Steep Yourself in Lionel Soukaz’s Radical Immodesty


Always robust, repertory film programming in New York this year has been distinguished by several illuminating retrospectives (and some one-off screenings) dedicated to excavating queer lives and history. In April, the Film Society’s revelatory survey “An Early Clue to the New Direction: Queer Cinema Before Stonewall” reminded viewers of the abundance of lavender screen imagery, not all of it ghastly, that preceded the insurrection of 1969. Last month, Metrograph’s “Queer ’90s” brought together the vast array of LGBT expression that flourished during that decade, encompassing both the paradigmatic works of the radical New Queer Cinema movement and swishy big-studio offerings.

Other bent cine-events have focused on the oeuvre of a single, often underrecognized filmmaker. In late October, Light Industry hosted the U.S. premiere of writer and photographer Hervé Guibert’s lone directorial effort, Modesty, or Immodesty (1991), an engrossing video diary that depicts his quotidian struggles and pleasures as a man living with AIDS. This week, Anthology — which earlier this year mounted a terrific dual retrospective devoted to the gay underground moving-image eminences Curt McDowell and Tom Rubnitz — screens the early work of Lionel Soukaz, whose films, rarely screened in the U.S., burn with post-’68 fury and throb with carnal ecstasy.

Born in 1953, Soukaz (who’ll be at Anthology to present the titles in this mini-retrospective, several restored in new 35mm prints) was a confederate of those active in France’s gay-liberation movements, such as Guy Hocquenghem, who founded FHAR (Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire) in 1971 and whose writings served as the foundational texts for queer theory. Soukaz and Hocquenghem teamed up to make Race d’Ep (1979), an experimental documentary charting a century’s worth of the representation of gay desire. The film’s title is French street-slang for “homosexual”; the term was bellowed at the offscreen narrator (presumably Soukaz) as he was “looking for a notorious urinal,” an anecdote recounted in Race d’Ep‘s prologue. “The shout was less an insult than about my belonging to another history,” the chronicler declares. “This film wants to visualize that lost history.”

Race d’Ep searingly does just that in four densely collaged chapters, beginning with the first decade of the twentieth century, “the period of the pose.” For Soukaz and Hocquenghem, the era’s signal figure is the German photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden, best known for his studies of Sicilian ephebes. In this segment, actual von Gloeden photos are interspersed among fanciful re-creations of the artist’s studio and his models, the beautiful young men indulging in some XXX alfresco fun when not standing motionless in front of a camera. The ludic historical re-enactments continue in the chapter centered on Magnus Hirschfeld, the valiant Weimar-era physician and sexologist, before the film shifts to more autobiographical reflections. Of the 1960s, our narrator says, “The modern world was made for orgasms….For a young fag, those years were close to paradise,” his Arcadia illustrated by scenes of deep-throating and group love and scored to a symphony of California pop.

The utopian promise of those years, however, is thoroughly interrogated in the concluding episode, “1980,” structured around an encounter between a hard-left gay separatist played by Hocquenghem and a closeted American portrayed by Piotr Stanislas (a porn star in France). As the two men stroll along the banks of the Seine and walk through the Tuileries Garden and other Paris cruising grounds, we hear various offscreen voices, some excoriating homo-bourgeois complacency and assimilation (a formal strategy also deployed in German auteur Rosa von Praunheim’s It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse but the Society in Which He Lives, his incendiary Brechtian soap opera from 1971).

Like Soukaz’s earlier Le Sexe des Anges (1976), a salute to same-sex teenage desire replete with sixty-nining couples and jizz-covered bellies, Race d’Ep outraged French authorities, who censored it — a decision protested by Roland Barthes and Marguerite Duras, among many other intellectual grandees. Soukaz’s own response to the ban was the dizzying, inflamed IXE (1980), a double-screen eruption of even more provocative sights and sounds. There’s plenty of man-on-man action here, but also scenes of extreme despair: Comely, vacant-eyed guys tie off, shoot up, and nod out, their self-destruction augmented by footage of mushroom clouds and other apocalyptic scenarios. As aurally dense as its predecessors, IXE intermittently features the sound of maniacal laughter, a diabolical guffawing that may be the film’s most despondent element.

And yet throughout this angry, anguished project, the word “vivre” — to live — appears, an apt infinitive for a film that, however death-obsessed, also teems with a seething vitality. A similar kind of fervor is wonderfully captured in the short doc La Marche Gaie (1980), a fifteen-minute chronicle of the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979. English subtitles for La Marche Gaie weren’t available by press time, and my French is so pitiful that I could make out only fragments of the narration. The images, though, are indelible: Among the footage of the throngs of demonstrators proudly hoisting banners, Soukaz shows a beaming Hocquenghem (who would die of AIDS complications in 1988) meeting Kate Millett, author of the landmark 1971 feminist text Sexual Politics. Watching these revolutionaries shake hands, I thought only of the alliances that must be forged in the grim days ahead.

‘Lionel Soukaz: A Queer Avant-Garde Pioneer’
Anthology Film Archives
December 2–5

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