The original title for “Blackmail Boy,” the quasi-erotic queer thriller from the Greek filmmaking duo Michalis Reppas and Thanassis Papathanasiou, was “Oxygono” (“Oxygen”).
And while that name elegantly reflected the theme of claustrophobia that leaves a family gasping for gratification in a small provincial town in Greece, it lacked the punch of intrigue—and homoerotic patina—needed to lure American LGBT film fest audiences. The title change proved a wise choice on the part of the distributor.
Poetic aspirations aside, “Blackmail Boy” is a scintillating tale of lust, money, power, treachery, death, and, well, more lust—a contemporary Greek tragedy, peppered with clever comic touches. Although somewhat flawed, the drama was a controversial sensation that made the rounds at a dozen or so film festivals during the past couple of years, and won the coveted International Critics Award at the Thessalonika Film Festival. Given its highly charged homosexual content, not everyone was pleased.
Another fitting title for the film might also be “Crash,” as in the 2004 Paul Haggis flick, since the lives of a middle-class family are forever shattered by a horrific car wreck in the initial sequence. The accident kills one daughter and causes the father to lapse into a vegetative state, barely kept alive sitting in the family’s living room with closely regulated tanks of—you guessed it—oxygen.
Fast forward several years, when materfamilias Magda (Nena Mendi), has become a bitter shrew, struggling to keep her crackpot family under control. Her aimless, brooding 20-year old son, Christos (Yannis Tsimitselis), has taken to screwing anybody he chooses for personal gain, including a model-gorgeous girlfriend, an older woman with a drug habit, and a married middle-aged bureaucrat named Giorgos (Akyllas Karazisis).
Magda’s wretched daughter, Giota (Jeannie Papadopoulou)—who is deeply scarred, both physically and emotionally—is jealous of her favored brother. Giota’s swarthy husband, Stelios (Alexis Georgoulis), has fallen out of love with her and connives behind her back. A dearth of morality threatens to suffocate the entire bunch.
The convoluted plot, more quirky than any Almodóvar film, revolves around a fierce battle over a valuable piece of family property in a choice part of town. Stelios tries to blackmail Giorgos, who happens to control the parcel’s development, by exposing the secret homosexual affair with his brother-in-law, Christos. He videotapes Christos, who may actually be in on the scheme, on his knees before Giorgos at a secluded junkyard outside of town. That’s when things really get ugly.
“Blackmail Boy” is the latest from Reppas and Papathanasiou, who met at film school and have been partners for nearly two decades, collaborating on projects for television, film, and stage. Their first feature, “Safe Sex,” which took an unblinking look under the covers of a myriad of sexual liaisons, gay and straight, was a worldwide phenomenon in 1999, described by the Encyclopedia Britannica as “the biggest box office success in the history of Greek cinema.” You may also know them from their 2001 effort, “Silicon Tears.”
The pair is largely credited with jump-starting a languishing mainstream Greek cinema, and they are household names there.
Though disjointedly confusing at times, “Blackmail Boy” serves up a chilling portrait of a frayed family whose values have rusted beyond recognition. While some have asserted the film boasts a “Desperate Housewives” mentality, I disagree.
Despite occasional droll elements, like an extended shot where the camera eavesdrops on clusters of gossipmongers at a cocktail party, the film is grittier, and a hell of a lot more disturbing. The humor, instead of leavening the tragedy, actually serves to intensify it. With its epic sweep and characters who’ve fallen far from grace, the film shares more with, say, “Crash” than a mainstream network television dramedy.
One biting exchange between Magda and her son-in-law, perversely played out just a few feet in front of her incapacitated husband, is as harrowing as anything you’ll see on screen this year. An over-the-top score, by Nikos Kypourgos, heightens the frenzy even further.
The pace is so frantic you’ll barely have time to notice that the characters’ motivations aren’t fully explained, or that they are largely cartoon cutouts, especially Christos. And as smolderingly sexy as Tsimitselis may be, he pretty much pouts his way through the film, looking bored.
Plus, these people are so soullessly wicked there’s little reason to empathize with a single one of them. Except, maybe, the poor father, who, despite his glazed-eyed, detached state, sheds a tiny tear for his family—and perhaps, for all of humanity.