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REVIEW : Before I Forget (2007)

February 13, 2009

It is difficult for me to articulate quite why it is that I adore Jacques Nolot’s Avant Que J’Oublie (2007), or Before I Forget as it is known to English speakers.  Ostensibly your typical French drama about middle class angst, alienation and spiritual decay, the film deals with an ageing gay man who looks back over his life with considerable bitterness as he considers all the things he lost and all the things he failed to gain.  However, while filled with negativity about his own past, the central character Pierre (played by Nolot) is gripped by terror when he thinks about the future as his health dwindles, his sex drive sputters and his days come to be consumed by talk of money, food and how he will most likely die alone.  There are hundreds of films that deal in exactly this kind of bourgeois malaise and many of them leave me completely cold. What makes Nolot’s films so special is that, unlike many dramas that aim for the universality of human emotions while achieving only the generic, Nolot’s films are specific.  They carry the specificity that comes only from the autobiographical and it is the candour with which Nolot describes his life that makes his films so uncomfortable and yet so utterly compelling.

Film Poster

Film Poster

I first discovered the films of Jacques Nolot when researching a piece on the most disturbing films ever made.  Combing forums and essays, Nolot’s film La Chatte A Deux Tetes (2002) came up with intriguing frequency.  Released in the US under the deflationnary title Porn Theater, La Chatte A Deux Tetes is an almost anthropological study of the rules and rituals that govern life in one of Paris’ porn cinemas.  While the film is graphic in its sexual content,  it is not the sex that makes the film difficult to watch.  Instead, it is the sense of intrusion that Nolot manages to inject into every scene.  By taking in the film, audiences are not only watching things that are generally only done in the protective anonymity of a darkened porn cinema, they are also witnessing rare moments of emotional honesty and tenderness between strangers.  This sense of intrusion is only multiplied by Nolot’s unnamed character who speaks about his sexual failings, his friends and lovers who died of AIDS and the shifting boundaries of sexual identity and how these can just as easily be drawn by expediency and ambition as by desire or self-expression.  The honesty of the film along with its strict grounding in Nolot’s life make it feel like you are being assaulted with Too Much Information.  This exhibitionist streak carries over into Avant Que J’Oublie.

Film Poster

Film Poster

There is little point in attempting to synopsise the plot of Avant Que J’Oublie as it does not have one.  In fact, it is barely a work of narrative cinema.  Instead, the film is a series of vignettes in which we see Nolot’s counterpart Pierre padding about his apartment and moving from café to therapist to rent boy.  Through these different encounters, Nolot describes an ecology of homosexuality.  For Nolot, young men sell themselves to older men in return for money.  By the time the older men die, it is the turn of the young men to become old men and to start the cycle again with the next generation of gigolos, rent boys and appropriate segments of gilded youth.  Some men escape this cycle either by jumping the fence and having children or by playing the game particularly astutely by landing a particularly old and particularly moneyed man whose death will leave them as wealthy, middle-aged men-about-town with the world at their feet.  Nolot conveys this last possibility with particular wit in the form of an old friend who landed a particularly large fish before being shipped off to prison thereby seemingly living out two of Pierre’s fantasies at a stroke.

Unfortunately, most men are ground down by the cycle.  Another of Pierre’s friends is a wealthy man but he spends his life obsessing over the price of gigolos and therapists and laments the fact that he ‘has nothing’.  Pierre himself played the game well enough to have a place to live and to not have to work but he also hates himself for failing to be more ruthless with his old lover Toutoune, allowing the old boy’s family to swoop in and hoover up the inheritance.

While the film ends with Pierre seducing a delivery boy, deciding to take his new medication and shaving off his moustache in order to accompany a gigolo to a porn cinema in drag, there is no Damascene moment in which he comes to terms with his bitter past and terrifying future.  Pierre does not fall in love, he does not realise the error of his ways and he does not break the cycle by fleeing to some tropical country where he might grow old disgracefully with the money he has.  Instead Pierre’s life, much like everyone’s, is what it is : at times terrifying (Pierre at one point feels so terrible that he shits himself), at times moving (Pierre reading out an old letter from Toutoune could melt the most icily homophobic of hearts) and at times defiant (a drag-clad Pierre disappearing into the darkness of a porn cinema, elegantly closing the great thematic arc started in La Chatte a Deux Tetes with the suggestion that many gay men start out by hooking up with transvestites).  Just like real life, it is always painfully real and so intimate that sometimes you cannot help but avert your gaze.

