By Olivia Popp
This article is the second in a series of three articles on the 30th Hamburg International Queer Film Festival (Lesbisch Schwule Filmtage Hamburg), taking place from October 15, 2019, to October 20, 2019. The festival is Germany’s oldest and largest queer film festival.
Of the numerous works at IQFF, many of the feature films screened were pre-2019 queer films from all around the globe. These included “José” — a Guatemalan feature with acclaim from Venice Film Festival, “The Carmilla Movie” — a Canadian film released for streaming and “Good Kisser” — an American indie with primary prior screenings at queer film festivals.
José (2018, Li Cheng)
Li Cheng’s “José,” which won the Queer Lion at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, is a quiet portrait of the eponymous lead character’s life in Guatemala (Enrique Salanic) as he engages in secretive sexual encounters with men and generally goes about his life. The minimal plot is both what’s most and least striking about the film — the film’s poster subheading is “a simple story about love.”
Unfortunately, the demure beauty of the film wasn’t enough to hook me into José’s story. However honest the film may be, the lack of plot wasn’t so much of a cinematic deterrent as the lack of direction. I felt like I didn’t know where I was in either the film or José’s life, plopped into his tale at an arbitrary moment in time. Perhaps that was the point — on many occasions, we take some sort of huge event for granted, so why we shouldn’t we just take in the simplicity of a portrayed life onscreen?
For what it’s worth, this style of filmmaking is one that I typically fail to consume — and perhaps with that, fail to appreciate. Venice’s Queer Lion (first awarded in 2007) is on par with awards like the Queer Palm (first awarded in 2010) of the Cannes Film Festival and the Teddy Award at the Berlinale (first awarded in 1987). Although festival awards are neither a marker of commercial success nor universal acclaim, having won the Queer Lion at Venice cements “José” in queer cinematic history.
All in all, even if you don’t particularly enjoy “José,” you are sure to appreciate the filmmaking.
The Carmilla Movie (2017, Spencer Maybee)
As a fan of the acclaimed Canadian web series, I was excited to see these beloved characters back in action. However, where the series succeeds in its delightful exploration of queer characters, the film falls short.
The “Carmilla” series is best known for its static camera frame, shot from the viewpoint of journalism student Laura’s (Elise Bauman) laptop webcam. This puts much of the dramatic onus on the director — Canadian actor and director Spencer Maybee, who directed nearly all of the episodes of the series, is now back for the film.
For the most part, the audience can take the absurdity of the “Carmilla” series at face value: the characters attend a mysterious university in Austria, yet they all speak English with a Canadian accent; Laura is the primary investigator of the mysterious deaths at the university, where nobody seems to care but her. However, the film doesn’t have the luxury of that on the big screen, in which the story must be told in two hours.
I watched the film with a friend, who had only seen the first season of the series; the confusing, unestablished relationships of “The Carmilla Movie” left her in the dust. As someone who had seen the entire series, I had a bit of an easier time trying to parse through the somewhat convoluted ensemble scenes, in which the narrative is focused on the vampire Carmilla’s (Natasha Negovanlis) moral journey while splitting screen time between a huge number of characters.
At a core level, the film simply doesn’t add up, spending more time attempting to pair up characters and showing an onscreen kiss than diving into the beloved characters and their conflict at hand. Fans might enjoy seeing their favorite characters onscreen once again, but newcomers will most likely be confused by the character relationships — or lack thereof.
Ultimately, “The Carmilla Movie” is best left as a cute fan-service sequel to the web series, watched after the series only if you’re too eager to get more of the characters.
Good Kisser (2019, Wendy Jo Carlton)
Meandering over the course of one evening, “Good Kisser” follows a lesbian couple, Jenna (Kari Alison Hodge) and Kate (Rachel Paulson), who invite the Kate’s alluring, well-traveled friend Mia (Julia Eringer) into their home for an evening. Unfortunately, the film begins with an interesting premise that ultimately becomes one long, gratuitous threesome where even the gratuitous parts aren’t engaging.
The stakes for the relationship between Jenna and Kate are never truly established, and so, the introduction of Mia ends up being more of an excuse to track a tenuous threesome rather than explore the intricacies of queer intimacy. The dialogue merely adds to the cringe factor of the film, founded upon an attempt to contribute some context to the meagerly established backstories of the characters.
The audience really has no idea where it’s going to go — not making the film more intriguing, but instead, less engaging. By the midpoint of the film, I was asking myself to posit what was to come of the couple’s evening — but I could neither guess, nor did I particularly care. Even the couple’s Uber driver ends up playing a mysteriously large role near the end of the film, leaving the audience with nothing but questions about what this film was supposed to be.