Michael Koresky on Broken Sky
If the idea of queerness, in both study and experience, exists at the intersection of identity and desire, then the queer cinema of the new millennium is a strange, evasive beast indeed. Mostly untethered from identity politics, the most successful outside-of-mainstream films of the past decade from gay filmmakers that foreground homosexuality reflect the gradual but noticeable permissiveness towards forms of sexuality not long ago considered aberrant. A new generation is growing up with an attitude toward sexuality that might be described as cavalier, the result of which is that the once tortuous process of self-actualization through sexual identity is increasingly viewed, even at times misguidedly, as reductive labeling. Yet if the demand for identity-branding queer cinema has receded, the need for visibility remains, especially since the noticeable ascendance of gay characters in mainstream film and television hasn’t done much to quell the squeamishness and stereotyping in those very representations.
Therefore, it’s an odd moment for queer cinema, once a strictly designated outsider art, now largely disassociated from its underground origins. The aggressiveness of the New Queer Cinema movement, so dubbed in the Nineties but the seeds of which were scattered about the Eighties (Parting Glances, Mala Noche), now seems almost quaint, a radicalization of identity that seems to require no further elaboration now that Obama’s been elected and Rent has finished its decade-plus Broadway run. It’s the performativity, the militancy, and the direct-address posturing that made such landmarks as Poison, Swoon, and The Living End seem like transmissions from an id not only suppressed but also genuinely crackpot and thus dangerous. Taking a page from the field of queer studies, perversion was their reclaimed armor; in the films of Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, Derek Jarman, Gregg Araki, identity (of gender, class, race) wasn’t fixed, but sexuality, often violent sexuality, was ever-present, making the assertion of homosexuality the unavoidable point.
Now, with the widespread achievements of the gay-rights movement continuing far beyond radical mobilization and the increasing regularity of homosexual representation in media, what is left of a verifiable queer cinema? The battle for the right to marriage, visible on the nightly news, has established the desire for sameness, which makes the asserting of power through difference often seem a militancy of the past. Yet all this grants a false sense of comfort—the battle for civil rights has many twists and turns to go, and the term “post-gay” can only seem acceptable to those who don’t know what it’s like to be a gay man or woman in today’s America. Therefore, we still need activism, action, pride, and, yes, a valid, non-mainstream cinematic expression of homosexuality—identity and desire.
Enter Mexican filmmaker Julián Hernández, who exemplifies, if indirectly, the new millennial queer filmmaker. Some have tended to categorize him along with other international auteurs such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Tsai Ming-liang, whose highly formalist, and occasionally queer-tinged, portraits of desire forgo politics in favor of an immersive, sensory approach that both creates and denies erotic fulfillment. Yet aside from the fact that those filmmakers engage with sexual longing in a manner endemic to their environments and settings, they also somewhat forgo the specifics of character and motivation in order to create universes of sensuality, which often gives their films the feeling of fleeting fantasy. With his first two features, A Thousand Clouds of Peace and Broken Sky, Hernández has shown his adeptness at creating vivid mindscapes at once both emotionally recognizable and so acutely heightened that the slightest human movement (the move across a bed, the shimmy across a strobe-lit dance floor) registers as fantastical and ethereal. His cinema is purely one of desire, surveying a new generation of young gay men whose angst comes not as much from external social pressures and the threat of societal role-playing as the pangs and thumps of the heart.
To convey this, Hernández narrows his vision down to a limited series of intimate gestures and scenes, which are then attenuated, and even sometimes repeated. If the black-and-white A Thousand Clouds of Peace feels more superficially expansive, it’s because it also explicitly surveys a place and time, as its lovelorn protagonist wanders a hollow Mexico City that has an almost Jarmuschian existentialism. Broken Sky, unencumbered by such ready-made independent-cinema gravitas, goes almost completely interior, surveying environment and class with peripheral glances. The film’s university-student protagonists, the lithe Gérardo (Miguel Ángel Hoppe) and the cherubic Jonás (Fernando Arroyo), are introduced as an established couple, young, lovestruck, and firmly fixed in their moment, yet they’re wanderers, constantly seeking each other out around the campus’s many communal greens and prosceniums. Their gaze at one another is initially pure, angelic, and wholly sexual, awed by their own burgeoning feelings as well as by the bodies that miraculously lie beside them. Their hands explore their own flesh as well as each others’: in the first scene, Gérardo lying down and licking his own slender bicep is concurrently an act of narcissism and projected love, with Jonás implicitly below him, both surrounded by darkness. Hernández fills the soundtrack with the sounds of crackling fire, which may or may not be diegetic, not that it matters. Nor does it matter where these handsome boys come from, or where they’re going. If the director’s technique, and his expression of motivation is ambiguous throughout the film’s first (pre-title sequence) half-hour, the effect he creates of wordless erotic sensation is distinctly not.
