The single, disgruntled, been-there-done-that gay man pushing well into middle-age or beyond has a long cinematic history—albeit most of it in the closet and unflattering. Sophisticated urban audiences might have recognized that such classic character actors in Hollywood’s "Golden Age" as Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton were playing stereotype "queers," but to most audiences they were just comic-relief eccentrics too fussy or silly to have gotten married. Later on, as movies became more "frank" in the 1960s and beyond, such figures came out of the closet only to be more harshly ridiculed, painted as bitter, misogynist, untrustworthy, even homicidal. What about today? With rare exceptions, in mainstream movies he’s still on the margins, if less despisedly so, as the heroine’s nonthreatening best friend or the funny neighbor or something.
So there’s something modestly daring about the movies made so far by Jacques Nolot, a longtime French stage, TV, and film actor who didn’t make his feature directorial bow until a decade ago. His latest, Before I Forget, plays the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki starting this Friday.
While it may be many viewers’ introduction to him as writer-director-star (if he seems a familiar face, that’s probably because he played opposite Charlotte Rampling in Francois Ozon’s 2000 hit Under the Sand), Forget is actually a late chapter in a series of more-or-less autobiographical films he’s been involved with since 1983. They loosely chart the evolution of an alter ego variously named Pierre or Jacques, who (like Nolot) escaped unhappy provincial life for the big city. There, he becomes a hustler (presumably unlike Nolot, though one could interpret this professional choice as an unkind metaphor for "actor"), then an ex-hustler. The past is always haunting, the future uncertain, the present disillusioning—or would be if Pierre/Jacques ever had any illusions to lose.
Fear not: You needn’t have seen any of the prior entries to "get" Before I Forget. Unexpected fan John Waters called it "the best feel-bad gay movie ever made," and wondered if it was the sort of thing Fassbinder would be making now had he not self-destructed a quarter-century ago. It’s feel-bad in the sense of dyspeptic rather than tragic: Admitting that malaise is the only thing that keeps him going, our protagonist here is fairly miserable and fairly proud of it.
We first meet him padding around his Paris apartment (Nolot’s own) in the unflattering altogether, a self-exposure the director told an English magazine he decided upon by reflecting "You’re old, you’re ugly: Go for it." Pierre is now 65, HIV-positive, a hustler-turned-john of sorts—or at least his attention has shifted from older men who pay him to younger men he pays. Funds are scarce, despite the occasional charitable kickback from elderly former customers. When he pays them visits, they trade notes on the new "trade" and how much they cost. Uninterested in reading, culture, or society (though he dabbles in writing), Pierre has arrived at old age empty-handed, acknowledging that "Apart from cocks, sun, and bars, nothing much interested me. Not even money."
Though he complains he goes nowhere, sees no one and has no friends, Pierre does seem to be out and about a lot, chasing something indefinite while never quite shaking the terminal boredom on his tail. He sees a shrink, but gets very little out of it; contemplates suicide, but doesn’t seem to be despairing (or deep) enough to go through with it; observes everything with a glum, faintly sardonic elegance flecked with occasional nostalgia, as when he notes, "I used to go cruising with Roland Barthes. As you can imagine, we didn’t discuss semiotics."
Before I Forget might sound like the quintessentially talky French art film, and it might well strike some as just that. But Nolot isn’t self-pitying, indulgent, or a bore; dourly unimpressed yet not quite ready to give up yet, Pierre is a drolly comic figure of Continental ennui. He’d likely gladly accept any epithet you might hurl at him—"old perv," etc.—while wishing the role were as entertaining as they make it sound. Passivity, masochism, and god knows what else lead him in the end to acquiesce to a request whose result is grotesquely funny, fading Before I Forget out on a note that ought to reek of pathos but instead comes off as a capping existential joke.
Pierre-cum-Jacques first appeared in two movies directed by Nolot’s frequent collaborator André Téchiné, playing client to a young actor’s 17-year-old alter ego in La Matiouette (based on his stage play), then played at 30 by Manuel Blanc in 1991’s I Don’t Kiss. Nolot took over the role and the direction with 1998’s Hinterland, which has been little seen in North America; five years later, Porn Theatre (available on DVD) had him as just one, older patron looking to get off at the titular establishment, whose typical day of lurid yet banal business is observed with droll detachment as well as bemused respect.
Would you want to be in the shoes of Pierre, Jacques, or Nolot himself, who in interviews sounds just as much the weary contrarian as his protagonists? Probably not. But it’s surprising how watchable they all onscreen, for upsetting our typical "gay movie" expectations with warts-and-all portraiture, if nothing else. "The gay community doesn’t appreciate it because it sees itself as always irresistible…I choose not to comfort the spectator," Nolot has said. Maybe it’s the masochist in us that makes such sorry comfort seem perversely entertaining, almost cheering.
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