cinema’ is? Cinema about gay relationships produced for a gay market? I think I had rather too ambitious an opinion. I thought that given the precarious status of homosexuals in our world, gay cinema would necessarily seethe with relevance and subversion – their position in the marginalia of society would lend itself to ferocious, complicated, embattled expressions for acceptance. All my hopes were pinned on Sagat.
I’ve watched more French cinema than queer cinema (the difference is marginal), but the two bleed together excellently in Man at Bath. It has all those affectations that I think after the New Wave and post-structuralism can be uncontroversially called “Gallic”: bourgeois disaffection, ennui, independence, a certain dose of pointlessness. But produced as it is for a very particularly gay audience (it will inevitably be condemned from here to the circuits of future gay festivals, never to taste a mainstream run), it has none of the urgent vitality of truly subversive gay cinema. It becomes the narcissistic and trite slice-of-life relationship drama of the present age plus gay sex.
Is it a matter simply of target? Is it a problem of expectation? Should we assume that gay cinema should take as its central ambition all those syllable-choked projects of theory like “reconfiguring the heterosexual matrix?” Or is it the case rather that homosexuality in France is no longer a big deal and its cinema reflects this blasé fact of existence in way that would cause much anger and trembling in conservative South Africa (think immediately of the walk-outs and moderate disgust at the comparatively tame sex scene in Oliver Hermanus’ Skoonheid). Man at Bath is filled with sex, sexuality, nudity, and male objectification. But the sex is everywhere, always and it starts to feel purposeless and absurd. All the unclad arses and inert cocks flopping into view (an erection here, brutal sex and spanking there), if the above is all true, means that the sex is trying to be deliberately provocative in a way its context can no longer allow.
Let’s return to Sagat then. I can’t figure out a point to his character in the film. He plays Emmanuelle who is dating Omar (incidentally, sporting a moustache more ludicrous than all those of Tamboerskloof combined and doubled). He gives Omar a violent little fuck, a sort of borderline rape with soluble borders. Omar then leaves for New York and tells Emmanuelle to be gone when he gets back. The film then alternates between Emmanuelle and Omar in a steady charade of nihilistic vignettes. They fuck other men, lie around naked and fuck other men some more. All this sex was greatly pleasing to our audience, who let out sly moans and coquettish gasps of appreciation – especially to the enormous amount of screen-time dedicated to Sagat’s muscular, contoured, enviable (and yet almost ridiculous) buttocks. About thirty minutes in, I decided this film has almost zero relevance to South African audiences, other than as a sex romp masquerading as art and loving every minute of its middle-class pageantry.
Justice Cameron writes in the foreword to Gaze – a book of photography of gay subjects by Michael Meyersfeld, dished out to a girl in the audience who correctly identified Sagat – something about the practice of gay rights predominantly accruing to the wealthier classes. It’s perfectly true. Even the more casual of surveys amongst the filled-up theatre would mark them: the fine suede jackets, the thick-framed designer spectacles. This audience was the audience for whom this film was made, and the film itself therefore didn’t have to transcend any objective other than being a sufficiently homosexual middle-class distraction.
But there was one fleeting and pivotal scene which the whole film could have centrifuged around (it didn’t). Emmanuelle goes to the top-floor apartment of an American. He gets naked and begins to pose for him in absurdly rehearsed ways. Afterwards, the American tells him how the most powerful pieces of art will linger through centuries; people will always return to them, discovering rearticulated themes which resonate with their age. He says to Emmanuelle, “You’re bad art. You’re kitsch.” Those two lines are extraordinary in a film which makes such a sexualised thing out of Sagat’s incredible masculine body. It attacks his assembly-line perfection for the one moment of erotic suspension this film has. The full monologue by the American has all the power of complicated sexual dynamics, and his speech has the destablising vigour of Batailles. But then, that minor intellectual thirst quickly slaked, the film moves on into more banal, oversexualised, purposeless and forgettable territory.
Man at Bath (Homme au Bain) is available on DVD.