Queer flicks worth the tickets

Queer flicks worth the tickets

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With a number of queer classics being screened this month at The Lightbox Film Center, there are at least two that definitely are worthy of your time.

Jean Vigo’s 1933 masterful “Zero for Conduct,” about “little devils at school,” will be screened Feb. 2 at 2 p.m. at the center on 3701 Chestnut St.

Based on Vigo’s own experiences, this 44-minute short has four students, including the “sensitive sissy” Tabard (Gérard de Bédarieux), wreaking havoc at their boarding school. Episodes show Tabard and his classmates Caussat (Louis Lefebvre), Colin (Gilbert Pruchon) and Bruel (Coco Golstein) misbehaving in the dormitory, the playground, the classrooms, and in the dining hall, where they initiate a food fight. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, the kids start a pillow fight that precipitates the pièce de résistance, a rebellious act on the rooftop of the school on commemoration (alumni) day.

“Zero for Conduct” was a daring film in its day — it was even banned — for its depiction of anarchy against authority. Yet audiences today may be more startled at the film’s inclusion of Tabard’s character, along with the use of language (“merde,” the French word for “shit,” is said a few times), and snippets of youthful nudity, including one full frontal.

The adults in the film are treated mostly as buffoons, particularly the Principal of the school (Delphin) and Huguet (Jean Dasté) a monitor who is often seen in comic poses from walking on his hands to imitating Charlie Chaplin. But these elements make “Zero for Conduct” funny, clever, surreal and raucous; it has gleeful contempt for authority, and who doesn’t need some radical inspiration these days? 

“Zero for Conduct” is screening with “The Flower Thief,” director Ron Rice’s 1960 underground film about a beatnik (out gay “Warhol” superstar Taylor Mead) wandering through San Francisco’s North Beach.

On Feb. 9 at 7 p.m., a restored version of out gay director Luchino Visconti’s sumptuous 1954 film “Senso” will screen at the Lightbox Film Center. Queer actor Farley Granger received top billing in this romantic drama that unfolds in Italy during the summer of 1866, the last months of the Italian-Austrian war of unification. Gay playwright Tennessee Williams and bisexual author Paul Bowles collaborated on the film’s dialogue.

At an opera, Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) tries to smooth things over when her nationalist cousin Roberto (Massimo Girotti) stages an incident that prompts a confrontation with Franz Mahler (Granger), an Austrian lieutenant. However, when Roberto is sent away, the married Livia finds herself falling in love with the handsome Franz — despite being on the opposite sides of the war. When they spend an evening together, their sensual tryst ends with her giving him a medallion and a lock of her hair.

Livia and Franz meet again a while later, when he sneaks into her bedroom at her country estate. The sexual tension builds as the lovers decide if Franz should stay or go. As the lush music swells, they consummate their passions with an erotic kiss. Livia is so enamored with Franz that she agrees to hide him on the estate. She wants them to spend one more day together. Franz, who risks being a deserter, contrives to get money from Livia to bribe a doctor to declare him unfit for service. As the story reaches its conclusion, acts of betrayal and revenge are played out.

“Senso” was Visconti’s first color film, and the imagery, from the magnificent opera scenes that open the film to the elaborately staged battle scenes that take place in the third act, show the director’s penchant for opulent compositions. Yet, much of this film features romantic scenes of the lovers together. There are tender moments of Franz placing his hand on Livia’s shoulder, lying in her lap or lounging next to her in a stable.

The appealing actors are beautifully filmed and gorgeously costumed. Valli’s gowns and veils are exquisite and say much about Livia’s wealth and emotions. (Visconti often punctured the aristocracy in his films, and “Senso” is no exception.) Granger’s uniform features tight-fitting pants that often display his attractive body. Both performers also wear capes that add some drama to their movements.

While Granger could be a bit stiff as a performer, he manages the role of Franz well. He is especially impressive in his big dramatic scene confronting Livia with some painful truths in the last act. Valli, in contrast, becomes more unhinged as Livia’s passions consume her, and the actress’ performance borders on camp as Livia gets obsessive and jealous. (Fun fact: Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman were Visconti’s first choices for the main roles.)

“Senso” ends with a dramatic scene that packs a wallop — even if what happens is not entirely unexpected. The film is a classic melodrama that benefits from its director’s keen eye for arresting visuals, his sharp criticism of class, and the splendor of the two romantic leads. 

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