film response from the archives: Come Undone vs Straight Male Cinephiles & Critics

There's little difference formally or in terms of content between gay coming-of-age dramas and straight ones. Straight critics and cinephiles tend to value the latter much more highly than the former. Go figure.

Note: This was originally published on March 3, 2003, on a short-lived blog of mine called Homo Superior, hosted on my old skinback.com domain. I had completely forgotten about it. I’m not even sure which platform I was using at the time. I was probably unaware of WordPress then at all. Anyway, here it is, lightly edited and with a few extra sentences.

I’ve been nursing a tiny little grudge against Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (one of my heroes regardless) ever since his terse dismissal of Come Undone in a Chicago International Film Festival blurb. Three years later I’ve finally caught up with this French production on DVD and have some air to clear with my favorite film critic.

NOTE: This is the 94-minute unrated version; I don’t know whether the theatrically released version showed the semi-hard dick or [presumedly] simulated butt-fucking or not.

Paraphrased Rosenbaum felt that the gay characters weren’t specific enough — that there was no difference between these homosexual characters and any other homosexuals characters — this isn’t a movie about “these particular homosexuals.”


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Besides being objectively verifiable horseshit, it’s also regrettably part of a tendency of straight critics to denigrate and foreclose the history of gay characters and themes in cinema before that history has really had a chance to develop.

Let’s line up some basic character traits and specifics and play connect the dots with characters; I’d wager even the most casual spectator would score high; now try to do the same with the female characters of your basic second-tier Godard and Truffaut, I dare ya.

Soft Skin’s bland and stultifying characterizations of women caused me and my best friend to walk out after 30 minutes when the film showed as a revival in Chicago in the late 90s. Heterosexual filmmakers, the male ones anyway, really obsess over “adultery” and “infidelity” in a seriously overdetermined way.

On the Rotten Tomatoes link above we get a review from one Dr. Frank Swietek who describes Come Undone’s narrative as an “increasingly hackneyed subject.” He doesn’t spell it out but contextually I would assume he’s talking about a “coming out” narrative. It’s hackneyed compared to what? Coming-of-age and/or losing-one’s-virginity narratives? I can come at it from a couple different angles (I mean, just choose your double-standard) but I’d rather argue that there is still a need for coming-out narratives or that they’ll go away about the same time as their straight corollaries or that their social utility will fade out about the same time that heterosexual critics stop using the word “homosexual” in anything except a clinical context.

(Rosenbaum thinks the characters in a mildly diverting but also mildy dumb Trick are “relatively refreshing … it isn’t another movie about gay men — it’s a movie about these gay men.”

For now I won’t analyze the glib use of “another,” emphasis implied, as well as leave aside asking whether Rosenbaum believes that every movie with straight people in it bears that burden in the same way every movie with gay people in it does. More importantly, Trick is exactly what Rosenbaum claims it isn’t: a very self-conscious, and I think, dishonest, evocation of gay stereotypes: hunky-with-depth stripper muscle-boy falls for goofy (but still with a great set of abs), loveless, musical-loving fairy. In the end, an inoffensive, breezy crock of shit.)

At any rate, to the extent that Come Undone is a “coming out” narrative (that’s not how I’d describe it), it’s a narrative form commented upon and critiqued by its elliptical, disjointed structure. Certainly, the scenes that could actually be labeled as “coming out” scenes take up very little screen time; in fact, Come Undone is more precisely a “coming-in” narrative. A character’s coming in to his own desires, defining himself vis a vis love, family, sex. Interestingly, the most forceful coming out moment is provided by the psychiatrist when she asks Mathieu about Cedric: “Is he your boyfriend?”

For the main character Mathieu his “coming in” causes so much instability that it eventually results in a crisis moment — an apparent suicide attempt, albeit non-diegetic, off-camera. It’s not at all clear what precipitated the attempt; although there’s a small hint it was Cedric’s probable infidelity, it’s also pretty clear from the outset that Mathieu wasn’t exactly a happy, stable person before he met Cedric. His sexual awakening is only part of what he’s dealing with internally. Indeed, it may be the enforcement of various narratives from outside himself that produces Mathieu’s instability.

Many viewers may be put off by the film’s refusal to make the dramatic points clear and the characterizations are indeed limned from the point of view of typical Hollywood overdramatizations; but I felt there was plenty to chew on regardless.

Beyond the puzzle of what led to Mathieu’s hurting himself I was equally intrigued by his subsequent decisions to visit the vacation house, to settle in the town, get a job and then to visit Cedric’s ex-boyfriend, also someone whose sexuality is not easily encapsulated by the word “homosexual.” It’s also very refreshing that the “how” of Mathieu’s suicide attempt is never shown or described. Director Sebastien Lifshitz decisively brushes this aside as an irrelevant and potentially sensationalistic plot point.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of the film comes from watching the ebb and flow of the two characters’ emotional states when they’re together: sometimes they’re clearly feeling the same things, riding the rush of infatuation (or as Rosenbaum described it, lots of rolling around on the beach. Maybe that’s what bothered some straight critics — gay lust isn’t supposed to just look like boyish horseplay; it’s certainly not supposed to provide the same pleasures.), and other times they’re at odds even when they’re not aware of it. I’d be hard-pressed to name another film with such subtly and adeptly acted and directed character interaction.





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