Image+Nation: Postcards From London

25 years after Postcards from America, director Steve McLean brings queer cinema further with his new film tackling the relationship between male prostitution and art. Postcards from London was shown at L'Impérial Thursday November 30th for the LGBTQ film festival Image+Nation.

Mea culpa, when I saw its trailer beforehand, I was expecting a cliché remake of every coming of age film, filled with gay stereotypes. The movie itself was, however, completely different. Postcards from London turned out to be one of the most original films I had seen in a long time.

It tells the story of Jim, an 18-year-old boy from Essex (played by Beach Rats’ Harris Dickinson), who moves to London, as he doesn't really fit in with his conservative family. Once in London, he gets recruited by a group of five young men, self-proclaimed "raconteurs”, who admire him for his intelligence and good looks. Their job basically consists of sex work that specializes in "post coital intellectual stimulation". Desperately looking for a job and a place to stay, he joins them in their mysterious endeavours.

In order to survive in their world, Jim has to learn about art to please his sophisticated clientele. They’re not only looking for sex, but also good conversation about literature and painting. So he becomes acquainted with artists such as Caravaggio, Pasolini, and Francis Bacon. But as soon as he sees their work, Jim faces a new tragedy.

He learns that he’s suffering from a rare disease called the Stendhal Syndrome, which makes him hypersensitive to beautiful works of art. Whenever he faces a chef d’oeuvre at an art gallery, he immediately faints, overwhelmed by the beauty of the work.

Jim ends up having to cope with his disease while learning about art and doing his new job as best as he can.

Though this might look like a very strange, unpromising and maybe pretentious proposition, McLean’s film manages to create its own charming surrealist universe and imagery. Instead of relying on the clichés of sex work, Postcards from London is more intellectual and makes us think (a little).

Toward the second half of the film, the young sex worker becomes a “muse” and poses for artists around London as he fascinates everyone with his beauty. Rather than being superficial, this plot twist calls for meaningful conversations about art between different characters. It also allows for Jim to question himself about his own relationship with his body and about how the artist’s gaze affects it.

Throughout the movie McLean constructs a retro neon aesthetic that suggests a nostalgia for the Soho of the 60’s and 70’s, when Francis Bacon was at the peak of his career. He also recreates many of Caravaggio’s paintings. The 16th century artist is always present in the film, as Jim and his new friends even pose for Caravaggio in his dreams.

All of this is, of course, very much absurd. But McLean knows it. His film is self-aware, often sarcastic and ironic, playing the audience with stereotypes of gay men and queer films.

Another original aspect of the film is its constantly moving camera and colourful scenes. It also shows great attention to detail in costumes, wallpaper, and everyday objects, all vibrant and flashy, adding to the retro aesthetic and dynamism of the picture.

Even if Postcards from London is sometimes predictable and has a few disappointing outcomes (the final scene, for example, is a little too dramatic and has no real connection to the rest of the story), it is still enjoyable. McLean’s first picture in a quarter of a century stands out by its clever use of stereotypes, art history, and art direction.

Olivier Du Ruisseau hosts Friday Franco Show which airs Friday at 1:00 p.m