Mardi Gras Film Festival: The Dying Gaul

I can’t decide …

My friend Annie was the only girl in the cinema. That sounds about right. The Dying Gaul is an adaptation of a stage play, and at times it certainly feels like it. For all of its strengths, its power, and the excellence of Patricia Clarkson, it has a certain pretentiousness in its staging and an abrupt ending of the kind generally reserved for the stage.

In a festival that includes Poltergay (which sounds stupid but looks hilarious), Another Gay Movie (homosexual American Pie) and Dead Boyz Don’t Scream, another addition to the presumably until recently unexplored genre of the homosexual slasher movie, The Dying Gaul is one of the more serious entries; perhaps a little too serious. Still, Patricia Clarkson is always worthwhile.

Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) has a script that Jeffrey (Campbell Scott) loves. The problem is that this story, about a man and his lover who dies of AIDS, would be better if the dying lover were a woman.
Enticed by the money, Robert agrees to compromise his morals in more ways than one. Robert meets Jeffrey‘s wife, Elise (Patricia Clarkson), who becomes so enamoured of him that she learns rather more than she would have liked.

What starts as a meditation on what works in the film industry quickly turns into a bizarre love triangle that’s less about love and more about obsession. The first thing that you will learn from The Dying Gaul is that it is not a movie that will sell to the Heartland.
“Nobody goes to the movies to have a bad time,” says Jeffrey.
This is not strictly true, but once the novelty of everyone’s relationships wears off the movie takes on a distinctly unpleasant vibe. There’s a constant moral ambiguity as all of the characters struggle to gain the sympathy of the audience and to wrest it from the others. None of them ever quite succeeds.

The Dying Gaul is just over an hour and a half long, but it keeps on throwing things at you even after you thought that all of the twists could be developed out. It feels drawn out, betraying its stage show origins, and only makes a passing attempt to make what becomes a large body of the movie – chat room messages circa 1995, between the charmingly named “Skinflute8” and “DGBottom” – appear vaguely interesting. The dialogue in these scenes are the film’s most intense, but the majority of the time you get the impression that these people are sitting at their computers and voicing over their lines in ADR. Not coincidentally, this is precisely what we’re shown.
Clarkson and Sarsgaard manage to put a great deal of emotion into their physically unvocalised conversations, but their work is by necessity a bit samey.

While this is a three character story, the show really belongs to Clarkson’s Elise. Her obsession becomes the driving force of the movie; anything that the other characters do in relation to each other hinges upon the influence of Elise. It is only through her that we come to know Robert, and through her intervention that we at least think that we understand the film’s title. It’s only through further study that we come to realise that all of the characters are the Dying Gaul.
If that had actually been written in the script, like, say, a movie called Children of Venus ending with the line “We are all Children … of Venus”, it would have been unbearably trite. Identifying metaphors outside of the context of the movie itself – as in doing the legwork, rather than having a director fill the screen with obviously labelled pretension – is perfectly acceptable.

Robert (in a similarly excellent performance from Sarsgaard) gets taken on a wild emotional journey by Elise, and he unwittingly brings her along on a simultaneous and parallel ride. While Robert fears the past, Elise fears for her future in increasingly disturbing ways.
While you can feel for these characters, mustering sympathy for Jeffrey is a different matter entirely. Everyone in this film has varying levels of despicability, but Jeffrey is the one who can’t exactly balance himself out. He’s the only character who gives the impression of justifying his actions, rather than the others just going about their business.

Unfortunately, every character arc is resolved in a short and quick blaze, after which the movie ends. No epilogue: something happens and it’s all over, and it leaves a decidedly ambiguous taste in your mouth. Was any one of these characters anything other than deeply flawed? How far can someone be manipulated, and is manipulation acceptable if it’s in retaliation for earlier retaliation?

Not all queer cinema has to be bleak: it can be funny and it can be moving; heck, it can even be both. The Dying Gaul has moments of movement, but ultimately it’s cinematic poison, precisely what Jeffrey warns against in the film’s first scene: nobody goes to the movies to have a bad time.

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