Like so many films that target a gay male audience, Three Dancing Slaves transpires in an abstract parallel universe where half the population has mysteriously disappeared and the other half works out a lot and often goes unclothed. The only female presence to speak of in French actor-turned-director Gael Morel's latest feature is the dead mother of the titular fraternal trio. Exactly one flesh-and-blood woman is allowed to interrupt the beefcake reverie (in a single measly scene at that), and when even the most macho of the brothers has sex, it's with a bewigged pre-op transsexual (whose biological status is of course full-frontally corroborated). Unfocused and vaguely arty, Three Dancing Slaves is a Bruce Weber shoot come to life, a tone poem on masculinity that doesn't concern its pretty little head with very much besides the photogenic ways in which men bond, bicker, brawl, and practice capoeira (the unfortunate English title derives from the martial art's slave culture origins; the movie was released in France as Le Clan).
Co-written by Morel and Christophe Honoré (who authored the similarly blank and pouty Girls Can't Swim and Ma Mére), Slaves devotes a third to each brother's dead-end provincial existence. Marc (Nicolas Cazalé), a loose-cannon skinhead, is caught up in a vicious cycle of clumsy drug deals and angry vendettas (between visits to the gym). He hangs out with a bunch of ostensibly straight guys who jerk off communally to porn (with the help of a vibrating cell phone) and is such a carnal fellow that when he steps into the shower with his beloved dog, the movie for a few alarming moments threatens to redefine heavy petting. Marc's near zoophilic attachment to the poor pooch naturally leads to its brutal demise, setting in motion a sputtering revenge subplot.
In part two, eldest brother Christophe (Stéphane Rideau, Morel's co-star in André Téchiné's Wild Reeds), newly released from jail and committed to straight-and-narrow rehabilitation, distances himself from Marc and takes an upstanding job at the local ham factory, where his rapid ascent infuriates Marc and somewhat placates their dour father. The youngest sibling, Olivier (Thomas Dumerchez), whose segment is the sweetest and shortest, grieves the loss of their Algerian-born mother and slowly settles into a sexual relationship with Marc's friend Hicham (Salim Kechiouche). Morel idealizes the erotic hunger of new loverssending the boys on a hang-gliding adventure and eavesdropping on their idyllic dirty-talk comedown.
Morel is obviously up on his gay art films: Fran Ozon's influence is palpable, not least in the matter-of-fact sexuality and evocative use of water; the meat factory pointedly echoes the abattoir in Fassbinder's In a Year of 13 Moons. Most of all, the director, who has appeared in several Téchiné films, strives to emulate his mentor's suggestive use of ellipses and poetic detail. But the unpredictable emotional turmoil that animates Téchiné's work is almost entirely missing. Morel spells out his blood-ties theme in an archly symbolic shot of the three brothers sleeping in the nude, limbs entwined, watched over by their helpless father. The actors make the most of their severely underwritten roles (though there's only so much you can do with pube-trimming and ass-shaving scenes). For those so inclined, this lulling, banal, and rather pleasant film cultivates a mood of zone-out voyeurism. In the absence of a larger purpose, Morel is content to ogle, perhaps rightly assuming that his viewers will be too.
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