Noordzee, Texas (North Sea Texas)
Dir: Bavo Defurne
Cert:15 • Be: 96 min • Indeed Films • August 6, 2012 [DVD]
North Sea Texas, the film that closed this year’s 26th BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, is the debut feature from Belgian director Bavo Defurne. Defurne has previously made many award-winning short films, which explore the particular desires, longings and disappointments of gay adolescence. North Sea Texas extends and expands these themes into an affecting and beautifully acted coming-of-age story, set in a run-down Belgian seaside resort.
When we first meet Pim he’s a small boy playing dress-up in his mum’s bedroom. She’s a former local beauty-queen gone to seed and, when Pim finds her sash and tiara, he takes the opportunity to crown himself, naked except for red lipstick, throwing open the shutters and bathing himself in light. This establishes Defurne’s aesthetic – romantic, poetic, dreamy and tinged with nostalgia – and his approach to his subject. It’s a joyous, liberating moment for the child, but one that doesn’t last for long. When his mum walks in and sees him she tells him it’s okay, but it marks the beginning of Pim’s development as her ‘strange boy’, her ‘crazy boy’ who, as he gets older, grows further away from her and her dreams of escaping her mundane life and travelling to far off places.
The story then jumps to the few days before Pim’s fifteenth birthday. He is in love with his best friend and boy next door, Gino. Gino’s home and family provide a refuge for Pim and some stability, given his own mother’s lack of care and weekends away playing accordion at local fairs. He doesn’t say much, his mother complains, he just draws all the time and never shows her what he makes. What he draws is Gino naked and, we soon discover, this is drawing from experience, not imagination. Gino (who’s seventeen) and Pim are lovers, spending summer nights together in a tent, or riding into the woods on Gino’s motorbike, Pim holding onto Gino nice and tight because he wants to, not because he has to.
Like Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, North Sea Texas emphasizes the universality of love amidst the specificities of gay experience. Many of the same longings, desires, anxieties and disappointments that you might find in any teen-romance movie are explored here, while not compromising on depictions of gay teenage sexuality. This is probably why the film’s end credits contain a dedication from Defurne to “all the kids whose parents wouldn’t let them take part in this film.” Over 200 actors were tested for the parts of Pim and Gino and a lot of teenage boys were scared of portraying a gay character, and to do things that wouldn’t be an issue if they were playing opposite a girl. Apparently, there were many no-shows at the auditions and some actors were forbidden to play gay by their parents. However, compared to your average episode of Skins, the nudity and sexual content of North Sea Texas is really tame and sensitively handled. The camera’s gaze is never exploitative or gratuitous. Any anxiety about looking at the young male body as a sexual object, especially for male viewers quite a bit older than Pim and Gino, is likely to be because, culturally, men looking at boys is taboo, and when we were boys looking at boys we felt ashamed. It’s hard to shake these things off.
Pim’s also anxious about looking, constantly averting his gaze, first from Gino and then from Zoltan, the sexually ambiguous ‘fairground gypsy’ who rents a room in his mother’s house. She and Pim are rivals for his attention and there are moments in the film when we’re not sure who Zoltan will settle for. When Pim discovers him and his mother in bed it’s clear that, as far as her son is concerned, she’s stolen his imagined escape route and taken it for herself. Her abandonment of Pim becomes complete.
It’s these grittier elements of the plot that stop the film from tipping over into total slushiness. Defurne says, “Though this film is set in a social and emotional environment that’s mundane and everday, I didn’t want to make another gritty realist movie about a neglected boy in a grey world”. The film may be small in scale but it’s avowedly cinematic, making a limited budget work to its advantage with its confined spaces and use of natural light. The 1970s sets are perfectly realized, even stylized, as are the costumes, and this is also part of Defurne’s aesthetic: “The colourful visuals and romantic music make this film an uplifting viewing experience, and provides a different perspective with which to explore the inner world of the characters. It adds the poetry and irony that social realism tends to understate”.
It’s in the film’s ending that these competing elements of realism and romanticism come to a head. “I really wanted to make a point by leaving out the traditional tragic gay finale,” Defurne says. “We have too often seen how gay love leads to a life of disappointment, violence or even death and I didn’t want to add another film to this cycle. I wanted to show that the life that wasn’t possible for the boys from Brokeback Mountain is not beyond everybody’s reach.” Fair enough, and this is the same approach we saw taken by Beautiful Thing, and even Queer as Folk, both having fantastical romantic endings. So when Pim gets his boy at the end of this film, did I feel happy for him? Yes. Did it ring true? Not quite. It sits somewhat uneasily with everything that has gone before and also, by this time, I thought Pim could do better for himself anyway. He grows a lot in this movie and perhaps Defurne’s real achievement, and that of the young actor Jelle Florizoone who plays him, is that I care enough to want him to realize his larger dreams and his potential.
All of the film’s actors are pitch perfect and convince through their naturalistic, seemingly effortless, performances. That Defurne can draw these out of some especially young actors is a testament to his talent as a director. North Sea Texas is an immensely promising first feature from someone who wants to tell our stories. It’ll be interesting to see where he’s headed next.
Click here to read an interview with the young star, Jelle Florizoone, the director, Bavo Defune, and the producer, Yves Verbraeken.