Berlin Diary: Franco-philia

Posted on February 13, 2015


When does James Franco sleep? That question isn’t likely to be answered soon, given the number of films he has at the Berlinale.

James Franco spreads himself so thin that for every film he bombs out in, like Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, the law of averages practically guarantees something better somewhere else. We get that revelatory performance in Justin Kelly’s I Am Michael, which is based on a true story. As the film opens, Michael (Franco) is advising a gay teen that gayness doesn’t exist. “If you are a moral person, then you will choose heterosexuality in order to be with God.” The screen goes black under the text: Ten Years Earlier. And we see Michael, with blonde hair, waking up next to his boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Quinto). Michael works for a gay magazine. He invites home a guy he meets at a bar and the threesome turns into something more permanent, a ménage à trois. He makes a documentary about queer youth in America. He declares, “My goal is to thread a needle through the fabric of this country and stitch the lives of gay kids together.”

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How, then, did Michael get to the point we saw him at first? I Am Michael is a coming-in story, the queer answer to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, where a promise was made to God, by the woman, that the affair will come to an end if the man lives. A similar question of mortality confronts Michael, and he walks into a church. He looks around in confusion and walks out. Later, he starts staring at the sky. Is there anybody out there? The film doesn’t sensationalise its incendiary core, though it does suggest the outrage in the media generated by Michael’s decision. “Gay activist goes straight,” screams a headline. A friend asks Michael why he did it. Michael says, “I don’t know.”

The quiet strength of I Am Michael comes from the understanding that people don’t always have a logical reason for doing the things they do. The film is fairly conventional – that’s what I thought of Queen of the Desert as well, but unlike that film, whose conventionality dooms it to the generic-epic mode, this one is an intimate affair, and, most important for a biopic, we get into the head of its protagonist. Okay, that may be overstating it. It’s probably safer to say we get to understand the confusion brewing inside Michael. The more he denounces his earlier “lifestyle,” the more we feel he’s trying to convince himself more than anybody else.

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Another James Franco movie. Another hint at religion. This time it’s the new Wim Wenders movie Every Thing Will Be Fine. (The director will be awarded an Honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement.) Franco plays Tomas, a writer who’s involved in an accident that also affects Kate (Charlotte Gainsbourg). At one point, she gives him a book – I didn’t catch the name, but she says she’s been praying for him and this book has something to do with that. He takes a look at it and says, “I am not religious.” The film isn’t, either. At least, not in the retributive sense of striking Tomas down with a bolt of (metaphorical) lightning.

The film is in 3D, and the reason isn’t immediately apparent – except maybe that the 3D bug bit Wenders after his ravishing documentary Pina, and he wanted to apply the technology to an intimate drama. There’s one beautiful – if show-offy – stretch where Kate and Tomas have a phone conversation and fade in and out of the screen. Otherwise, the depth comes from the narrative. In a more conventional film, the accident would be the defining moment, the dramatic crux. It would dictate everything that happens to Tomas and Kate. They’d be in each other’s lives all the time, grappling with the enormity of the change the accident has wrought.

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But here, befitting Tomas’s career as a writer, we get title cards. Two Years Later. Four Years Later. These episodes could be sections in a book, or chapters in a life, with the elisions so necessary to move on. Kate lives her life. Tomas leads his. (The love interests include Rachel McAdams and Marie-Josée Croze.) Occasionally these lives intersect – not in the sense that a screenplay demands, but in the way life often is. There is loss and people are hurt, badly, but they carry on – and watching the film, we realise how fake other films are in dealing with tragedy.

Every Thing Will Be Fine takes a while to pull us in, but once it does, it’s a vice grip. Gainsbourg is magnificent. There aren’t too many actresses who play sadness the way she does, with fragility, but without a trace of self-pity. Franco, though, looks ill at ease – that law of averages again. In I Am Michael, he takes us into the character’s confusion. Here, the layers elude him. Like most writers, Tomas is cold, guarded, self-serving, self-absorbed – and Franco’s response to everything is a furrowed brow. As I said, he does spread himself thin, but at least he never plays safe. That certainly counts for something.

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