Audiences who have attended more than one LGBT-themed film festival in the glorious past, when screenings occurred outside one’s living room, will be familiar with the subset of Latin gay movies that are a staple of just about every yearly celebration (it’s certainly true at Inside Out). A zesty, lustful attitude towards romance, a warm sense of humour and a colourful visual palette are staples of films coming from Ibero-American countries and, as they all exist under the umbrella of Pedro Almodovar’s influence, they usually feature a performance by an actress most familiar to international audiences for an earlier appearance in one of his films: Loles Leon in Amor de Hombre, Carmen Maura in People You May Know, Cecilia Roth in Second Skin and, in this adaptation by Rodrigo Bellott of his own play, Rossy de Palma in a wonderful supporting role (a glorified cameo, really, despite her getting second billing).
In joining the ranks of these very popular festival selections (they’re usually the first to sell out), Bellott’s Tu Me Manques gets the casting right. All the moments that de Palma shows up in are bolstered by her presence and she even gives us the explanation for the film’s (French) title. Bellott also presents a visually appealing world in which Brooklyn is photographed in bright hues and full of scrumptious young men who are even more so. But instead of suitably warm characters, we get a preachy attitude and a script full of lectures about sexuality, tradition and macho paranoia where there should be dramatic communication between characters. To seemingly make up for the lack of emotional inspiration, the director presents his narrative out of order and creatively plays the story out in varying layers of reality.
It begins simply enough, with Sebastian (Fernando Barbosa) trying to contact his ex-boyfriend Gabriel months after their breakup and the latter’s returning to their native Bolivia. Sebastian gets ahold of Gabriel’s father Jorge (Oscar Martinez), with whom he has a heated video call that results in Jorge informing him that Gabriel is dead. Devastated, Sebastian continues to argue with him about their differing versions of the past. Jorge accuses this man he’s never met of corrupting his son and causing his demise and Sebastian says that he and Gabriel had true love except for the fact that Gabriel was scared to come out because of familial and societal pressure. From there the plot gets tricky and requires your attention, weaving in and out of three different periods in no particular order: the first is Sebastian’s memories of meeting and falling in love with Gabriel; the second is Jorge’s visit to New York after Gabriel’s death to meet Sebastian and get to know his son through the world he left behind; and the third depicts Sebastian’s putting together an innovative theatre piece that he plans to stage in Santa Cruz, in which thirty actors will play his late boyfriend and crack through the country’s Catholic machismo about the subject of gay love.
The third of these strands recreates the play that Bellott actually staged a few years before this film which, the credits tell us, was basically responsible for curing homophobia in Bolivia. Perhaps on stage it was something much more powerful and direct (everyone in it is barefoot while delivering sober monologues, which is theatre code for something powerful about humanity). On film the eccentric narrative technique distances the viewer from the situation at hand, instead of pulling them into a powerful intimacy: Gabriel is played by three different actors (who we notice are also in the play), which Sebastian explains in meta-narration is something he has done to avoid allowing one figure to replace his memory of his real lover. It brings to mind Buñuel’s That Obscure Object Of Desire, in which Ángela Molina and Carole Bouquet were both cast as the female lead, but whose doubled presence was Buñuel’s humorous way of ridiculing men’s inability to see women as more than as objects of their own satisfaction. Here the fractured casting gives us less of a sense of who Gabriel was rather than more, and because Barbosa doesn’t have the same chemistry with all three actors, it is disruptive to have his more intense scenes constantly switch the figure with whom he is talking or making love (and it also doesn’t help that, quite frankly, they’re not all three as talented as the other).
The creative aspects of the film, including the fact that we move through time and space in creative, fluid ways, are definitely clever and will find a great deal of admiration from some audience members. Though the sequences that focus on the making of the play mainly show the result, not the effort, and this strand ends up feeling self-congratulatory, offering no illuminating information on the relationship we are already focussing on. But what really takes the centre out of this movie is just how didactic it is. A scene between Jorge and De Palma’s Rosaura, where they are sitting by a New York City pier talking about love and loss, is so wonderful because in a movie in which no one gives each other room to be themselves, these two simply pour their hearts out and take each other in. She tells him that life is images, illusions, a dream, spouting poetry instead of offering the on-the-nose diatribes that come from the other characters (including the age-old, simplistic argument about what Leviticus does or does not say, and even a visit to a priest).
Where the film works best is when it’s not trying to be an informational brochure for people whose children might be gay. When it lets go of any desire to be important, it accomplishes it without effort. The earnestness with which Gabriel and Sebastian’s romance is presented lands as beautifully as the earnestness about religion and culture don’t, while the cast of personalities which comprise Sebastian’s New York friends all have an easy, lived-in charm about them. Tommy Heleringer particularly steals the show as a verbally gifted bachelor who, in one inspired scene, can barely sit down at a restaurant table without spouting a one-act play. For those of us swimming in memories of LGBT film festivals who remember first discovering the likes of Marco Berger or Andrew Haigh, Tu Me Manques won’t recreate the experience at home, but to give it its fair due it is never disingenuous and, even at its least effective, always has its heart in the right place.