On June 15, Ausente (Absent) (dir. Marco Berger, 2011) played at the Carnegie Institute for Science Theater in Washington, DC as part of the Reel Affirmations LGBT Xtra Film Installation series leading up to 2012 Reel Affirmations LGBTQ Film Festival in November. This Spanish psychological drama brilliantly exhibits a lustful homosexual desire between a young student, Martin (16) and his swimming instructor, Sebastian (37). I was one of the only gay females present in the crowd of gay men at the screening, yet the sexual tension exhibited between the two characters even had me on edge. This film intelligently used the “gay” gaze (see endnote #1) to grab hold of all audience members, no matter what their sexuality.
Ausente opens with extreme close up shots of Martin’s naked body, as fragments of his body — his arm, leg, a portion of his ear, groin, and eye — fill the screen. It is not until a male voiceover asks Martin his weight and other health-related questions that it’s made clear that Martin is having a physical examination before his after-school swim class. Throughout this disorienting introduction to Martin’s character, the viewer gets the sense that Martin is still in the process of discovering his body “parts,” and more importantly, his sexuality. This is also underscored at several moments in the film when Martin repeatedly “checks himself out” in the mirror. Martin’s homosexuality becomes evermore evident during the opening locker room scene, where Martin cannot help but look at all the other boys undressing around him. His gaze towards the phallus is intense, forcing the viewer to embody Martin’s eagerness to see what lies beneath.
Pretending to have unluckily caught a piece of glass in his eye during swim class, Martin’s swimming instructor, Sebastian, offers to take him to the doctor to check it out. There seemed to be nothing wrong with Martin’s eye, so Martin casually asks him to take him back to school to meet his friend for a sleepover. Upon arrival at the school, Martin already crafted up a “web of lies” about why he cannot return home and convinced Sebastian to let him stay the night at his house.
Sebastian Sensing Martin’s Presence
The night in which Martin sleeps over at Sebastian’s house is a long, suspenseful and sleepless night. The film cuts back and forth between the two men sleeping in separate rooms. Martin, on the couch, and Sebastian in his bed. At one point during the night, Martin, unable to control his sexual emotions any longer, walks into Sebastian’s room and gently touches Sebastian’s leg while he is in deep slumber. Stirred by Sebastian’s sudden movement, Martin leaves abruptly, unable to take his desire further. The following day, Sebastian discovers that his parents were up all night looking for him. This is when Sebastian realizes what real intentions the boy had, a hope “that something would happen” between them. Sebastian’s infuriation with the boy manifests itself in newly emerged homosexual desires to sleep with Martin. When Martin unexpectedly dies in a freak accident, Sebastian’s nature becomes increasingly disturbed.
Sebastian’s sadness at losing the boy is conveyed through several flashbacks. But as Sebastian reflects on his moments of ‘opportunity’ with Martin, the viewer wonders whether or not they are Sebastian’s dreams or diegetic flashbacks. The film plays with temporal order to convey the sense of guilt that overwhelmed Sebastian’s life following the loss of a boy he could and should have loved. Many storylines are left open-ended, and one begins to wonder whether or not Sebastian and Martin ever did kiss or have sex. The gaps in the plot and Sebastian’s continued desire for the boy after his death, however, are what keep the audience interested.
The externalization of Sebastian’s inner struggle with homosexual desire on the cinematic screen reminded me of Freud’s thesis in his book, Civilization and Its Discontents: the notion that humans must repress their deeper pleasures to fit the rules and laws of society. Sebastian was forced to hold back his sexual desire for Martin not only because his school would fire him, but to respect his devotion to his girlfriend. It is important to note, however, that as much as the audience desired to see Sebastian and Martin have sex, if the audience did, then the pleasure of hide and seek that occurred between the two characters throughout the film would have been lost, and ultimately so too would have been the interest of the viewers. Thus, although sex was ausente, the attention of the desire was most certainly not.
Kelsey Brannan is the Social Media Manager at the Reel Affirmations Film Festival and also doing her M.A. thesis on female LGBT community development practices in DC at Georgetown University.
1. Like the male gaze (see Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”), but used between two men.
Reel Affirmations LGBT Film Festival XTRA:http://www.reelaffirmations.org/xtra.php Melbourne Queer Film Festival: http://supermarcey.com/2012/03/19/mqff-12-absent-ausente/
Movie Reviews – Gay Themed:http://alternatesexuality.blogspot.com/2011/07/ausente-spanish-absent.html
Gender Bender International Festival: http://www.genderbender.it/eng/dettaglio.asp?id=440