Beyond the Walls: Cannes Review
CANNES – Belgian screenwriter David Lambert’s feature directing debut, Beyond the Walls, continues in the vein of recent dramas like Andrew Haigh’s Weekend and Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On, getting under the skin of another intense gay male relationship. Solid in construction and persuasively acted, the drama is strongest in the establishing sections of intoxicating passion, but becomes mildly distancing as the minimalist storytelling takes a more melancholic turn and the characters become more difficult to like. Still, the emotional integrity of its observations should give this intimate film some traction with gay festivals and specialty labels.
During a drunken evening with friends in a Brussels wine bar, Paulo (Matila Malliarakis) and bartender Ilir (Guillaume Gouix) make heavy eye contact and end up in bed together, though inebriation prevents anything sexual from occurring. Paulo is in a cohabiting heterosexual relationship with Anka (Melissa Desormeaux Poulin), whose prickly reaction when he returns home the next day indicates that these forays are nothing new.
Lambert does well charting that sexy phase during which mutual desire sparks into romance as Paulo and Ilir get together again over two or three dates. But they still barely know each other when Anka, no longer willing to ignore the evidence of her boyfriend’s compromised affections, kicks him out and he turns up at Ilir’s apartment. Protective of his own space and not wanting to be forced into a relationship, Ilir tries to set boundaries, but Paulo is persistent.
In a film in which all the characters have their unsympathetic sides, this section cements the sense of Paulo as both weak and manipulative, unable to be an independent person and instinctively skilled at using his lost-puppy charms to get someone else to look after him. A stocky guy from an Albanian family, Ilir plays bass in a band, while the more delicate Paulo is a pianist, accompanying silent film screenings at the cinematheque. In terms of the stereotypical gay top/bottom breakdown, their job descriptions are clear, yet Lambert wryly has them arm-wrestle for position. From the start, Paulo has his foot on the accelerator, talking of love with Ilir, who very soon is seduced into total commitment.
When Ilir goes out of town for two days and is arrested for drug possession, Paulo struggles to hold himself together. His prison visits prove too emotional, causing Ilir to put a stop to them, though he urges Paulo to keep wiring him money. Turning back to Anka, Paulo finds her understandably unresponsive, so he drifts into a relationship with the owner of a sex shop (David Salles). His new partner’s S&M proclivities provide more evidence of the extent to which Paulo is willing to surrender ownership of himself.
The depth of Paulo’s feelings for Ilir is never in doubt, however, and it’s Lambert’s grasp of the emotional complexities of his characters’ bonds that keeps the drama involving. That he manages this with people who can all be needy, possessive, cold, opportunistic or some combination thereof says a lot also about Malliarakis and Gouix’s skill as actors. Their reconciliation scenes after Ilir’s release from prison are sad, messy and raw, though not affecting enough to make the film fully satisfying.
Lambert has yet to develop a distinctive visual style, and Beyond the Walls has the generic look of a lot of low-gloss European romantic miserablism. But the director’s probing work with the actors suggests he’s someone worth watching.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics Week)
Production companies: Frakas Productions, Boreal Films, Les Productions Balthazar
Cast: Matila Malliarakis, Guillaume Gouix, Melissa Desormeaux Poulin, David Salles
Director-screenwriter: David Lambert
Producers: Jean-Yves Roubin, Daniel Morin
Director of photography: Matthieu Poirot Delpech
Production designer: Sebastien Autphenne
Costume designer: Sabine Zappitelli
Editor: Helene Girard
Sales: Films Boutique
No rating, 96 minutes