In French, la petite mort—”the little death”—refers to orgasm and its aftermath. There are lots of little deaths (and rebirths) of both the erotic and emotional variety in Hello Again, a lush, sexy adaptation of the 1993 chamber musical by composer-librettist Michael John LaChiusa that opens this year’s Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival. Based loosely on La Ronde, the scandalous 1897 drama by Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler (which also inspired films by Max Ophuls and Roger Vadim), this beautifully cast and gorgeously shot movie is a suite of sung-through vignettes exploring themes of seduction and betrayal.
The narrative structure is complex and mysterious. The action skips back and forth in time, as early as 1902 and as late as 2002, with ten two-person scenes, each depicting a sexual tryst. One character from each episode returns in the following one, but the carried-over character isn’t exactly the same person. A hookup between a soldier (Nolan Gerard Funk) and a nurse (Jenna Ushkowitz) at a “stage door canteen” during World War II is followed by a scene set during the Vietnam war, in which a different nurse (Ushkowitz again) has a fling with a college boy (Al Calderon). The action then jumps back to 1929, when a different college boy (Calderon again) has an assignation in a movie theater balcony with a married woman (the wonderful Rumer Willis). In 1912, a wealthy married man (T.R. Knight) explores his long-suppressed homosexuality by seducing a shy working-class youth (Tyler Blackburn) in his stateroom aboard the sinking Titanic; cut to a decadent disco in 1976 New York, where a dancer (Blackburn again) brags, “I survived a shipwreck.” Reincarnation, or just coincidence? This slyly enigmatic cross-referencing is part of the film’s intrigue; perhaps the vignettes are visions conjured up by Leocadia, a gender-shifting whore (Sam Underwood) who appears at beginning of the movie to entertain a repressed politician (Martha Plimpton).
LaChiusa is one of the most gifted musical theater art-song writers of the post-Sondheim generation, but Hello Again may just provide him with his first pop hit: “Beyond the Moon,” performed in a pulsing, lavishly designed music video by Audra McDonald as a singer desperate to reboot her flagging career. This film-within-the-film (whose direction and visual effects are credited to Cory Krueckeberg, Hello Again‘s screenwriter and editor) features McDonald, her operatic soprano auto-tuned almost beyond recognition, singing ecstatically of “my only love” and “a dream come true” while surrounded by a chorus of muscular male dancers, their hedonistic choreography subverting the romantic fantasy of the lyrics. Written specifically for the film, the number reinforces the fascination with fantasy and reality, desire and disillusion that makes Hello Again such an intoxicating and ironic work. —Albert Williams
After Louie This debut feature from longtime gay-rights activist Vincent Gagliostro, about a middle-aged New York artist (Alan Cumming) making a film about the ACT UP generation and a close friend who died of AIDS, is a valuable meditation on generational differences, particularly between gay men who lived through the worst years of the AIDS crisis and those who came of age afterward. The protagonist prefers these younger men sexually: “When I was your age . . . my friends were dropping like flies,” he tells one. “So yeah, I am trying to recapture my youth.” In another scene the artist is confronted by a peer for using their mutual friend as a documentary subject: “He’s not a symbol.” Clearly this is a personal project for Gagliostro, who seems to be working through his own issues, and though the film brims with thought-provoking conversations, it works better in these individual light-bulb moments than as a narrative whole. —Leah Pickett 100 min. Fri 9/22, 7:30 PM. Landmark’s Century Centre
Against the Law This somber BBC production, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1967 British law decriminalizing homosexuality, intercuts eyewitness accounts from grizzled survivors of homophobia in postwar England with a dramatic treatment of the life of journalist and activist Peter Wildeblood. Openly gay, Wildeblood (Daniel Mays) is imprisoned in the mid-1950s for his affair with an RAF corporal (Richard Gadd); their tender, erotic, and necessarily secret encounters make the corporal’s betrayal in court all the more devastating. In a later scene Wildeblood, now freed, testifies on behalf of legal rights for homosexuals but excludes “effeminate men” from his crusade—a particularly chilling moment when you consider that the UK’s last antigay laws weren’t repealed until 2009. Fergus O’Brien directed. —Andrea Gronvall 85 min. Sun 9/24, 2:45 PM. Landmark’s Century Centre
B&B Writer-director Joe Ahearne unabashedly cribs from Alfred Hitchcock for this psychological thriller, in which an attractive gay couple (Tom Bateman, Sean Teale) revisit a remote English country inn some time after they successfully sued the bigoted owner (Paul McGann) for refusing them a double bed. Once a burly Russian ex-con arrives, the newlyweds get caught in a complex revenge scheme hatched by the owner’s teenage son. The handsome visuals belie the film’s low budget: cinematographer Nick Dance expertly copies Hitchcock’s stylistic trademarks, the nocturnal park scenes mimicking the iconic low-angle wide shots of Vertigo and Psycho. But the plot is overly reliant on such technology as smartphones and night goggles, gizmos that eventually hamper the paranoiac suspense. —Andrea Gronvall 87 min. Sun 9/24, 9:15 PM. Landmark’s Century Centre
Bones of Contention This documentary about the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender victims of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco asks a vital question: How can a country excavate a past that has been so deeply buried? Director Andrea Weiss tracks the journey of a modern grassroots movement dedicated to unearthing and identifying the bones of more than 120,000 missing LGBT loved ones (many of whom are likely interred in unmarked mass graves along roadsides) with almost no help from the Spanish government. The little-known history of homosexuals being persecuted in Francoist Spain includes among its victims poet Federico García Lorca, whom the locals hold up as a symbol of their bloody past and current struggle. Though simple and straightforward, the film is a potent argument for justice, even—and especially when—the fight is ongoing. —Leah Pickett 75 min. Mon 9/25, 7:15 PM. Landmark’s Century Centre
I Dream in Another Language In this Mexican drama, a linguist travels to a small jungle village to study the dying language of its indigenous people. He wants to record a conversation between the last two speakers, but the old men in question have been feuding for more than 50 years and refuse to talk to one another. Flashbacks reveal that the men were once in love and had to suppress their desire; moved by their history, the linguist determines to end their feud so they can spend their final days in peace. Ernesto Contreras, directing a script by his brother Carlos, establishes a relaxed pace and a gentle tone, allowing the themes of guilt and repressed longing to resonate, and his sympathy toward all the characters creates a winning sense of goodwill. In Spanish with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 100 min. Sun 9/24, 4:30 PM. Landmark’s Century Centre
Saturday Church A queer Bronx teenager, bullied at home and at school, finds refuge in a community of homeless young people, some gay and some transsexual, who encourage him to own his sexual identity and his desire to perform in drag. Writer-director Damon Cardasis goes all out in telling this coming-of-age story, eliciting larger-than-life performances and incorporating show-stopping musical numbers. The songs aren’t very good and the acting sometimes borders on camp, but there’s no denying his ambition or his concern for homeless youth; like the outstanding Kartemquin documentary The Homestretch (2014), this draws attention to the plight of gay and transsexual runaways. Hillary Spera’s cinematography is another asset; the images of New York City are warm and dreamy, reflecting the hero’s reassuring acceptance by his new friends. —Ben Sachs 82 min. Screens as part of the closing-night program; tickets are $15, $25 with an afterparty at Progress Bar, 3359 N. Halsted. Thu 9/28, 7 PM. Landmark’s Century Centre v