While Broken Sky might satisfy a core audience looking for discreet thrills, it also complicates its relationship with that viewership by foregrounding its connection to more avant-garde forms of expression—it’s eye candy that leaves a bitter aftertaste. In a sense Julián Hernández rejects many of the established forms of queer cinematic representation—its visual patience and enthusiasm for male flesh seems neither Warholian, eschewing gritty, playful realism, nor Van Santian, actually correcting Mala Noche’s dubious, fragmented spectatorial exoticization of Latino boytoys, and it’s far from the aggressively Godardian tactics of New Queer punks like Tom Kalin and Todd Haynes, who problematized gazing at the male body as much as they reveled in it. Instead, Hernández reaches further back to an earlier era of alternative experimentation, taking as his inspiration the writings of Marguerite Duras, doyenne of tricky, postmodernist romanticism. It was reading Duras’s short novel The Malady of Death that Hernández cites as a turning point in his artistic thinking; Hernández describes it as thus: “about two people who love each other without being ready . . . They are always in the darkness, waiting for the other to say ‘I love you,’ or ‘I desire you,’ but the words never pass their lips.”
Indeed few words ever pass the characters’ lips in Broken Sky, which, throughout its (admittedly excessive) 140-minute running time has perhaps not quite a dozen lines of dialogue pass between its lovers. An occasional third-party narrator comments discreetly on the action, yet only gives off information in flatly poetic, hazy nuggets, none of which do much to deepen the emotions we already see radiating from Jonás and Gérardo’s soulful eyes. (The omniscient voice provides an interesting contrast with another millennial queer film about Mexican youths, Y tu mama tambien, whose voiceover feigns a political commitment that never materializes; Broken Sky’s more direct use of its narration wraps its vaguely New Wave aspirations in a more honestly solipsistic cocoon.) The evocative wordlessness of Broken Sky, always so believably a part of their momentary experience, is nevertheless double-pronged: it’s at first erotic, an engagement solely with body, and then, as the film wears on and their relationship begins to crumble from youthful distraction and jealousy, it’s a melancholy expression of their emotional distance from each other, despite physical proximity. During the blissfully sexy first half-hour, Hernández sets their romance either in areas that would require whispery vows or secretive, silent coupling—from a school library to a dark, echoey garage to a bedroom mere feet away from Gérardo’s sleeping mother—or in the reverberative din of a dance club, where touching and kissing is the only possible form of communication: hence the lack of exchanged dialogue never seems egregiously foregrounded as gimmick or technique. And then following Jonás’s public flirtation with another young man, which imprints on him the tantalizing possibility of sexual variety, the boys’ inability to articulate ideas on fidelity and love becomes an almost unbearable, nearly ritualized, dance of indirection.
Thus the quote that opens Broken Sky, from Duras’s screenplay for Hiroshima mon amour—“And a time will come when we’ll no more know what that is that binds us. By slow degrees the word will fade from our memory”—returns to haunt the film, which becomes a slow fade itself. The appearance of Sérgio (Alejandro Rojo), a fellow student who often hangs around campus seemingly just to get a peek of Gérardo, helps push things along to its fated dissolution. Pierced, angular, and dark, Sérgio gives off the whiff of rougher trade, as does the red-drenched, possibly S&M bar (there’s the glimpse of chains in one upstairs room) where he and Gérardo first kiss after the latter has slinked away from the increasingly nonresponsive Jonás in the middle of the night. But Sérgio’s stalking habits hide a soft romantic core, and Broken Sky becomes not a descent into darkness, but, essentially, a pragmatic, if abstract, coming-of-age story for Gérardo and Jonás, who are each blamelessly navigating the difficulties of first love, slowly and silently learning the ins and outs of relationships, and negotiating their own desires.
