Last week, Marco Berger’s Horseplay enjoyed a limited release in American theaters. The film is the Argentinean director’s latest purview of queer desire among straight-passing men, full of his trademark languidness and crotch shots galore. In some ways, it represents an Ozu-like return to heretofore explored premises, with both variations and shapeshifting tone making the virtually identical feel radically distinct. For those who’ve been following Berger’s career, it might be a rewarding foray into violent bleakness. For viewers first encountering his oeuvre, it makes for a strange introduction.
With that in mind, let’s think back to the auteur’s evolution, from blue-balling short exercises to the latent disquiet of Horseplay…
I’ll never forget the first time I watched a Marco Berger film. Picture it, Lisbon, 2016, the local queer film festival is in full swing, and the venue’s biggest screening room is stocked with gay men of all ages congregating to watch one more title in the Feature Competition,Taekwondo. I didn’t know what to expect from it and was ready to be surprised. Maybe even delighted. Luckily, that’s precisely what happened, as Berger and co-director Martín Farina unraveled a tapestry of masculine flesh and erotic provocation, portraying a “men only” holiday in the Buenos Aires suburbs.
Taking on the perspective of a gay outsider within a group of outwardly hetero friends, the camera procures inklings of sexual tension wherever it can. It’s a constant ratcheting of horned-up unease, delineating how desire is often only a step away from anxiety. Such feat is accomplished through formalist means doing double duty as indicators of character subjectivity, the gay male gaze dumbfounded, frustrated, intrigued, but also a little menaced by the homoerotic nature of straight bro dynamics. These sorts of homosocial contradictions are one of Berger’s favorite subjects, and, in Taekwondo, they posit a question of intention regarding the protagonist’s feelings. They might be reciprocated – they might not.
Being in that room was like being a strand within an ever-tightening rope, each viewer like part of a collective crescendo. Maybe it was all libido, though there was also a component of romantic yearning in the mix. As the film reached its chaste climax, the room filled with sighs of relief before exploding in thunderous applause. It made for a memorable festival experience. From that day forward, Marco Berger was a name to remember. Still, if, like me, you expect all of his works to be as relatively easygoing as Taekwondo, you’re in for one hell of a surprise. But of course, to fully understand that, one must go back to the beginning.
Like many filmmakers, Marco Berger started with shorts, debuting The Watch and A Last Wish in 2008. If the first picture established the favored techniques of this master of the cinematic tease, the latter revealed how every wink is laced with threat. The second short is no mere scenario of erotic frustration but the tale of a man who, at the moment of his execution, asks for a last kiss from one of the soldiers who’ll soon shoot him. As Berger moved towards features, this multi-layered personality remained, manifesting in the playfulness of Plan B and the Teddy-winning Absent, whose story of a student fixated on his teacher is bound to rankle viewers.
Soon, it also became clear that the directorial style doesn’t work as well in miniature as it does in feature-length. The limitations of short runtimes often impede subtext, reducing Berger’s efforts to vacuous fantasy. That’s partly why his contributions to Marcelo Briem Stamm’s Sexual Tension project feel so anemic. He needs time to gestate ideas. Take the example of Hawaii, whose love story is defined and hindered by class hierarchies and troublesome power equilibriums. Distending naturalistic observation to a near-breaking point, Berger makes us recognize these underlying issues while getting lost in the sauce of distilled desire. A dialogue at the third act’s start spells it out for us, but it’s unnecessary. It’s all there already, in the shadow of glistening bodies and charged looks.
THE BLONDE ONE (2019)
Taekwondo is much the same, while Mariposa proposes a straight-adjacent parallel universe bifurcation on its way to a happy ending. For a while, it seemed that no matter the fractious social unbalances underpinning his movies, Berger was turning his back on Absent’s dark themes. But then came a three-year break and a subsequent paradigm shift. 2019’s The Blonde One weaponizes Berger’s poetry of homoeroticism to dissect a toxic relationship – between two men, yes, but also between the men and the pressures, from within and without, that force the closet door shut. The director’s ability to create character out of composition, editing, sound, reaches its zenith, too, with the aid of a formidable performance by Gaston Re.
It’s hard to imagine a screening of The Blonde One producing sighs of relief or joyous clapping, for this is a melodrama intent on squeezing tears out of a spectator caught in the vice of a down-low non-relationship. It’s asphyxiating, and it’s genius, elegant in construction, sly in how cutting it can feel. Another interesting detail is how Berger’s blue-ball recipe gets altered, sexual fulfillment finally represented on-screen along with its psychological repercussions, the painful attachments that come along. Young Hunter followed with an even pricklier scenario, twisting eroticism into predatory manipulation. That was the darkest of Berger’s flicks until Horseplay.
Arriving at the auteur’s latest feature, one could be forgiven for thinking it was a Taekwondo remake. The setting and situation are almost identical, as are the homosocial behavioral patterns. Only this time, the toxicity isn’t left at a simmer. Instead, it’s brought to a boil, not only in terms of the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality of bro culture but the dangers faced by queer people there. When violence manifests, it doesn’t seem like a cheap trick, for it’s the logical endpoint of much of Berger’s recent cinema. The marriage of desire and anxiety gives way to the bloodier bond of lust and fear, hate, the compulsion to destroy whatever jeopardizes the status quo.
Through this return to familiar territory, Marco Berger is problematizing his earlier work, pushing the risk factor of its fantasies to the forefront. Is this a reflection of a global power structure that feels increasingly hostile towards queer people? On the other hand, this cinema feels more interested in the plights of human wants rather than active political discourse. And so, while tried and true sensualism reappears with all its formal facilitators, the hues are less warm, the image cloudier than before. In other words, the vibes are rotten to better suggest the new questions dominating the cinema of desire.
How can men who so willingly enjoy each other’s bodies be so threatened by the label of queerness? How can hatred provoke arousal in those targeted by its rhetoric? Is it all about taboos, or is there a more primordial magnetism between the twinned pulls of pleasure and annihilation? Obviously, such interrogations are never tidily answered, and every viewer must come to their conclusions. In Horseplay, the silent dialogue between the screen and spectator enters a realm close to implied horror. At last, the genre metamorphosis ends in tragedy, with Horseplay transforming the casual libidinousness of Marco Berger’s cinema into the fertile ground from which nightmares bloom just as easily as wet dreams.