BY GARY M. KRAMER | It took 29 years for the legendary homoerotic art film Pink Narcissus to make its way back to the big screen. In 2000, the film was released with its director and mastermind’s name, James Bidgood, where “anonymous” used to be. This week, Strand is releasing Pink Narcissus on DVD, a great opportunity for anyone without access to art house cinemas in 2000, to finally see this masterpiece of gay art. Simultaneously, Strand is releasing Steam director Ferzan Ozpetek’s second feature, Harem.
Viewers will find both of these multi-layered, lush, and visually stimulating films rewarding. Pink Narcissus is a feverish, provocative, fantasy. Shot in 8- and 16-millimeter (and blown up), this ecstatic, highly stylized, 70-minute, wordless film remains titillating more than thirty years after its initial release. The storyline has the delectable and narcissistic (natch) Bobby Kendall imagining himself in a series of vivid tableaus as he escapes from the realities of life and the specter of mortality.
An unnamed hustler, Kendall “becomes” a matador to withdraw from an encounter with a biker in a restroom. This already surreal scene goes over-the-top as the actors perform their sexual activities in what appears to be a sea of creamy milk. Likewise, an episode set in a harem has the dancing Kendall wearing nothing but beads, a diaphanous veil, and a raging hard-on.
This entr’acte ends with a provocative cum-shot that is still stunningly original today. Yet despite these orgasmic moments, the film is really at its best when Kendall is on-screen and alone. (Though there are a few florid sequences set in an animated New York, featuring a group of well-hung men walking around without pants.)
Masturbating in a garden, Kendall is lovingly photographed by Bidgood as he strokes his face, chest, and navel with a blade of grass. And the actor is perhaps at his sexiest when he is fully nude, embracing a shower of rain. As the film progresses, Kendall’s becomes further enamored with his body. So too, will viewers. And now that it is on DVD, the hypnotic Pink Narcissus is ripe to be discovered by new audiences. The film still casts a spell; viewers who have never seen this masterpiece are apt to fall under it.
As the second film in director Ferzan Ozpetek’s erotic trilogy that began with Steam: The Turkish Bath and ended with His Secret Life, Harem is an exotic look at love, power, and fear in 1908 Turkey. Unlike those other films, however, Harem is an ornate period piece that captures the eye, but not always the mind. The plot, which is part of a flashback “story-within-a-story” narrative, involves a woman describing her experiences in a harem to a stranger. Safiye (Marie Gillain) is one of the Sultan’s concubines. She falls in love with his Aga, Nadir (Alex Descas), a eunuch, and they try to keep their relationship from being discovered.
When the Sultan selects Safiye as his favorite, she and Nadir conspire to gain their freedom—which may come at the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Harem is very lovely to look at—the costumes, the sets, and the dozens of beautiful women are all ravishing. And there are some incredibly atmospheric sequences, particularly the film’s sensuous encounters between Safiye and Nadir, or Safiye and another woman in the Sultan’s hamam. However, while the film contains copious female nudity, it is surprisingly short on real drama. The story’s political intrigue and backstage maneuvering is kept to a minimum. In addition, the extremely s-l-o-w pace makes the film’s105 minutes feel more like 150.
At least the performances are notable. Marie Gillain makes a fiesty heroine, and she is ably supported by Alex Descas as the stoic Nadir, and Serra Yilmaz, who is terrific as Gulfidan, the film’s storyteller. While both Steam and His Secret Life are far superior, Harem does have its merits, reminding us why Ozpetek is a filmmaker to admire. home