Written and directed by David Lambert, this French film is a harsh meditation on power, choice and freedom. Not a happy movie by any means, it offers fascinating character development, an engrossing story, and much food for thought.
At first it plays like a typical coming out story from a bygone decade: boy has girl, but boy also likes boys, boy hooks up with boy, girl kicks out boy, boy moves in with boy. But that in fact that was just where things get interesting.
The movie begins with needy, whiny Paulo getting blind drunk in a bar and taken home by cool, sexy Albanian bartender Ilir. Nothing much happens right away, but Paulo is instantly attracted, and not being the sharpest tool in the shed doesn’t cover it up very well from his girlfriend. Having nobody else to turn to, he ends up at Ilir’s doorstep. Ilir, who’d just been looking for a bit of fun, reluctantly takes Paulo in.
And they stay together. At first we’re not sure why, as Paulo is needy and touchy-feely like an abandoned puppy to the point of being incredibly annoying; he must be a monster in the sack for anyone to put up with him for more than five minutes.
After Ilir is caught smuggling drugs and is sent to prison, Paulo stays loyal, writing regularly and visiting him every week. Eventually Ilir asks Paulo not to visit him anymore as the short time they get to spend together is too painful and it is weakening him at a time he needs to be tough to survive. Initially refusing to stay away, Ilir pretends Paulo assaults him and Paolo banned from the prison.
When Ilir is finally released, he goes to visit Paulo and finds him very much changed from the needy kid he used to know. He’s also mostly over Ilir, though some of the old feelings are still there, but when they spend the night in a fancy hotel room, there’s only drinking and talking, not sex.
In the end Ilir and Paulo’s positions are reversed. The poor, needy boy that followed his dick from relationship to relationship is now stable and in-control. Or is he? As for Ilir, he will be okay; he obviously doesn’t need to latch on to a lover to be complete.
Some of the movie’s symbolism is a bit puzzling. “Ilir” is Albanian for “freedom”. Is this meaningful? Ilir did seem to be the free one, but that got reversed when he ended up in jail. And then reversed again when he got out.
Paulo’s symbolism also raises questions. It turns out he’s a BDSM sub; at one point he wears a chastity belt with Ilir keeping the key. Paulo is only freed after explaining his situation to the sex shop owner he met after Ilir ended up in prison. Was Paulo trapped by Ilir, and freed by the shop owner? When he got into more hardcore BDSM with him, did he become less free? Are his romantic neediness and sub-ness related, or is the one just a symbol of the other? If you choose to enter an unequal relationship, do you become more or less free? Or perhaps my own squeamish bias about BDSM relationships is showing?
Beyond the walls asks a lot of questions, but one with a pretty clear answer comes at the end of the film: are Ilir and Paulo happy? The answer is no. Their final smiles for the camera are nothing more than skin deep. A better question: will they be happy in the future? For Ilir, it is most likely yes, because one gets the impression that he’s learned from his experience and will find his way. For Paulo, we’re not so sure. He’s more self-confident and superficially successful, but that will probably change the second his romantic situation changes.
This was a difficult movie to sit through, as its characters go through stupid and self-destructive behaviour. But it makes you consider what your own life choices might look like from the outside, what freedom means, and what happiness feels like.
I didn’t exactly enjoy the experience, but I think I’m a little wiser for it.
A second screening of Hors les murs (Beyond the walls) is scheduled for Thursday, August 22, 2013. Visit http://queerfilmfestival for tickets and information.
(A version of this movie review first appeared on http://www.npdemers.net)
Nicolas Demers is a web developer and blogger living in Vancouver’s West End. In his spare time he enjoys science-fiction, photography, and is actively involved with the Vancouver Gay Volleyball Association.