Vet line producer Jean-Claude Schlim turns writer-director to tell a semi-autobiographical tale of love and AIDS in the ’80s in “House of Boys.” Admittedly, next to films like Cyril Collard’s “Savage Nights,” Randal Kleiser’s “It’s My Party,” Mike Figgis’ “One Night Stand” and Derek Jarman’s “Blue,” which capture, respectively, the rage, solidarity, sardonic humor and pathos of the pandemic, Schlim’s sentimental meller feels like a tacky poor relation. But given the relative unavailability of such titles and the dearth of recent narratives on the subject, “Boys,” opening July 29 in Gotham after a lengthy fest tour, half-fills a void.
The two-part pic recalls the profound, horrific impact of AIDS on the newly emergent 1980s gay scene. The first part recounts the joyous adventures of blond, beautiful Frank (Layke Anderson) in the carnivalesque euphoria of a liberated Amsterdam. The second traces his selfless, saintlike devotion and solicitude toward his afflicted true love, Jake (Benn Northover), amid the keening sorrow of their supportive friends.
Young, sweet, cheerfully promiscuous Frank journeys from his disapproving parents’ Luxembourg home to Amsterdam’s red-light district, where he finds shelter, friendship and employment in the titular nightclub run by “Madame” (Udo Kier). Frank’s apprenticeship as a dancer serves as a pretext for Schlim to showcase a series of erotic dances and unabashedly kitschy cabaret numbers (Kier’s German ditty in Brunhilde drag brings down the house), which continue to pop up in foreground and background long after Frank assumes his rightful place centerstage in sexy silver briefs.
Frank falls hard for Jake, the club’s star attraction, who finally abandons his illusions of heterosexuality to reciprocate. Schlim animates colorful fluttering birds (heroically resisting little hearts) to illustrate the fairy-tale happiness of the besotted couple. But their idyll proves all too brief as Jake falls victim to AIDS, his face and body gradually overtaken by encroaching black lesions.
Schlim allows no emotional ambiguity. Frank, smiling though his tears, never worries about his own health; nor do any of Frank’s other House of Boys friends or caregivers (including Stephen Fry as an empathetic, AIDS-pioneering Dutch doctor railing against President Reagan’s policies). Indeed, fear reps the one glaring absence from the film’s AIDS equation, which greatly mitigates the quality of the courage his characters evince.
Thesping is more engaging than accomplished, as Anderson’s constant smile cracks around the edges and Northover’s dourness is a bit overdone. Kier, unsurprisingly, plunges into his over-the-top role with infectious relish, and Eleanor David’s estrogen-dispensing House mother rings true.
Christina Schaffer’s production design sacrifices precise historical accuracy for a small-scale bordello look, and Schlim’s somewhat operatic music choices (many by artists felled by AIDS) shore up the pic’s thin storyline.