Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Le Clan (2004)

Le ClanLe Clan is very typical of most of the releases from Parasol Peccadillo, one of the few companies whose releases I tend to order, sight unseen, because of the quality of their choices of film. The company deal almost exclusively in 'gay art house' movies, and although they're quite pricey, and rarely carry any extra's, most of their choices leave you thinking about what you've seen for days afterwards.

Le Clan is no exception, although it's probably more homo-erotic than most of their releases, which tend more towards the 'art house' than 'gay' side of things. Variety described the film as 'one of the more unabashed filmic appreciations of male beauty since Wolfgang Petersen aimed a camera at Brad Pitt', which is overstating the case somewhat, but nobody could deny that the cast are all good looking and seem to spend a lot of screen time shirtless.

Le Clan tells the story of three brothers, each getting their own separately titled chapter, as the film progresses with a continuous story that jumps forward in time between each brother-centric chapter. Christophe, the oldest, is in prison for the first chapter and the two remaining brothers are missing him and their recently deceased mother. At the start of the film, Marc seems the strongest of the three brothers, running rackets and deals, and playing very much the macho thug of the estate on which he lives. But when a drug dealing gang take revenge on him for non payment of money owned he becomes bitter and twisted, and ultimately his hatred becomes the cause of his own self-destruction. Christophe returns from prison, having benefitted greatly from the experience. Almost the opposite of Marc, he has learnt to put bitterness behind him and move on, getting a good job, promotion and meeting his wife to be before the films over. Olivier, the baby of the three brothers, and the most sensitive (at least at the start of the film), is gay and has an intense relationship with a friend who he regularly fight-dances with, but ultimately drops him rather callously to move on to bigger and better things (fnaar! fnaar!). And that's pretty much the plot of the film, albeit with little episodes that illuminate the characters and their differences. For me 'art house' is nearly always about the journey rather than the destination, and this is no different, and I guess your like/dislike of it will depend on whether or not you like a nice clear story with a clear wrapped-up ending.

In America, the film is called Three Dancing Slaves, which may give a clue to the message the director, Gael Morel is trying to convey - that the brothers are slaves of circumstance perhaps. Personally, I found the film intriguing, well acted and beautifully filmed . One American critic rather unkindly referred to the film as like 'a movie made by Cadinot, without the explicit sex' (Cadinot is a 'famous' French gay pornographic film maker), which I think is rather unfair to this film - Cadinot, to my mind, makes porn, where Morel makes art. Admittedly, the homo-eroticism is rather over-the-top in places. In particular, there's one odd scene where the three brothers, two of whom are supposedly straight, snooze cuddled up together naked, while their fully-clothed father sits on a chair just watching them as they doze. It seemed to have nothing to do with the story that was being told, other than as a 'soft porn' moment designed to titillate, as the camera sweeps over two of the three naked (and soft - this is a 15-rated movie!) bodies! It's a very pretty shot, and one designed to help sell the film to the gay market, but not really relevant to the story being told, and rather contradicting the very macho, male culture that's being depicted overall in the film.

Total Film compared the movie favourably to La Haine, but I don't think it's really in that class. It is however thought-provoking and worth a viewing, whether you're gay or straight, unless 'art house' isjust one of those labels that automatically has you running in search of an action packed blockbuster to rent.

The DVD loses a mark for the lack of value-for-money - par for the course where Parasol Peccadillo, or any company releasing relatively obscure European movies, is concerned. The transfer is fine and the lack of good discount prices online is understandable, given the lack of interest in such 'minority' viewing, but the only extra is a trailer. It's hard to be too harsh about this because one suspects there are very few extra's to be had where European gay art house cinema is concerned. Pricing and lack of extra's aside, it's good to have a company putting out releases like this which would otherwise go largely unseen. Summer Storm and Hilde's Journey are another two excellent DVD releases from the company, made over the last few months, that I've enjoyed, but for various reasons never got around to reviewing on this blog, so their releases are well worth keeping an eye out for. Le Clan is one of the more recent releases and well worth a viewing!


Anonymous said...


