What to Stream: Lust, Caution, and Ira Sachs’s “The Delta”

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One of the worst things about Hollywood is the way that it concentrates location shooting in a single town. And one of the best things about American independent movies, especially in the modern age of first-person filmmaking, is their regionalism. When young directors return to their home towns and shoot their coming-of-age stories, they collectively provide a more varied and complex vision of America. Think of the Austin of early Richard Linklater, the Brooklyn of Spike Lee. Or another instance: Ira Sachs, whose latest film, “Passages,” opens today, set his first feature, “The Delta” (1996), in and around Memphis, where he grew up. The movie (newly streaming on the Criterion Channel) is the story of Lincoln (Shayne Gray), a high-school student from a prosperous family who’s growing up gay in the mid-nineteen-nineties, in a place where such things still weren’t talked about. Sachs’s vision of his home town owes nothing to tourism, music, or myth. He summons Memphis in intimate infinitesimals that embody great dramatic passions, and he crafts a distinctive aesthetic to bring its hidden lives—and the price of hiding—into the light.

In the very first scene, Lincoln drives to a remote road where gay men rove slowly around in their cars, occasionally pulling up alongside one another in opposite directions, to talk from behind their steering wheels, mostly to negotiate quick, impersonal sex. From this nocturnal ballet—of auto eroticism, as it were—Sachs creates a sequence that is both visually virtuosic and tender in its evocation of furtive desire. Lincoln, who is part of this world, also has what passes for a standard-issue popular-kid social life: gathering with male and female friends at houses, listening to a band at a club, smoking and drinking in a desolate public garage, heading to a house party, cracking wise, and flirting. He’s in a tense, push-and-pull relationship with a schoolmate named Monica (Rachel Zan Huss). They’re something of a couple, she seemingly unaware of his attraction to men and he saying nothing. Though the movie is talkative, at times even garrulous, its very subject is silence—the silence imposed by intolerance. Lincoln is living two parallel lives, and Sachs films each of them with a flattened, tableau-like abstraction that suggests distance even from events near at hand. He finds a cinematic register that shows how a life lived in secrecy, deception, and fear feels elusive and artificial.

One night at the cruising spot, Lincoln agrees to follow a middle-aged man (Tony Isbell) to a hotel room. In that brief encounter, Lincoln, facing a more experienced man, confronts the boundaries of his own desire but remains oblivious to the risk of being alone there with a stranger. Afterward, he goes to an adult-movie shop with individual viewing booths, and is picked up by a man from Vietnam named Minh (Thang Chan), who claims to be about a decade older than Lincoln. Minh also coaxes Lincoln to take him someplace where they can be alone, and they wind up on a boat belonging to Lincoln’s father. Once aboard, Minh induces Lincoln to pilot it on the river, and what starts as a jaunt opens up into a major parenthesis in Lincoln’s life. Here is a romantic adventure that’s a radical exception to his ordinary existence, something of a dream come true but, by the same token, with a dream’s sense of reality suspended. The nighttime river journey brings them to a muddy spot near a Mississippi Delta hamlet, where the idyll is disturbingly shattered. Going with the flow of seductive unreality turns out to have real and serious consequences.

What is striking, watching “The Delta” nearly thirty years after it was made, is the particular kind of emotional deprivation that results when gay life is cloistered and isolated. Lincoln’s uneasy bond with Monica, for all its conflict-ridden ambiguity, has the deep-rooted vitality of daily life, with its connection to friends and family. There can be no such socialization for Lincoln’s gay life. Because his outward identity is grievously separated from his sexuality, he is missing out on the wide range of experiences that serve as the touchstone for self-awareness, and would help him, on the cusp of adulthood, to construct an inner life.

In this regard, Sachs’s first feature contrasts sharply with his new one, “Passages,” the story of a German director named Tomas (Franz Rogowski) who’s living in Paris with his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw) and, at the end of a film shoot, begins a sexual relationship and, indeed, a romance with a younger woman named Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The very fact that Tomas and Martin live as a married couple—integrating their public and private lives in a setting where such openness has become the norm—anchors Tomas’s sense of freedom, sexual and emotional alike. In “Passages,” the ensuing intimate conflicts, however fierce, are somehow also productive and positive, whereas, in “The Delta,” the atmosphere of frustration and fear is destructive. In an atmosphere of secrecy, naïveté and ignorance flourish, and characters are deprived of the chance to find an emotional and psychological vocabulary for their deepest desires. Fear of discovery poisons relationships and gives rise to violence.

Watching “The Delta,” I felt another movie lurking in the background: Claude Chabrol’s sardonic film noir “Les Bonnes Femmes” (1960), in which the romantic dreams of four lonely shopgirls are confounded by the arrival of a dashing and mysterious motorcyclist. The censorious mores of French society are what keep Chabrol’s voluble young women perilously ignorant of the ways of the world, just as Lincoln, negotiating the ways of men on his own, isn’t only emotionally vulnerable; without guidance or even peers he can confide in, he advances unsuspectingly into a realm of dangers. It’s here that Sachs, in his début feature, reveals a startling connection between his aesthetics and his experience: with a chilly drift toward artifice, he uncovers the bitter and infuriating truth of growing up in hiding. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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