REVIEW – The String (2009)

As someone who watches quite a bit of GLBT cinema – without actually being either G, L, B or T – I am often struck by the way in which gay indie film directors present coming out as a very simple moral question.  Most GLBT films frame coming out as a question of personal honesty and self-actualisation.  According to these films, people are in denial until they are not, at which point they come out and it is up to their friends and families to deal with it and by ‘deal with it’ I mean ‘accept it unconditionally’.  Indeed, GLBT cinema traditionally presents the ethics of coming out as purely a question of acceptance.  If you accept your friend/relative/former partner then you are morally good, if you do not then you are morally bad.  But what of the morality of living a lie?  what of the morality of turning people’s lives up-side down so that you can finally be honest with yourself?  Surely these are not simple questions.

Mehdi ben Attia’s film Le Fil addresses the social repercussions of coming out in a way that most Anglo-American GLBT films refuse to do.  A loving satire of upper-class Tunisian society, The String asks whether hypocrisy really is a worse option than social isolation.

Videovista have my review.


  1. Thought this review was great and offered a fresh perspective on what I guess is a cliched narrative in GLBT cinema (i.e coming out). I now want to see Le Fil.

    But you make another point in the foreword above that is also worthy of consideration (I attempted to explore it The Drift with my ‘Mad About the Boy’ piece but barely scratched the surface) and it relates to your confession that you watch a lot of GLBT cinema with being G, B, L or T. Indeed, we are in the same boat (as is James Franco).

    In my piece I suggested GLBT themes are in many ways echoes of notions of identity that all audiences can relate to, albeit more intense. Should we cast the net wider, there is so much work (especially in literature) that is a direct product of being a sexual outsider that as a result mines themes of alienation with greater precision than a less persecuted author might achieve (James Baldwin, Wilde, Thomas Man, William S. Burroughs etc)

    Furthermore, the biggest themes for art (i.e love and death) are never more intense, perhaps because love endures more obstacles than a straight protagonist might face, whilst death looms with greater intensity in the absence of procrastination and the threat of AIDS (even though AIDS is everybody’s problem, not a Gay one). As a result when these themes are tackled magnificently (say Collard’s Savage Nights) I resent the fact Market forces too often sideline the work as a ‘Gay Interest’.

    Indeed, what is labelled ‘Gay Interest’ seems quite random. Nobody limits Thomas Mann as a ‘Gay Interest’ writer, nor Stephen Frear’s ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ or the film ‘Philadelphia’, despite documenting strong gay subject matter. As such their audience reach remains greater. Certainly, when Tom Ford made A Single Man this was a major bugbear of his regarding the marketing – the push was towards the so-called ‘Pink Pound’, a process he fought vehemently and defeated. But Ford is an exception, and too many films fail to transcend their sexual themes and make the journey to the universal. How many films at the London Gay Film Festival I wonder would connect with mainstream audiences were they not filed as ‘Gay Interest’? After all, a good film is a good film, and strong human stories are always in demand.


  2. as is James Franco

    that’s not what I’ve heard!

    as someone who has seen many mediocre gay films, both on DVD and at film festivals, I am tempted to be glib and say that if a film is actually made with a modicum of ability, ambition and quality, it is a mainstream film, and if it is rubbish it is a “gay interest” film, as gays will basically watch any old shit as long as it is marketed directly to them (and contains some nudity and sex scenes)

    the best gay films I have seen recently are all from countries other than America and are set in communities where the facile positivity that Jonathan describes is not taken for granted (recently saw “Eyes Wide Open”, set in an hassidic Jewish Community in Jerusalem, where a man is forced to abandon a relationship with another man after presure from his community – it got a cinema release I think and is v well made and acted)

    “The String” is on my rental list and I look forward to seeing it -the summary reminds me of a couple of other films I’ve seen about traditional non-European families dealing with a son’s gayness in varying ways (Ang Lee’s Wedding Banquet and a Mexican film I have completely forgotten the name of “Dona Something and her Sons” maybe)


  3. I entirely agree Richard.

    What is interesting is that ‘gay indie’ really is a marketing category. If you have a good director or a star or you get some buzz on the festival circuit then you get marketed as a drama BUT if you don’t have any of those things then you wind up with a cover with naked men on it.

