Throughout the 90s, Belgian filmmaker Bavo Defurne showcased his highly stylized sensibility in a series of queer-infused shorts that reflected overt influences from Derek Jarman, Pierre et Gilles and Jean Genet. He explored timeless queer topics: teenage love, compartmentalizing complex emotions, and fetishizing the unattainable. With his new feature-length film, North Sea Texas (Belgium, 2011), he brings this palette to more universal themes.
Adapted from André Sollie’s novel, North Sea Texas revisits many of Defurne’s reliable tropes, but the movie is able to transcend them, and ultimately opens up a queer-inflected vista onto wider insights. An introverted 14-year-old boy, Pim (Jelle Florizoone), lives in a small coastal town on a run-down street with his extrovert mother Yvette (Eva Van Der Gucht), an alcoholic bar waitress and accordion player. Yvette’s sleazy manager and sometimes lover picks her up from her home every night, so Pim is used to being left alone. We first meet Pim as he dresses up in his mothers clothing and adorns his head with her rhinestone tiara. It is an instantly understood image – the boy is queer – precisely because of how often we’ve seen it, and yet for all its banality is beautifully rendered. This is a strength of Defurne’s on display in North Sea Texas. The director takes well-worn images and with his attention to visual and emotional detail and elevates them.
Looking out at the sea, Pim inhabits a dream world away from the confines of his house, air permeated with cheep beer and stale cigarettes. By the time Pim turns 16, he outgrows his gauzy world of pictures of beauty queens and begins longing for Gino (Mathias Vergels), a motorcycle-riding, leather jacket-wearing lad next door. Wistful glances, salacious mocking and small glimmers of hope bookend Pim’s world. Eventually the boys act on their mutual desire and have a brief yet touching tryst. When the relationship with Gino becomes physical, Pim is faced with jealousy and longing in the way of all first loves, but also undergoes particularly gay struggles, such as hiding your true sexual and emotional self from family. However, when Gino turns 18 he discovers women, leaving Pim behind.
Pim isn’t left alone for long. When hunky young fair roustabout Zolton (Thomas Coumans) arrives on the scene as a boarder, a three-way sexual tension develops between Yvette, Pim and the new man. Zolton is used to exchanging his good looks for favors, and before long Yvette, jealous of her own son, skips town with Zolton, leaving Pim all alone in the empty house. Pim seizes the opportunity to move in with Gino’s mother and sister. His dreams of reconquering Gino’s affections seem to be within grasp, but his plan misfires when Gino leaves town to romance a young girl from across the border. Sabrina, Gino’s sister, circles longingly around Pim until she suspects his love for her brother, confirmed through the artifacts of while searching his room.
North Sea Texas is finely attuned to the sacrifices one must make when you realize the simple act of revealing who you are can remove the ground on which you stand. It provides a jolting reminder: that young people often have no choice but to live in the closet. The stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere is deftly realized in Defurne’s moody shots of the small town Pim is trapped in.
Defurne’s film is awash in saturated colors that make the Belgian coast an ideal counterpoint to Pim’s loneliness and emotional longing. He also clearly enjoys the male form, and uses his skillful eye using shadow and light to enhance the mood of desire. Strong performances throughout help ground the film, including Nina Marie Kortekaas as Pim’s sister. However, it is Deurne’s direction that makes the film worthy. The universal nature of coming of age stories dictate that we will witness a number of clichés—but Defurne delivers a film strong on mood and refreshing in its optimism.
The film is perhaps guilty of relying on a dated stereotype: the overbearing mother and absent father as responsible for a queer son. But that family structure also captures certain aspects of how homosexuality was understood and explained that were prevalent in the 1970’s, when our story takes place.
It is perhaps surprising that a small gay-themed teen love story imported from Belgium is winding its way through the American art house circuit. That is to be celebrated. It is testament to the strong reaction the film received in its gay film festival run earlier this year. A gay love story featuring teenaged leads is not just a rarity in cinemas but at gay film festivals as well, where the topic of sexualized young gay people is taboo.
It is refreshing to see the simple depiction of a youthful male on male crush. Watching Pim draw pictures of Gino or simply writing his paramour’s name over and over on a piece of paper strikes the viewer as a genuinely new image of love. These are simple acts of infatuation we are not used to seeing in films depicting gay relationships. Of course, we are not used to seeing young gay love ever depicted on screen at all. The touching, edifying spectacle of Pim beginning to lose himself to his true nature also leads to important insights about the universal nature of desire itself, and the difficulty of mastering it.
Defurne has claimed to have had great difficulty in casting the young male leads, and has dedicated the film to “all those kids whose parents wouldn’t let them take part in this film.” Even today, gay teenaged love is still the object of scorn and shame. It will take much more than a well-rendered, empathetic depiction on screen such as North Sea Texas to change it, but Defurne has done more than just that. He has elevated the queer prism on life from a particular community’s viewpoint to something recognized as a tool that can see further, or with more specificity, into questions of universal humanity.
Mark James lives in San Francisco he has written about film for numerous publications including The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide and The Advocate.
Read Tom Ue’s interview with director Bavo Defurne.