Furtive anonymous sex and deep psychological insight don't usually accompany one another -- except in the writings of John Rechy and Irving Rosenthal. But they most certainly do in Porn Theatre, writer/director/actor Jacques Nolot's uncannily subtle mood piece, helpfully retitled from the French original La Chatte à Deux Têtes. That's the name of the movie that's unspooling in the tiny, grubby theater in which Nolot's story takes place. And while French audiences might well enjoy the joke (The Pussy Has Two Heads being a twist on the title of the famous Jean Cocteau play The Eagle Has Two Heads), it's lost in transcultural translation. But that can't be said of anything else on view in this chamber work, which while set in objectively sordid circumstances manages to maintain an eerie aura of what can only be called elegance.
The theater is one of those small fleapits still in operation eons after the porno became a cornerstone of the home video market. That some people use these venues for sexual trysts would seem to be obvious. But it's a lot less obvious that a theater featuring heterosexual porn can sometimes be a setting for same-sex action. Samuel R. Delany discusses this situation in his invaluable book of essays Times Square Red/Times Square Blue, and it also grazed headlines a few years back when actor Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman) was arrested in such an establishment. I say "grazed" because a congenitally clueless Fourth Estate couldn't quite figure out what Reubens did to inspire the ire of the authorities. If they see Nolot's film, they'll know.
Sex pits of this kind occupy that gray region in human commerce where "gay" and "straight" become relative terms. The films shown feature heterosexual activity, but the audience is almost all male. The "almost" factor proceeds from the transvestites who haunt them in search of "straight trade." It's a cozy mutual fantasy. The male customer gets off on what he imagines to be a stand-in for the woman he's looking at on-screen, even though the "woman" orally servicing him maintains gender identity through nothing more authentic than a mangy wig and a smudge of lipstick. These aren't the sort of drag queens one would find lip-syncing to Dusty Springfield in discos or riding on floats at Gay Pride. Likewise one wouldn't call the men they're servicing exactly gay or bisexual either. In fact, this indeterminate status is part of the kick.
But as Nolot shows, whatever these people may think they want, underneath it all is a longing for some form of personal connection. This detail is made clear through three characters who gradually emerge from the film's cruising ballet as principal players. One is the theater's Cashier (Vittoria Scognamiglio), a worldly seen-it-all type whose response to everything and everyone is ceaseless good cheer. She's far from a treacly Pollyanna of the Amélie sort, however. She makes it known that she has the hots for the theater's young, dreamy-eyed Projectionist (Sébastien Viala), who claims that the ongoing all-male group-grope "doesn't bother me," but it clearly has sent some degree of steam beneath his collar, as he'd rather be observing customers than sitting in his booth. And this in turn provides an opening for a character referred to only as the "50-Year-Old Man," played by Nolot himself. A long-term asymptomatic HIV-positive, he takes all the necessary prophylactic precautions. But it's something other than sex that he wants. He's lost too many lovers and friends, and the years have worn him away. All he hopes for is a little bit of human warmth. And in this most unlikely of settings he finds it.
Jacques Nolot has been a featured player -- never a star -- in a wide variety of French pictures over the last 30 years, including those by the gay directors whose work his most closely resembles -- André Téchiné and Paul Vecchiali. He has written screenplays for both men, the most noteworthy being J'embrasse pas, Téchiné's film à clef about his affair with the late Roland Barthes. Now with Porn Theatre, Nolot's broken out on his own with something that's at once quintessentially French (Scognamiglio's performance is sure to remind many movie lovers of Arletty in Children of Paradise) and completely new. For while sexually explicit in ways that would stand the MPAA's collective hairs on end, it's not pornographic at all.
Let Valenti's vigilantes stew in their own juices. Lovers of truly adult film need look no further than Jacques Nolot.
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