    The cover of Le Fil and also Lionel Baier’s Stupid Boy fall into this trap but both films ask really quite fascinating questions about self-definition and the extent to which traditional sexual roles apply to you.

    Unfortunately, most of the gay indie field is consolatory bullshit. Stuff that simplifies complex questions in order to produce feel-good rubbish with guys taking their shirts off. But then most dramas and comedies are consolatory bullshit, what is annoying is that gay films are not fine-grained enough in their marketing categories to allow for the fact that some films are about gay themes and so are most likely to appeal to GLBT people but that doesn’t mean that they’re just about guys taking their shirts off.

    I also have a working hypothesis that GLBT films made by men are far more likely to be consolatory than GLBT films made by women. Films about lesbians are routinely more emotionally complex than films about gay men. I’m still testing this hypothesis though :-)


  4. I avoided Eyes Wide Open because it came across as a dramatic remake of Trembling Before G_D, a documentary that came out a few years ago featuring interviews with gays and lesbians who had been pretty much disowned by their hassidic families because they were gay.


  5. finally seen this and thought it was ok. The insight into life in Tunis was v interesting (the most interesting part) and I liked the cast (good to see Claudia Cardinale in something and, yes, the gardener was v easy on the eye) but the whole “string” thing kept making me want to shout “too much symbolism!!!” and it seemed a bit lazy that the mum would just happen to have a well adjusted handsome single gay man working for her.

    also the resolution is EXACTLY the same as the two films I mentioned above – the gay protaganist is settled in a happy relationship, but with a fake marriage and grandkid to placate his parents

    it’s like a LGBT subgenre all of its own!


  6. Yes… the ‘string’ thing really is quite heavy handed and actually quite silly. It doesn’t say very much about anything and what it does say it says with no subtlety at all.

    You could be right that accepting a life of merry hypocrisy is a standard LGBT genre trope but I think I prefer it to the films where people suddenly come out the closet and leave their loving partners without guilt or social repercussion.

    I’m reminded of the scandal around the Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes’s sexuality and how he campaigned on an explicitly anti-gay platform despite being in the closet himself. At the time I thought the reaction against Hughes was unfair because the decision to come out can’t be easy and I could really understand someone being sucked into a place where they find themselves being publicly homophobic whilst privately gay.

    So while I don’t expect people who realise their sexual identity late in life to stay in the closet or put themselves in the stocks because they’d been dishonest, I do think that these issues need addressing and discussing if only because they’re fundamentally interesting.

    Having now seen quite a few LGBT films, I really don’t mind how the characters wind-up handling their sexual identity as long as it is done with a bit of thought and a bit of care. I really can’t stomach aspirational and idealised de-closettings where people angst a bit and then everything’s okay. It’s not realistic and it’s not interesting.


  7. I wasn’t being especially critical re the resolution – I find it interesting that three completely different countries (Mexico, Tunisia, Taiwan) took the same ending to be the ideal compromise between the values of the parents and the children

    and at least in the String the woman in the sham marriage had a life of her own and was more than just a plot device like the other films)

    of course, this will no longer work as a compromise ending once gay marriage/civil partnership becomes more widespread, as the protagonist’s partner won’t be as willing to go along with him marrying someone else

    I also agree that it is more satisfactory and much more realistic to show people trying to spare other’s feelings when they come out. This is espec close to my heart as my irish partner’s parents are a devout catholic and a jehovahs witness eye roll


  8. I found the ones I read at the bottom of the screen of the DVD screener I received.

    If you’re looking for a subtitle file to plug into an illegally downloaded copy of the film, I have no idea where you might find such a thing. In the past I’ve used a few anime fan translations and I got those from forums but given that The String is currently selling for less than £5 + postage and packing on Amazon, I’d suggest buying the DVD or renting it.


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