The Presence of Things Past

Published in: May-June 2024 issue.


Multiple directors
Created by Ron Nyswaner

Directed by Olivier Peyon
TDS Productions, Canal+, Ciné+

Directed by Elizabeth Chai
Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Netflix Originals

THE 35th ANNUAL New York lgbtq+ Film Festival—better known as newfest—ran from October 12th to 24th, 2023. Over 120 films were presented in the full gamut of genres in several venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn, with national availability via streaming services. newfest touts itself as the “largest presenter of lgbtq+ film & media and the largest convener of queer audiences in the city,” and who am I to doubt this claim?

            The menu was too large to taste more than a sampling, but to give you just a soupçon: Going to MARS: The Nikki Giovanni Project, about the African American poet, writer, and activist; and Hidden Master: The Legacy of George Platt Lynes, a rich accounting of the glamorous 20th-century gay photographer’s marvelously theatrical images in velvety black and white. The shorts covered an array of issues, some poetically, like “The Dalles,” others comedically, such as “EITR,” a little gem about a modern American Muslim selling scents in the family store while eyeing any man coming through the door, and while keeping his fashionable mother at bay, especially her customary desire to fix him up with just the right girl.

     Here, then, are some thoughts on a mere three of the feature films or miniseries that were on offer. All three have received considerable attention, much of it favorable, and all are readily available on the small screen (though Lie with Me and Nyad were first released in theaters). Finally, all three use flashbacks and flash-forwards to juxtapose two periods in the characters’ lives, possibly with an “All is vanity!” subtext.

The eight-episode miniseries Fellow Travelers written by TV and movie writer Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, episodes of Ray Donovan and Homeland), examines the attraction between two men employed by powerful U.S. senators during the 1950s Red Scare. Hawkins Fuller (“Hawk”), played by Matt Bomer, is a highly placed staffer for Senator Wesley Smith, a principled opponent of anti-Communist demagogues like Senator Joe McCarthy and his henchman Roy Cohn. Timothy Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey) is a junior staffer in Senator McCarthy’s office and a practicing Catholic; he’s loyal to his boss out of a sense of duty.

Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey in Fellow Travelers

     Hawk meets the younger Tim, correctly sizes him up as gay, and confidently assumes his sexual prerogatives, informing Tim that from now on he’s “Skippy.” Discretion is the watchword in the paranoid atmosphere of the day. While both men remain closeted, Hawk’s seductive domination of the nice Catholic boy leaves little to the imagination. But temperamental differences, and opposing political and moral values, eat away at their mutual desire and shaky sense of trust. Hawk marries Senator Smith’s conventional daughter, the attractive Lucy Smith, at which point the rebuffed Tim enlists in the armed services. A similarly mismatched couple offers an intriguing counterpoint. An African-American newspaper reporter working the Capitol beat, Marcus Gaines, a manly closet case, falls for a black drag performer, Frankie Hines. Succumbing to the brash and overt Frankie challenges Marcus’ masculine Black identity.

            The eight episodes track Hawk and Tim and Hawk’s marriage to Lucy, cutting to flash-forwards set in the 1980s, in San Francisco, where Hawk has tracked down Tim, who is dying of AIDS. (No spoiler alert: we learn this early on in the series.) The series tracks the intersecting paths of the two men through the intervening decades. Individual episodes examine the deceptions and lies of the closet and the ethical compromises that ruin friendships, scar marriages, and damage sons and daughters. Bomer gives a strong rendering of a deeply compromised man, while Jonathan Bailey (of Bridgerton fame), his handsomeness disguised behind large glasses, wears Tim’s timidity but essential honor like a glove. Fellow Travelers is an often harrowing account of political demagoguery destroying LGBT lives.

Victor Belmondo and Jérémy Gillet in Lie with Me.

Based on the autobiographical novel Arrête avec tes mensonges, by Phillipe Besson, Lie With Me (the French title is literally “Stop with your lies”; it’s not clear why they changed this) presents Stéphane Belcourt (played by Guillaume de Tonquédec) as a renowned novelist returning home for the first time in 35 years, to his French hometown, where is to be fêted by the local gentry. Memories reawaken as soon as his car pulls into town. Through flashbacks we learn that he was a blond, bespectacled seventeen-year-old in high school, and that from a distance he adored the popular and darkly handsome fellow student Thomas Andrieu (Julien de Saint Jean). Aware of Stéphane’s admiration, Thomas sets up a clandestine meeting to guide the reserved boy to his first sexual experience. Increasingly intense assignations follow.

            The now fiftyish Stéphane distractedly navigates the weekend’s planned activities until spotting an attractive young English-speaking Frenchman guiding an American group. His dark allure distracts the famous writer’s eye. Stéphane learns that the guide is Lucas Andrieu (Victor Belmondo), Thomas’ son. As Stéphane cagily questions Lucas about Thomas’ hasty move to Spain thirty-five years prior, Lucas plays a similar game of cat-and-mouse, never admitting he knows more than he lets on. Mystery and misunderstanding produce heightened tensions between the older and younger man, moving each toward a reckoning with the troubled and hard-laboring Thomas who disappeared from their lives. De Tonquédec gives a masterful performance and the three young actors, Gillet, De Saint Jean, and Belmondo (grandson of Jean-Paul!), offer subtle renditions of youthful longing, confusion, and loss.

Inspired by the marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, Nyad concentrates on her return to distance swimming after a thirty-year hiatus following the failure, at age 28, to be the first to swim from Havana to Key West—over 100 miles—in open waters with treacherous currents, sharks, and changeable weather. Documentary footage fills in some crucial back story. Nyad is played to perfection by the always estimable Annette Bening in a story that concentrates on her later years as she resumed training.

            Bening’s Nyad gives us a take-no-prisoners portrayal of the fiercely independent woman who may still harbor hopes of lesbian romance but is focused more on achieving a world swimming first, a dream instilled in her by her demanding father. The film follows her rigorous training from age 58 to 64. The story’s emotional core is the bond Diana maintains with her longtime friend and coach, Bonnie Stoll, played with gusto by Jodie Foster. She proves a perfect foil for Bening. Also crucial is their companion-boat’s navigator, John Bartlett, an old salt with years of experience plying the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Embodied with raffish ease by Rhys Ifans, Bartlett is forced to tell Diana about unfavorable conditions that demand aborting swim crossings already underway.

            What makes someone like Nyad tick, what drives them to work that hard to achieve something, is never entirely clear. Flashback scenes to Nyad’s youth suggest the psychological motivation that has made her an angry, implacable opponent of the very seas in which she swims.

Allen Ellenzweig is the author of George Platt Lynes: The Daring Eye.