There seems to be a recent surge of what I like to think of as neo-realism in terms of gay cinema on the international scene. Instead of some of the more flamboyant or fantastical representations, we've got gritty working class dramas that feature regular guys who just happen to like guys. Not silly comedies and not classic coming-of-age tales, these stories address the difficulties and the joys of adult gay relationships. These smaller independent films speak much more to the nuance of actual situations and real interactions and, as such, are progress in the right direction. Don't get me wrong, I like the lighter fare as well but I enjoy the more grown-up viewpoint immensely. David Lambert's "Beyond the Walls" fits nicely into the genre of films recently populated by critical hits such as "Keep The Lights On" and "Weekend." (On a side note, if you haven't seen the British indie "Weekend" by Andrew Haigh, it is a near-perfect examination of one relationship in microcosm over the course of an intense weekend). The Belgian feature "Beyond the Walls" is a long way from perfection, to be absolutely blunt, but still has plenty of ambition and much to recommend it.
The film opens with a standard introduction that falls somewhere between a meet-cute and a meet-sleazy. Paulo (Matila Malliarakis) is out with his friends in a local bar and soon finds himself passing out drunk, but not before catching the eye of the hunky Albanian bartender Ilir (Guillaume Gouix). Apparently Paulo's friends aren't very good friends because they abandon him and they are never seen or referenced again. Ilir literally carries Paulo home and in the morning, they share some awkward breakfast chatter. Paulo is in a committed relationship with a woman (they appear to have zero in common and no chemistry), but seems prone to frequent straying. The men are intrigued by one another and Paulo pursues something of a more intimate nature. When Paulo's girlfriend challenges him, he soon accelerates the relationship with Ilir and what was a casual hook-up turns into something far more serious. Just as the men get to know each other better and fall in love, something will tear them apart. I won't reveal any major plot points. Let's just say that a cute picture about blossoming romance soon morphs into a tragic melodrama.
Ultimately, my reservations about "Beyond the Walls" all stem from this plot development. While it is easy to enjoy the quirks of their initial courtship, neither really gets a sympathetic treatment in the film's second half. It's hard to see this as a sweeping and undying love so the tragedy is less successful than it should be. I liked that writer/director Lambert didn't shy away from creating these problematic characters. But based on what is presented, I just never bought it. Paulo, in particular, is manipulative and co-dependent always relying on others to take care of his needs. After the separation, he is alone for a bit and the practical side of me kept wondering how he was paying any bills or feeding himself. Yes, he is shown twice playing the piano at a silent film theater (one of those only-in-the-movies jobs) but it doesn't seem like a particularly lucrative occupation.
Despite my concerns, however, the film still boasts two intriguing performances. Malliarakis is quite believable as this man-child, and Gouix easily pulls off an intensity that is both appealing and a little dangerous. There are a number of great confrontations when things turn more serious and the acting is stellar. In the end, I think we were supposed to be emotionally devastated by this piece and it just didn't connect with me on that level. Very good introduction, less convincing as an overwrought tale of love gone wrong. It is very much like two different movies. Still worth a look, I'd give the experience 3 1/2 stars and round up for the lead performances. KGHarris, 8/13.