Cinematically, the film is shot without pretension.  Silences and long, pensive takes alternate with moments of ferocious discussion and what can only be described as long speeches delivered by Nolot in a voice full of strange cadences and ill-contained emotion that hints at a person who sees himself as being on stage at all times (though naturally, Nolot would deny being ‘une reine’).  The only time the artificiality is stripped from his voice is when he is reading a love letter or moaning “yes master” while being ruthlessly fucked by a psychopathically detached rent boy.

Avant Que J’Oublie is not only a fascinating and moving look into a world of marginalised homosexuality that probably does not exist anymore for most gay people, it is also an important work from the point of view of the politics of film.  With its fearless description of the dark corners of homosexual life and its acknowledgement of the carnage caused by AIDS, Avant Que J’Oublie is reminiscent not only of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (2003) but also the Friedkin adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band (1970).  It is telling that all three men were born at a time when homosexuality, if not actively illegal, was officially frowned upon and subject to brutal oppression by an intolerant straight majority.  These three writers were also alive, adult and sexually active before the full brunt of the AIDS epidemic was felt by the gay community.  In fact, all three writers have life experiences that are probably not accessible to most young gay men today.  The reason why I think that this is a political problem is that the viewpoints of these older men are effectively being erased from history by a gay cinematic culture that seems more concerned with projecting an outward image of positivity than in articulating truths not only about the gay experience but about human nature itself.

Film Poster

Film Poster

When Friedkin’s The Boys in The Band was given a cinematic revival in 1999, the San Francisco Chronicle published a review by their resident critic Edward Guthmann that accused the film of Uncle Tom-ism on the grounds that, since Stonewall, gay people had defined themselves as strong and positive and, as a result, any film that depicts gay men as being unhappy or bitter about their lives is somehow politically unacceptable.  Obviously, Guthmann’s views are absurd.  Firstly, who, besides Morrissey, actually defines themselves as bitter and unhappy? and, secondly, surely defining yourself in emotional terms has no bearing whatsoever on the emotions that you actually feel?

Unfortunately, Guthmann’s review seems to articulate something quite profound about contemporary gay film.  A glance at many such works reveals a tendency to focus upon people with six-packs taking their shirts off whilst being embroiled in a plot that is drawn from a limited range of positive and up-lifting life experiences such as :

* Battling to overcome expectations in order to be oneself (e.g. Gossett and Le Near’s The DL Chronicles [2005] or Yeung’s Cut Sleeve Boys [2006])

* Setting aside promiscuity in order to fall in love (e.g. Baier’s Garcon Stupide [2004], Brocka’s Boy Culture [2006])

Even more artistically ambitious works such as Celine Sciamma’s lesbian synchronised swimming epic Naissance des Pieuvres (2007) – Water Lilies – fell happily into the first category by suggesting that bad relationships and self-denial are simply things that happen on the way to being Out and Happy.  This shift in subject matter is, of course, due to improvements in the way GLBT people are treated and young gay people probably do see themselves as part of a community  whose values they want to champion, rather than as people marginalised from the mainstream of culture as was arguably the case with people from previous generations.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Despite being a gay film-maker who makes and writes films about gay people (Nolot also wrote the screen-play for Andre Technie’s J’Embrasse Pas [1991]), Nolot refuses to join in the celebratory mood of much gay film.  In fact, his film arguably has less to do with contemporary gay cinema than it does with the broadly existentialist tradition of post-War art house cinema embodied in the work of directors such as Bergman or Herzog.  The only difference between the main character in Avant Que J’Oublie and that of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) is that one old man trying to come to terms with his imminent death is straight while the other is gay.

Unhappiness, regret and alienation are not reflections of one’s sexual choice or one’s lifestyle but one’s basic humanity.  Regardless of who we have sex with, we will all get old and feel bitter about our pasts while also dreading what lies ahead.  The power of Avant Que J’Oublie comes from its deep-rootedness in one man’s life and, by extension, in our universal human condition.  While I generally wish that more film-makers were as honest as Nolot, I think that gay cinema demands this level of honesty lest it fall into the trap of only ever producing films that tell their core audience what they want to hear such as the meretricious palliative emotional retardation and vicarious sexual materialism of directors such as Q. Allan Brocka.

True art makes you listen to things that you do not want to hear and by that standard, Jacques Nolot is a great artist.

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