More hype will accrue to “Man at Bath” from the casting of gay-porn star Francois Sagat than from anything else in this self-indulgent relationship drama. An oddly patched-together tale of separated lovers fooling around while apart, the pic says little about desire and only skirts issues it seems interested in addressing, such as the power of the gaze. Repping neither an advance for helmer-scripter Christophe Honore nor a significant career improvement for Sagat, “Man” will briefly stay afloat thanks to Paris play combined with gay fests and queer-skewing distribs; ancillary, however, could prove lucrative.
Originally designed as a short, the pic is part of a project sponsored by the Theatre de Gennevilliers and commissioned by Olivier Assayas, in which directors are asked to make films set in the Paris suburb of Gennevilliers (other invitees include Lodge Kerrigan and Joachim Lafosse). Honore claims initial inspiration from former Gennevilliers resident Gustave Caillebotte, the most underrated of all French impressionists, and his title comes from the artist’s famed canvas “Man at Bath,” in which a naked man, seen from behind, dries himself with a towel.
The influences of Honore faves Georges Bataille and J.D. Salinger, especially “Franny and Zooey,” are far more apparent than that of Caillebotte, however, though the first glimpse of Sagat does echo the composition of the titular painting. He plays Emmanuel, a hustler and the live-in lover of Omar (Omar Ben Sellem). Unhappy that Omar is leaving for the week, Emmanuel punishes him with brutal intercourse and is told by his angered b.f. to clear out.
Omar leaves for New York with friend Chiara Mastroianni (playing herself), leading to on-the-fly improv scenes shot on DV, in which Omar films Mastroianni promoting a film, lecturing to students at the School of Visual Arts and hanging around Manhattan. While Omar has a Gotham fling with Canadian film student Dustin (Dustin Segura-Suarez), Emmanuel resentfully pines away, searching for cash and the appreciative attention of guys turned on by his well-formed derriere.
Had Honore stayed in Gennevilliers and not included the New York scenes, especially those with a superfluous Mastroianni, he might have come up with a meaningful work on longing, both sexual and companionate, but the unfocused (in more ways than one) DV scenes feel artificially tacked on and don’t drive either mood or narrative in any cohesive direction. There are hints of better things: An uncomfortable sequence in which Emmanuel is verbally humiliated by his client Robin (cult writer Dennis Cooper) is pure Georges Bataille in the way it plays with disturbing sexual power dynamics, but it’s not integrated with the rest of the pic.
Honore’s use of Sagat is itself problematic, objectifying the muscled star, and yet the nudity — of which there’s plenty, including erections and explicit fellatio — is perfunctory and slightly absurd. The actor rarely transcends sullenness, and forcing him to say lines like, “I’m not comfortable around actors” is almost cruel. An early scene of him dancing alone in Omar’s apartment (to Nancy Wilson’s “How Insensitive”) reveals a performer always conscious of the spectator, and while it’s apt to cast a porn star when dealing with concepts of viewing and being viewed, Honore barely explores the idea.
An unprettified matte quality characterizes much of the film, as Stephane Vallee’s breezy handheld lensing offers intimacy but feels excessively low-budget. Honore’s music choices, as always, are unerring, boasting a first-rate blend of classical and standard pop tunes.