Certainly these issues have been dealt with, even abstractly, in countless love stories, but by applying them to a new generation of heedlessly gay youth, Hernández comes up with something almost revelatory. The film’s sexual graphicness is surprising only in as much it’s completely unapologetic; the director serves up an explicit unbroken single-take simulation scene early on in the film, which has its lead actors comfortably moving from missionary frottage to oral to anal positions with ease. This is far from the quick, in-your-face-and-done approach taken by such films as Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, in which the response of the audience is taken more into account than that of the coupling actors onscreen. Broken Sky, rather, is horny and impetuous, even as it frequently moves with the pace of a reverie. Its principal characters seem safely ensconced in their own hermetic dream world, hence their homosexuality is not a concern in and of itself, either to them or anyone else surrounding them. In the entire film, there’s only one tacit admission that their orientation is in any way out of the mainstream: near the beginning, as Gérardo and Jonás are passionately making out with each other in a vacant parking garage, the camera moves slowly to the right to take in a straight couple going by, clutching each other. The man and woman only slightly acknowledge the two male lovers, who are in turn are oblivious to their passing, so immersed are they in each other, but this subtle pan is the film’s one reminder that their love might in certain circles be deemed odd. It’s the slightest disruption from a blissful solitude of two people living resolutely in the here and now.
Hernández might not decimate, bifurcate, or reject traditional narrative as sharply or directly as other such architects of queer desire as Tsai or Apichatpong, but his technique is as radical in its own way. Within sinuous, time-collapsing single shots throughout Broken Sky, Hernández pans through indoor or outdoor spaces in which one of his isolated protagonists will seemingly multiply: for instance, as the camera moves right on a city street, Gérardo will first be seen standing close to the camera, seemingly locked in place, then he will appear in the background, near a telephone booth, and so on. It’s not only an evocation of time passing in one lateral move but also perhaps an admittance of the inability to lock these characters in a freeze-frame, their spirits, and libidos, too searching to be held back—and it’s an almost comically literal example of a director managing to “get it all in the frame.” Hernández’s cinematic poetry is about loss as much as lust, which is evidenced especially by those few moments where he gets distance from the characters, who so often remain sensually close to the camera. In one of his most arresting compositions, he suddenly moves out to a long shot so far from Gérardo and Jonás perched on a massive compendium of outdoor bleachers that they become little more than splotches of red and blue moving toward and away from each other—brightly colored visual articulations of combustible young love.
Broken Sky feels entirely contemporary, even as it seems to exist outside of the realistic spaces of millennial youth. Though the sorts of lust and teenage angst that Gérardo and Jonás are working through would in actuality find outlets in the online sphere (few films have come close to inhabiting that soulful, liminal space where community and isolation coexist; only Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou comes to mind), the characters in Hernández’s film seem to exist outside of technology. Whether this elision is a product of a thirtysomething filmmaker uncomfortable with the limitless industrial and carnal potentials of communication or an intentional attempt to create characters as literally isolated as they are spiritually and romantically, with no connections outside of each other, is up for interpretation. There’s even the sense that Gérardo, with his tight, green Steve McQueen T-shirt and his quietly swoony response to a teacher’s delineation of the Aristophanes origin-of-love mythology (the tragic same-sex splits of which makes for a terrific metaphor for gay fictions about puppy love, as also witnessed in Hedwig and the Angry Inch), is a romantic figure somewhat out of time. Musically, too, is Gérardo undefined by era: His sexual exploits are as aurally linked to contemporary Mexican pop as to the elegant strains of harpsichord and violin (as in an early library visit, which evolves into an erotic game of cat and mouse among the stacks) and even to classical opera, as in the use of a Dvořák aria, sung by Renée Fleming, to add grandeur to Hernández’s already heightened mise-en-scène during Gérardo and Sérgio’s first embrace in the bar. These may be kids, the film admits here, but for whom every touch electrifies with the promise of eternal, timeless romance.
If there were such a thing as a categorized queer cinema of the new millennium, it could probably be typified by Broken Sky, even if such a label would be defied at every turn. This is not simply because Broken Sky is “global” or “connected,” but because it seems to have itself all figured out. There’s an aesthetic confidence to Broken Sky that sets it apart from the queer cinema trailblazers that only fifteen or so years ago boldly but raggedly shook things up. Of course, one could also identify it as reflective of a depoliticized generation, for which narcissism can generously be recouped as existentialism. Hernández’s work, sensual, inward, and aware of itself as a fixed erotic object, is admittedly narrow, but its self-imposed limitations are fascinating. Far from the distanced tactics of the staunchly anti-mainstream queer American filmmakers of the Nineties, but also unrecognizable from the breakthrough gay-themed international cinema of the same period—such as The Wedding Banquet, Strawberry and Chocolate, and Savage Nights—all of which encouraged some form of social awareness by foregrounding identity, Broken Sky might be indicative of changing attitudes toward the aesthetics of homosexuality as much as that of homosexuality itself. It might seem a minor film to hang such proclamations on, but its very slightness, its nonchalant amorousness, is what makes it so effective as a cultural marking point.