Furtive anonymous sex and deep psychological insight don't usually accompany one another -- except in the writings of John Rechy and Irving Rosenthal. But they most certainly do in Porn Theatre, writer-director-actor Jacques Nolot's uncannily subtle mood piece, helpfully retitled from the French original, La Chatte à Deux Têtes. That's the name of the movie that's unspooling in the tiny, grubby theater in which Nolot's vignette takes place. And while French audiences might well enjoy the joke (The Pussy Has Two Heads is a twist on the title of the famous Jean Cocteau play The Eagle Has Two Heads), it's lost in transcultural translation. But that can't be said of anything else on view in this chamber work, which, while set in objectively sordid circumstances, manages to maintain an eerie aura of what can only be called elegance.
The theater is one of those tiny flea pits still in operation eons after porn became a cornerstone of the home-video market. That some people use these venues for sexual trysts would seem obvious. But it's a lot less obvious that a theater featuring heterosexual porn can sometimes be a setting for same-sex action. Samuel R. Delany discusses this in his invaluable book of essays Times Square Red/Times Square Blue, and it grazed headlines a few years back when actor Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman) was arrested in such an establishment. I say "grazed," because a congenitally clueless fourth estate couldn't quite figure out what Reubens did to inspire the ire of the authorities. If they see Nolot's film, they'll know.
Sex pits of this kind occupy that gray region in human commerce where "gay" and "straight" become relative terms. The films shown feature heterosexual activity, but the audience is almost all male. The "almost" factor comes from the transvestites that haunt them in search of straight trade. It's a cozy mutual fantasy: The male customer gets off on what he imagines to be a stand-in for the woman he's looking at on the screen, even though the "woman" orally servicing him maintains gender identity through nothing more than a mangy wig and a smudge of lipstick. These aren't the sort of drag queens one would find lip-synching to Dusty Springfield in discos or riding on floats on Gay Pride Day. Likewise, one wouldn't call the men they're servicing exactly gay or bisexual, either. In fact, this indeterminate status is part of the kick.
But as Nolot shows, whatever these people may think they want, underneath it all is a longing for some form of personal connection. This is made clear through three characters who gradually emerge from the film's cruising ballet as principal players. One is the theater's cashier (Vittoria Scognamiglio), a worldly, seen-it-all type whose response to everything and everyone is ceaseless good cheer. She's far from a treacly Pollyanna of the Amélie sort, however. She makes it clear that she has the hots for the theater's young, dreamy-eyed projectionist (Sébastien Viala), who claims the ongoing all-male group grope "doesn't bother" him, but it clearly has sent some degree of steam beneath his collar, as he'd rather be observing customers than sitting in his booth. This detail provides an opening for a character referred to only as the "50-year-old man," played by writer-director Nolot himself. A long-term asymptomatic HIV+, he takes all the necessary prophylactic precautions. But it's something other than sex that he wants. He's lost too many lovers and friends, and the years have worn him away. All he hopes for is a little bit of human warmth. And in this most unlikely of settings, he finds it.
Jacques Nolot has been a featured player -- never a star -- in a wide variety of French films over the past thirty years, including those by gay filmmakers whose work his most closely resembles: André Téchiné and Paul Vecchiali. He has written screenplays for both directors, the most noteworthy being J'embrasse pas, Téchiné's film à clef, about his affair with the late Roland Barthes. Now, in Porn Theatre, he's broken out on his own with something that's both quintessentially French (Scognamiglio's performance is sure to remind many film lovers of Arletty in Children of Paradise) and completely new and refreshing. For while sexually explicit in ways that would stand the MPAA's collective hairs on end, it's not pornographic at all.
Let Valenti's vigilantes stew in their own juices: Lovers of truly adult film need look no further than Jacques Nolot.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.