Sunday, October 10, 2010

Review: Homme au bain (Man at Bath)

One of the things Chicago does have on offer in abundance is cultural events, and every year at this time, one that has never disappointed is the annual Chicago International Film Festival, which is celebrating its 46th anniversary this year.  No matter how much I plan in advance on attending certain films, I often accidentally end up missing them, but I usually then find something else that makes up for what I didn't see. This year, I'd planned on watching Thomas Ikimi's thriller Legacy, starring Idris Elba, Eamonn Walker, and Monique Gabriela Curnen, but misread the dates, and that was all she wrote.  As I was scanning Saturday's offerings, I saw that Christopher Honoré's film Homme au bain ("Man at Bath") was playing late (10:45 pm), which gave me enough time to race down to the AMC River East theaters and make it with some time to spare.

The main draw of this film was and is the participation of none other than one of the major gay porn stars working today, the breathtakingly sexy Frenchman François Sagat, who plays Emmanuel, one half of a disintegrating couple living in Gennevilliers, one of the suburban communes (banlieues) north of Paris.  His other half, a budding filmmaker named Omar (Omar Ben Sellem), kicks Emmanuel out after a burst of petulance at Omar's imminent departure for New York to accompany actress Chiara Mastroianni (as herself) and document her time in the US leads to him to force himself sexually onto Omar--the act verges on rape.  The minimal plot tracks what happens to each afterwards: both spread their seed, as it were, Emmanuel in Gennevilliers and Paris, Omar in New York City, quite graphically, then the filmmaker returns home to the apartment in the banlieue, and voilà, le film s'est terminé.

Homme au bain, image from

On the one hand it's almost a trifle as a plotted feature; nothing momentous really happens, nothing is really resolved (though I won't give away the ending), it's mostly atmospherics, backed by great classical and contemporary pop music, interspersed with various hints at deeper narrative possibilities Honoré might have explored. And, given that it's a French film, there's a significant bit of philosophical piffle that adds little beyond ambient texture, but when compared to most contemporary US queer cinema, stands out.  On the other hand, the verisimilitude, especially when the issue of money comes up, sometimes approaching the status of documentary (and Honoré ironizes this through the use of the DV pieces), is noteworthy. The film also has many small, true touches, especially when unfolding in and around Paris, that feel rightHomme au bain offers what I would argue is a far truer portrait of contemporary French and gay life than anything we'd comparably see in the US. In that regard, in addition to the presence of a frequently nude Sagat, it's worth seeing.

The film takes its title from a painting by French Impressionist and art patron Gustave Caillebotte, whose 1877 masterpiece Paris Street: Rainy Day, is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, and who was a resident of Gennevilliers.  Homme au bain, originally conceived as a short, is part of a regional film project by the Théâtre de Gennevilliers, and was commissioned by noted French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. Opening with a naked Sagat framed to evoke Caillebotte's 1884 eponymous work (© National Gallery, London), it contrasts the short, thickly muscled, emotionally and physically open Emmanuel to his more controlled and, we might infer, controlling ex, the (usually) clothed Omar.

Throughout Emmanuel cannot help himself from vivid self-expression, especially of the physical sort. Whether dancing (in a scene that feels stagy at first, but eventually gains some credibility from Sagat's ability to stay in character), caressing, embracing, nuzzling, fucking, he is almost all physicality, a rocket in human flesh; the irony of having a porn star play this role, which is almost completely about objectification, is palpable, yet Honoré tweaks it as the film proceeds, by showing another, affective side of Emmanuel emerging.  Almost clumsily, in filmic and narrative terms, Emmanuel, whose sculpted hairy legs we see poised on a bed, his unknown female assignation now out of the frame, even cries out "Douceur" ("tenderness") several times.

This softer, more emotional portrayal at first doesn't exactly ring true, but by the end of the movie, in part because of Sagat's performance and because of the film's contextualization, it persuades you. By contrast, after the opening scene Omar appears almost exclusively through what his endlessly running DV captures, which is to say everything but him; what signifies his presence, and his control of it, is his absence, from the apartment, from what he's recording, from nearly every frame except at the beginning and end. Or we see him through still images--a large portrait in his apartment, Emmanuel's crude but moving wall portrait, a near-double that Emmanuel picks up near the apartment bloc. His presence is truly virtual or, to put it another way, metonymic and synecdochic. The dichotomy suggests the relationship's dynamics and where it's heading, but the filmmaker underlines its reality when, after Omar's departure, Emmanuel scrounges not only for company, but cash.