Review & Comments
By Fernando Sumerled
Dec. 17, 2008

When I purchased the DVD from an online company I had no idea what the film was about. I had never heard of it, nor knew anything about the filmmaker, Gael Morel or any of the actors, which tells much about my lamentable, average American, world view. The reason for my taking a plunge into the void was that I consciously seek serious films with gay themes and I had learned from watching a few French films (Truffaut, for example) that the French take film making very seriously; that was reason enough for me to purchase this one. Hardly a devotee of the esoterica of film making, I like films that tell me a story which informs and illuminates, which opens up new views of how people actually live and what motivates them, preferably done in interesting and engaging ways. Being a sentimentalist, I prefer endings that offer hope for both the protagonist and the film viewer. If, after viewing a movie I am left depressed, I will inevitably be unhappy at having wasted my time suffering through someone elses angst-without-resolution. Of course, the world is full of that sort of rotten reality, but I don’t want to have to pay for the privilege of watching it on the big or small screen. That established, I found Le Clan (English title: Three Dancing Slaves) engrossing yet disturbing, disturbing because of what it doesn’t explicitly show, but what it strongly implies.

The film tells of three brothers in a working class, dysfunctional family living in rural Haut Savoie at the Lac d’Annecy. Their father is a factory worker, a brutish, bullying man who is blamed by his sons for the premature death of their Algerian Arab mother. It is divided into three segments, each named for one of the sons; first, Marc, about 20, the middle son; second, Christophe, maybe 23, the oldest; and last, Olivier, at 17, the youngest. Ostensibly about each brother’s dealing with the exigencies of life as working class youths in a beautiful if backwater part of France, the underlying motif is not understood until near the end of the film, when the narrator is finally revealed with heartbreaking honesty and poignancy.

The issues that are not shown but which suffuse the film are several. The first is that of race-culture-religion. It is never mentioned but it is present in that the brothers are of mixed French-Algerian Arab descent. No one can deny that prejudice against Arabs exists in France, and the rest of Europe for that matter, so it does not surprise that the neighborhood gang/group in which the two older brothers exercise a degree of control is composed of people like them, either mixed or pure Arab who are drifting through life in a society that does not value them as it does those who are ‘real’ French. Nor is it strange that the drug-deal violence perpetrated on Marc, not exactly the swiftest boat on the lake, is done by a Junker-type who looks to be a ‘real’ Frenchman. The listless and wasted lives that is intimated more than is shown can be attributed in great part to their status as ‘les autres’ living inside yet outside a racist society. It may be that the author and director assumed that the plight of the characters as born-in-France foreigners would be understood as a given by a French audience, but for this non-Frenchman the lack of depiction of French attitudes toward the non-French in their midst is regrettable but understandable, given my own country‘s tragic and as yet unresolved racial issues.

The second issue which is not mentioned but which this viewer believes is essential to understanding the film is that of incest, whether actual or merely desired. This factor may explain why the oafish, factory-worker father takes his son Marc’s verbal abuse without doing anything about it; why early in the film Olivier, when speaking privately in his room to his mother’s ash-filled urn, says about Christophe, his beloved oldest brother, “that we can’t talk at the prison. He always understood me….I’m scared….I want Christophe here, with things like before.”

It may be why Christophe holds Olivier very close to him during the drunken party the gang/group celebrates to welcome him back from prison; why he calls the sweet-looking Olivier his “little pink canary”; why Marc, jealous of Christophe’s obvious love for Olivier, and perhaps of the elder brother’s lesser love for himself, demands that Olivier stop holding Christophe so tightly, despite the fact that it is Christophe who is holding Olivier, not the other way around; and why, when Olivier says softly to Christophe, while leaning on him lovingly, “This is like a dream…,” that Christophe cannot contain himself, and tastes his little brother by putting his tongue in the younger one’s ear, evoking a mild protest of “Cut it out! That tickles.”

It is also likely the reason for the most famous scene of the movie, the “money scene” as has been described by other reviewers, which slowly, silently and lovingly shows the sleeping brothers, home from that same drunken party, their river-soaked clothes discarded, laying together on a leather sofa as a group, utterly naked, stretched out to the floor. Christophe is in the middle, holding Marc loosely on his right, while holding Olivier closely on his left, his arm wrapped around the younger one’s chest. Olivier, fully asleep, grips Christophe’s left arm tightly, as if it were a life preserver.

