Sundance 2024: Desire Lines Review

Jules Rosskam's hybrid doc utilizes all of film's qualities to dynamically explore trans desire.

Desire Lines is a captivating hybrid documentary: engaging and vital, it flows freely through constraints of time and category, bursting boundaries both literal and figurative. Though a natural progression in the discussions around transgenderism, writer-director Jules Rosskam employs a clever formal strategy that pinpoints transmasculine issues and narrows the film’s focus to specific questions. His experimental approach opens the film to larger concerns around gender and sexuality, unforgettable in the way it mixes personal stories with history to successfully blow apart entrenched assumptions.

An Iranian American trans man, Ahmad (Aden Hakimi), enters an LGBTQ+ archive on a personal quest. In this serious, sterile environment, the archivist, Kieran (Theo Germaine) respects his privacy and gets on with his own task of documenting the history of transmasculine activist Lou Sullivan, the first transgender man to identify as gay. The two fictional characters occupy different generational spaces, but the film’s structure clearly connects their stories and their ancestry as they bond over the old footage. Rosskam blends first person interviews with this simple narrative, maintaining a straightforward throughline despite intertwining components.

At the same time, the film re-creates the experience of cruising through a bathhouse. This time travel highlights the fluidity of the film’s form. These dreamlike, erotically-charged sequences invigorate and even overturn any expected associations and narrative connections, as they speak to each other and work to tie in the other threads of the film. In this way, the narrative push of the film causes past and present to collide as the worlds of these three trans men intersect.

Desire Lines interrogates one of society’s basic assumptions – one that underpins most discussions of sexuality – that gender defines who we are and sexuality defines who we are attracted to. Rosskam challenges the notion that they even need to be so distinctly defined. Why does their interdependence only work a certain way?

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The viewer quickly learns that Sullivan was historically shut out of discussions of his day because his existence was denied by the medical establishment. In their eyes, a trans man could not possibly be gay. Rosskam’s insertion of first-person interviews throughout the film keeps the discussion current and animated while allowing Sullivan a seat at the table. The filmmaker pushes previously silenced voices to the forefront; in fact, by foregrounding the faces behind the theoretical, he humanizes this undiscussed reality of certain transmasculine desires. The level of candour in these personal stories blends particularly well with the highly charged sequences in the bathhouse.

Rosskam brilliantly guides the viewer from an understanding of the questions that arise from these individuals’ realities to an awareness of the people behind them. For all the theory expounded in this film, this director’s plan successfully instills a currency and a connection with everyone the viewer encounters in the film. Rosskam clearly understands the fluidity of cinematic form and expertly uses it to the film’s advantage. If one can push societal and biological boundaries, so too can they push the formally constraining ones of a medium. The director relies on all of film’s elements – narrative and documentary and historical and current – and merges them into a more interesting whole.

In Desire Lines, the director’s formal strategy stimulates an ongoing discussion, a dynamic one that energizes the very core of the film. No matter who is talking in this film, they are in dialogue: the interviewees, the scripted characters, the silent men in the bathhouse, Lou Sullivan – it is ongoing. Rosskam creates a throughline between all of them and envelopes the viewer in the process.

Desire Lines premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Head here for more from the festival.



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