Son Frère
Son Frère

The Film Society of Lincoln Center has assembled a highly worthwhile retrospective of films by the late gay filmmaker Patrice Chéreau that runs February 28-March 5. The program includes nine of the only eleven features written and directed by Chéreau. (His tremendous success in opera and theatre likely curtailed his filmmaking efforts).

Chéreau is perhaps best known for his historical epic Queen Margot (1994), and the hardcore romance, Intimacy (2001). But he made several intriguing films about queer men throughout his career, including L’Homme Blesse/The Wounded Man (1983), Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998), and Son frère (2003). His films are distinguished by the sensitivity he displays towards his isolated lovelorn characters, as well as the intimacy with which he films his actors. There is almost always an erotic undercurrent and an air of mystery that permeates the characters’ lives. The frisson is what makes the director’s films so stimulating.

In most of Chéreau’s films, desire has an obsessive quality to it, and this often leads to dire, if not fatalistic qualities. The haunting ending to L’Homme Blesse proves this theory best, but it is far from the only example.

L’Homme Blesse translates as “the wounded man,” and this is another key theme in Chéreau’s cinematic output.  His characters are always physically or psychologically damaged. The wounded quality creates a sympathy that draws viewers into their lives. Even as Chéreau films his characters in handheld close-up, there is a feeling of detachment; most of his protagonists are socially and emotionally isolated.

The Flesh of the Orchid
The Flesh of the Orchid

The filmmaker’s debut The Flesh of the Orchid (1975) is a peculiar adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s novel. The opening sequence has a gardener entering an asylum, undressing, and climbing into bed with Claire (Charlotte Rampling), a rich neurasthenic. She blinds him and escapes. On the road, Claire meets Louis Delage (Bruno Cremer), whom she hopes will save her. Louis, however, is on the run from the Berekian brothers, murderous circus performers. When Louis is wounded, Claire seeks medical assistance, only to be kidnapped. Throughout the film, Claire and Louis experience a series of reversals of fortune as they try to give in to their desires and cheat death. It’s a queer film, and not just because of a curious scene of Claire’s male cousin receiving romantic attention from a male asylum inmate. Flesh of the Orchid is also highly stylized, but it is slightly risible at times. Nevertheless, the film has a strange, alluring quality to it. It deserves to be seen and not just by completists.

Chéreau’s last film was Persécution  (2009), which exerts a hypnotic pull of a different kind on viewers as Daniel (Romain Duris) grapples with his strained relationship with Sonia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). He is also troubled by finding a stranger (Jean-Hugues Anglade) lying naked and face down in his bed one evening. The man claims to love Daniel, but Daniel’s response is to throw him out and threaten to kill him. Persécution has many readings—is the lovesick man a symbol of Daniel’s fragile psyche?—and does this obsessive love have something to do with Daniel pushing away both Sonia and his best friend Michel (Gilles Cohen)? Chéreau offers no easy answers, but he does offer some solid clues as when a character admits, “I can’t love without being scared.”

The bond between two estranged brothers, one of whom has a blood disease, is the subject of arguably Chéreau’s best film, Son Frère. Luc (Éric Caravaca), who is gay, reunites with Thomas (Bruno Todeschini), who is straight, when the latter contacts him and reveals, “something in my system has gone haywire.” Thomas’ platelet count is dwindling, and he must undergo a series of tests and surgeries. He has asked Luc to be by his side, even though the two men have not spoken in years. Luc agrees, because, he says, that’s what people do when asked for such favors. However, he admits “I don’t know why.” when his inquisitive lover, Vincent (Sylvain Jacques) asks him about his caregiving efforts.  

Son Frère toggles back in time and hints at the dispute that distanced the brothers years ago; when one brother tells the other “You deserted me when I needed you most!” the effect is gut wrenching. But the film also depicts Luc’s later, tender confession to Thomas, “You saved my life plenty of times.” Chéreau chronicles the psychic restoration and physical deterioration brilliantly. A scene of Thomas being shaved for a splenectomy—a potent visual metaphor for his transformation and change—is especially masterful.

Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train
Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train

Todeschini and Jacques from Son Frére played lovers in Chéreau’s earlier film, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. This ambitious, but not entirely successful drama concerns a group of friends uniting for the funeral of Jean-Baptiste (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a bisexual artist. The first half, which unfolds in the crucible that is the train of the title, is terrific. A dozen plus characters are casually introduced, as are their mini dramas in various overlapping vignettes. These scenes are set to a fantastic pop soundtrack.

There is even some palpable sexual tension between Louis (Todeschini) and Bruno (Jacques), two men, each with partners, who meet in the train station and are attracted to one another. However, their bathroom tryst ends abruptly when they both claim they are not in the mood for lovemaking. One admits he would rather have a cry.

Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train is a moody film. It is also a talky and dense one. When the main characters start revealing secrets—a pregnancy, an HIV status, and even a sex change—the soapy drama is only mildly interesting. The film disintegrates as the characters do; they all try to reconcile their conflicting passions and emotions, but they are as likely to have breakdowns as breakthroughs. The “wounded man” here is not necessarily the late Jean-Baptiste, but all his emotionally distraught friends and relatives who scream and fight, make up and break up.

Even if Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train is a lesser film in writer/director’s cannon, it deserves attention. Chéreau was a fascinating filmmaker who artfully plumbed the depths of human desire.

For more the Film Society of Lincoln Center program click here.

Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and a contributor to Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News and other queer alternative weeklies.