It may explain why the father sits silently on an armless, chrome dinette chair, his hands covering his crotch, oddly and disturbingly staring at the beautifully nude and drunk, sleeping bodies of his three sons, leaving the viewer to guess at what the father might be thinking at that moment. Some have been perplexed by the scene’s relevance, as if it were inserted merely to pander to a gay audience, but when viewed through a family incest prism, the scene makes perfect sense. Possibly the filmmakers decided that explicit examples of gay family incest would be unacceptable even in art house venues, and this is a reasonable consideration, but by not showing even a slightly less opaque depiction of this possible cause of the family’s dysfunctionality leaves most viewers in the dark as to the vitally important and underlying motivations of the characters.

A fourth character in the movie, one who is just as important as the three brothers, is Hachim, the full-blooded Arab who, considering the English title of the movie, is the only true dancer of the main characters. He is the good friend and go-for stooge of Marc, perhaps slightly older but definitely less violent. It is he who purchases drugs for Marc; who is described by Marc as “useless” when he returns with six instead of ten lids of dope at the same price as paid previously. Hachim argues that he didn’t want to go by himself to buy the dope; that the stuff was of higher quality; that Marc owes a balance on the purchase (which Marc refuses to pay); who leaves in anger after Marc accuses him of taking some of the dope for himself; and who refuses to help Marc, apparently an illiterate, write a letter to Christophe, then still in prison. This is Hachim, who plays a vital role in the life of Olivier, the youngest brother.

Hachim’s flunky-status is reiterated when he is ordered by Marc, when Marc cannot reach an orgasm while rear-mounting of Zora, the harsh, bitter, probably much abused transvestite prostitute, “to bang her, and lets go….This slut’s pissing me off,” an order that Hachim executes after Marc departs, but who, in a very telling scene, tells a surprised Zora that he wants to do it face to face, and that Zora can “beat off if you want,” all the while witnessed by a many ear-ringed, cute teen lad who might be the younger brother of Zora, or more likely is a friend who is a transvestite-in-waiting. This scene reveals the depth of Hachim’s sensibilities, which are humane, generous and gay. Hachim’s feelings and sensibilities, however, never make an imprint on a completely self-absorbed, over-drugged Marc.

Hachim is intelligent and artistic, a student-dancer of the ‘capoeira’, the slave dance of blacks in 19th Century Brazil, and he is seen dancing it three different times in the movie. The first occasion is on the lower floor of the public gym where the youth gang go to work-out and wrestle with each other. After a scene in which Olivier is forced to wrestle with the younger brother of Sly, one of Marc’s gang friends, a tussle in which he shows that he does not enjoy the essential brutishness of the sport, he descends to the gym’s lower floor and watches intensely as a shirtless Hachim practices the dance moves of the capoeira.

Film viewers see two currents of the film in this early scene: first, the artistic sensitivities of Hachim which compel him to learn this difficult martial dance art, and second, the beginning fascination of Olivier with Hachim, and with the dance itself. Viewers had been previously shown that Olivier has a fascination with the bodies of young, attractive men, when for a fleet moment he is seen looking at the shirtless and very fit bodies of two stable hands at a farm where his father delivered a load of firewood that the father, Marc and Olivier had harvested from a forest. Thus when we see Olivier looking at Hachim’s fit, dancing, and half-nude body we can not avoid acknowledging that the youngest of the brothers is attracted to male beauty.

Though the film is outwardly about the three brothers, and goes into depth telling the tangential stories of Marc and Christophe, in actuality it is primarily a story about the love affair between Hachim and Olivier. And it is here that we find the third issue that is not spelled out but is only implied, and that is the issue of the negative progression of the love relationship between Hachim and Olivier, the development of which leads to the film’s denoument. The affair lasts from the end of a winter to the following early fall. Spring and summer are not shown in the film, the time of the ripening of Hachim’s and Olivier’s love, but the effects of that time on the affair are revealed at the film’s end with a heart-rendering breakup. Some might say that the callousness shown by Olivier is endemic to boys his age, that they have a right to move from one lover to the next without any reason except their own fancy in their search for new loves and new sexual experiences. And that element no doubt is at play here, but I believe that another, more important factor is at work.

