The Good Bad Old Days
In a droll 1980s column, Scottish film critic Gilbert Adair (1944-2011) mused that, for a gay man like himself, the fun days were all in the past. How much more thrilling it was, he said, when everything was secret, illicit — when all initial communication with a possible companion (long term or short term) was a matter of cryptic signals, coded understandings, subtle gestures given back and forth in a dance-like configuration. You might get beaten up as a result of this game (picture those in-denial, homoerotic tough guys in Cammell/Roeg's Performance); or, on the contrary, you might find a good time.
Once sexuality is completely out in the open, no longer subject to such a fierce, all-pervasive regime of oppression and repression, argued Adair, something disappears. For the most part, we all agree that it is a progressive thing when such chains dissolve; society as a whole moves toward a greater tolerance of human diversity, a fairer and more just inclusion of the rights of all its members...
But Adair wished to register a contrary doubt: was he really so overjoyed to be forced to leave his shadowy 'underground' and rejoin the normal world that he once so dexterously escaped? His particular code of Dandy-romanticism accorded well with the line by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand for which Bernardo Bertolucci titled his second, breakthrough feature in 1964: 'Only those who lived before the revolution knew how sweet life can be'.
Cinema has a complicated relationship with what the scholar Brian Henderson called the "wall of repression" that gives limitless erotic tension to all manner of unspoken desires (homo, hetero, any forbidden kind) on the brink of possible realisation. Before that wall comes tumbling down, drama, suspense, romance are possible; once it is in ruins, we enter the strange realm where everything is permitted, with no limits or barriers: decadence. And somewhere in-between sits the grey spectre of a 'normalised', banal, public, all-inclusive world.
These thoughts are prompted by viewings of two excellent, beautifully stylised films: Todd Haynes' Carol (2015) and Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent (2014).
It is striking how often Haynes has — apart from Safe (1995), still his best film — visited the past. There is an aspect of his (and many artists') sensibility which deliberately turns away from the present day in order to inhabit the repressions of the past: stultifying, but exciting to transgress, in whatever small or large way. Naturally, Haynes (again, like many) is driven to analyse history, to understand what and where we have come from, to measure our distance — or lack of distance — from this past. Still, there is a note of nostalgia in all this, a wistful freezing of history.
In Saint Laurent, Bonello hurls us over to the other side of the Repression Wall, the aristocratic, demi-monde, Visconti side. The subject of this impressionistic biopic has indeed experienced violent repression in his youth but, mostly, he is cloistered in a decadent and privileged 'world apart': money, fashion, drugs, clubs, music, rough and anonymous sex.
As shown in so many films — including the disco-era 54 (1998) and most of Haynes' evocation of Bowie-style glam in Velvet Goldmine (1998) — history put a rude parenthesis around this louche paradise-on-earth: the onset of AIDS transformed it another kind of nostalgia-fetish in the face of inevitable death and decay. But while it lasted — as one of Bonello's bold split-screen sequences demonstrates — YSL's dream-empire managed to ignore even the riots of May 1968. Another kind of frozen time.
When we speak of the depiction of repression in cinema, we often speak of the genre of melodrama, and especially of its maestro, Douglas Sirk. But think about it: Sirk quit his career at exactly the right 'limit moment': the end of the Hollywood studio system, and the end of the bad old 1950s. He never had to confront, and make drama from, the 'permissive society'. Lucky guy.