Ben Sellem & Sagat
He first pays a working visit to a wealthy, perverse American, Robin (played by acclaimed queer writer Denis Cooper), who lives upstairs, and who in exchange for money wants not the sex he's gotten in the past but, as if channeling Nietzschean-infused aestheticism, dresses down Emmanuel, rating him lower and less compelling than the "art" that lines the apartment, and, desiring a compensatory performance, demands that Emmanuel, in the fashion that one might find in one of Cooper's novels, "beat the shit" out of a young ingenue whom has Robin has been seeing. Emmanuel demurs, and after Charles Aznavour's voice resets the moment, the American relents, handing over some euros. I wished that the screenplay had brought Robin back for another dramatic exchange. The power dynamics on display, along with the Bataille-heavy banter, presented a glimpse of what many a hustler probably endures, though without this level of intellectual freight.

Echoes of Nietzsche, Wilde, Bataille, and others in this philosophical line ensue, as Emmanuel explores his newfound freedom. A multicolored crew, such as one seldom sees in American queer films, constitutes his experimental set. There is the threesome with a young black student and an Arab fellow banlieue resident; there is the female actress friend, living in Paris, whose male lover is less enthusiastic about an extra bedmate; and there is Robin's mop-headed ingenue, Rabah (Rabah Zahi), whom Emmanuel does push beyond his limits, all of which serves only to bring him closer emotionally to the beloved ex who is an ocean away. Meanwhile Omar, traipsing around New York, from the School of Visual Arts to the East Village behind Chiara, finds a playmate, Dustin (Dustin Segura-Suarez), a lean, 20-something visiting a friend in the City. Dustin not only becomes a temporary lover to Chiara as well as Omar, but the subject of Omar's DV clips. You see him stripping, masturbating, reading Franny and Zooey in the bathtub, smoking, doing hardly anything beyond being.  He is as ephemeral as the wind, and you are hardly surprised when he hops in a taxi for the airport, leaving Omar to the life he has only momentarily relinquished.

The film seems to track the grittier depictions of French urban gay male life that have appeared in literary form for some decades. The HD/DV to 35 mm transfer underscores this visually. What also struck me, especially given France's--and much of Europe's and the US's--economic realities is the air of economic privation the film doesn't stint in depicting. Several of the characters, and not just the younger ones, are students, or purport to be, as if to underline that an education is, as we are always hearing in the US, the only way of getting ahead these days. A real job is as evanescent as a dream. Exemplifying this even further, another young character, who may or may not be on drugs, and who admits to being "straight," hustles Emmanuel up, but does so in part to score some food and a place to shower. When Emmanuel's actress friend proposes a restaurant meal, as her refrigerator is bare and she believes she may have only "a tomato" at home, he must decline because of lack of money. In fact, all they have is companionship, conversation, and sex, which Honoré depicts almost always with full male frontal nudity.

Cooper & Sagat
Perhaps there are films in the US depicting this, especially as the economic crisis intersects with queer cultures, but I have yet to see many of them.  In addition, it doesn't culturally or ethnically whitewash France either, as US films, whether set in New York, LA or any other major urban area, are so prone to do; in this banlieue, the undigested diversity of contemporary France is on display. People of all colors, veiled young women, an African Frenchwoman in a brightly colored gown, come and go. It is Emmanuel who, it turns out, is the one slightly out of step and time, with his failed request to send a telegram. This parallels, at least to me, the film's slightly dated and romantic view of New York, though as several scenes make clear it doesn't blanch out the visual richness on this side of the Atlantic either.

By the end of the film, the film's main visual and narrative presence, Sagat, has become much more comfortable just acting, a fact that Honoré symbolizes by letting him keep his clothes on.  Most of the other actors merely appear, and when before the camera improvise, charmingly enough. Mastroianni smiles or frowns, speaks a few lines, and walks around, and that's about it.  I wished Honoré had done more with her, or less and focused on Ben Sellem's experiences, though the premise was a plausible one.  It would be interesting to see these actors, and especially Sagat, in another film that required greater acting chops of them all. Whoever makes it, I'd be willing to watch it, even if Sagat did not strut around in his birthday suit, au bain or anywhere else--not that that would be a problem, either.

The trailer (NSFW)

Homme au bain (Man at Bath). Le Pacte release of a Les Films du Belier presentation of a Les Films du Belier, Theatre de Gennevilliers production. Produced by Justin Taurand. Directed, written by Christophe Honoré. With: Francois Sagat, Chiara Mastroianni, Dustin Segura-Suarez, Omar Ben Sellem, Rabah Zahi, Kate Moran, Lahcen El Mazouzi, Andreas Leflamand, Ronald Piwele, Sebastian D'Azeglio, Sebastien Pouderoux, Dennis Cooper. (French, English dialogue)


  1. Thanks for the review, John. You know I'd be on the lookout for this anyway (!Sagat!) but it sounds like an interesting film also

  2. Where in Chicago can one see this film?

  3. Thanks, Reggie. Marty, I'm not sure where it's playing now; it was at the Chicago International Film Festival, but it probably will return to play at Landmark, Gene Siskel, or some similar venue. Have you checked IMDb or the film's website to see if there's any info on screenings again in Chicago?