Olivier is the most sensitive of the brothers, perhaps allowed to be so by the protective umbrella of a father, a doting, now deceased mother, and two older siblings. For the last born of a family the idea that he is the least and last considered is assumed by everyone, including himself, but as he matures it is normal for him to want to establish his own identity, his own right to be, to escape from under the suffocating aura and authority of his elders. Olivier’s reaching out is also likely motivated by Christophe’s taking a different turn in life, turning away from the family to make a separate life for himself, and away from the gang life he engaged in prior to prison. As Christophe had been the most important person in Olivier’s life, even before the death of their mother, the loss of Christophe’s presence and tenderness, likely motivates Olivier to seek someone outside the family as well. Thus his affair with Hachim is motivated not merely by a desire for sexual gratification, which he patently wants and achieves, but also for establishing himself as himself, as a unique person in a family of strong, but flawed personalities.

The affair is different for Hachim, who is older and who has passed through the ‘first sexual experiences’ phase of his life. He seeks much more from his relationship with Olivier then mere sexual satisfaction, though it is undoubtedly a powerful motivation because Olive, as he is sometimes affectionately called, is lusciously desirable. Hachim is deeply in love with Olivier, a love that has, one guesses, possessed him for a long while, perhaps from the earliest part of the film when he noticed the interest that Olivier had shown when Hachim danced the capoeira at the gym, an interest that was reinforced by Olivier’s studying the dance under Hachim’s tutelage, a shared physical activity that likely revealed their shared physical interest in each other. Hachim, at an age when men want to nest-build, wishes to share a life together with Olive, but the teen has family duties which he assumes gallantly and responsibly, and those duties prevent a total commitment to Hachim.

Olivier also may have rejected Hachim for reasons not explicitly shown, but which may be implied. Olivier likely became less enamored of Hachim when the older male began to treat him as his brothers had treated him, dominating him, as a man is wont to do with a wife, as Olive’s father had done to his mother. Perhaps familiarity had shown him more of the character weaknesses of Hachim, or it may be that he did not desire, at that time of his young life, the permanent relationship that Hachim wanted very much. Or it may simply have been that Olive had satisfied his need for his first sexual intimacies with another male (other than with Christophe, perhaps), and he may have felt the need to find a new and different lover. We cannot say with certainty what caused Olivier to end the relationship because it is never shown in the film, but we do know that he severed it with a cruel finality. The last look that he gives to Hachim when they part for the final time is startling in its duplicitousness, a mixture of youthful arrogance and contempt masked by a feigned affection. It is made even more startling and heart-wrenching because a deluded Hachim leaves Olivier with a smile on his face, happy and content in the love that he erroneously believes they share for each other.

Thus, the affair is doomed because of the different fundamental needs of the lovers, and ends suddenly and devastatingly for Hachim, who, overcome with hurt, and revealing his essential weakness, flees the region, flees his beloved, and seeks refuge and succor in Paris, hoping against hope, as all rejected lovers do, that his beloved will call him back to re-establish their love.

Hachim‘s desperate desire for Olivier‘s loving return will never be realized, as is shown in the final frames of the film when Olive meets his new lover high on the escarpment above the lake, a lover who was foretold in an earlier scene when he had taken hold of Olivier by the neck in the same manner that Hachim had earlier done when the teen, ill from over-drinking, tried to throw-up off a walk-bridge over a stream. Olivier had temporarily left the drunken gang celebrating Christophe‘s release from prison, a discreet leaving that was immediately noticed by the already love-smitten Hachim. Both men had taken Olivier’s neck and held it lovingly, caressingly, similar to the way a cock does a hen when he is about to mount her. Both moments were tenderly and sensuously done, but done so quickly as to go unnoticed if not really looked at.

At the conclusion of the film I was pleased because of its cinematic values of excellent visuals, acting, story, sound and tempo. Nevertheless, it disturbed me because I had invested so much in Hachim’s character, and I felt badly that he lost the sweet and lovely Olive. From the beginning I had seen Olivier as highly desirable, and the early hints given by the film only focused my attention more and more on him, and thus I saw Hachim as my surrogate, the fortunate guy who had the joy of possessing the beautiful youth. As the aforesaid sentimentalist, I wanted my surrogate to win the complete and undying love of Olivier, but alas, alas, like so much of life and love, it was not fated to be. So powerful was the feeling of rejection which I suffered vicariously with Hachim, it still abides though much time has passed since my first viewing. For this continuing heart-felt effect I congratulate all involved in the making of this wonderful, gritty film with its underpinning gay theme because they have created a work of art that endures as ‘cinéma, réalité et vérité.’

Anonymous said...

Gorgeous review