Postcards From London ****
Starring: Harris Dickinson, Richard Durden, Jonah Hauer-King, Leemore Marrett Jnr., Silas Carson
Director: Steve McLean
Queer Cinema has come a long way from its early experimental days of Anger, Pasolini and Fassbinder. The iconoclasm of early fetishised LGBT erotica has given way for Mumblecore or more Hollywood tastes, but in Steve McLean’s neon-drenched art-fantasy Postcards From London, Queer Cinema gets self-referential as the piece flits between Derek Jarman and Querelle, Pink Narcissus and Scorpio Rising. Add to that a lingering objectification of rising star Harris Dickinson (the face of last year’s indie classic Beach Rats) and you’ve created the formula for the gayest film of the year. By a mile.
Jim (Dickinson) has come to London to make his fortune. The Essex-Adonis has the physique of an Olympian wrestler and he is quickly noticed by a group of rentboys calling themselves “The Raconteurs”, headed by the street-smart but culturally affluent David (Hauer-King). The group offer their clients far more than just sex; they offer intellectual post-coital conversation, engaging the crème-de-la-crème of London’s artistic glitterati in stimulating cultural patois. It isn’t long before he is snapped up by a renowned artist (Durden) who wants to treat him as his muse, but Jim suffers from Stendhal Syndrome; a condition in which he is rendered immobile from his emotional response to art. In his blackouts, he finds himself fantasising that he is the subject of the pictures that have rendered him unconscious, engaging in conversations with both artist and fellow models.
Jim is like a Dickensian street urchin, except the London underclass here is well-groomed and the streets a manicured stage set. This is a stylised London, with Soho a fantasised-version of itself in the 70s despite being set in the present day. Jim is intelligent and hyper-masculine, with Dickinson giving an understated performance as the brooding and vulnerable sex worker. However, there’s no doubt the talented young actor’s main function here is to be objectified; he is the inspiration for both the art in the film and clearly also for the director, who takes great care in framing him as an object of lust straight from the opening credits. But Jim knows that he is the object of lust and is wholly complicit in his looks becoming his – and the film’s - biggest commodity.
The film is also obsessed with colourful Queer art, with its characters using it as cultural currency throughout the film. Caravaggio becomes the artist de jour, with much discussion around his work, featuring recreations of his paintings and scenes that feature the artist himself. Also, if this reference to the artist and his now iconic biopic isn’t an explicit enough Derek Jarman reference, Jim also recreates the death of Saint Sebastiane in yet another sexualisation of the “earliest male pin-up”, just like Jarman did on screen. George Dyer, the muse of Francis Bacon, also gets name-checked regularly, with the lighting of Dickinson in some scenes reminiscent of Daniel Craig in the Bacon biopic Love Is The Devil. Drenched in sailor-gear, muscles and tattoos, whole segments appear like realisations of Pierre Et Gilles compositions, or 90s Jean-Paul Gaultier advertisements. Add to that references to Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol, Dario Argento and with all this artistic richness, it’s easy to get lost in all its homage and forget there’s plot going on here too. Vaguely.
Postcards From London tries desperately to have both style and substance, but succeeds in having so much style and so much cultural substance that the plot seems almost subsidiary at times. As Jim’s physical ailment progresses, there are villainous opportunists who take advantage of his condition and feel like characters from a Peter Greenaway film. Artists, critics and dealers are tropes, archetypal caricatures exploiting both Jim’s beauty and his unique ailment. Meanwhile, those who populate the streets are about as coarse as a cashmere sweater. This is rose-tinted nostalgia for a city that seemingly is just a thing of legend. If you’re expecting a film that idolises, celebrates or even depicts London as the title suggests, you’re instead treated to a fairground on a soundstage, with more neon than you can shake a (disco) stick at.
Director McLean was a filmmaker burned by the hangover of New Queer Cinema, which had burned bright, burned fast and burned out by the time he released his first film Post Cards From America - I wonder where we'll be getting postcards from next? Now, a quarter century later, his second film is burning much brighter. Instead of attempting to capture the zeitgeist of twenty-first century Queerness, it instead harks back to a yesteryear, exactly as Fassbinder did in his final movie, Querelle. There is a slick coolness to its unabashed insistence in being only symbolic of the city it namechecks in its title. And in a cinema landscape where LGBT people are increasingly assimilated, it’s quite refreshing to watch something that is so determinedly Queer.