On the heels of “Weekend” and “Keep the Lights On,” the arthouse normalization of the gay romance continues apace in “Beyond the Walls,” a carefully crafted, gently moving debut feature from Belgian writer-director David Lambert. Charting the accelerated initiation and gradual dissolution of an affair between two moonlighting musicians from Brussels, Lambert’s film engagingly depicts the head-rush of early attraction, but loses momentum when cruel circumstances disrupt the relationship, pulling focus to the less appealing half of the central couple. Compact, well-acted pic should be welcomed by gay festivals and niche distribs, but is likely too muted for crossover success.
“Beyond the Walls” isn’t done many favors by its title: Generic and easily confused with any number of previous films, it’s also an odd fit for a picture whose strength lies very much in its between-four-walls intimacy. If not as sexually frank as other notable recent queer dramas (though a few scenes deal wittily with sadomasochism-for-beginners), Lambert’s script, allegedly drawn from several of his own previous relationships, demonstrates a keen grasp of banal bedroom politics, with the power dynamic between its respectively bearish and boyish protagonists becoming less concrete as their relationship progresses.
The film begins about as swiftly as the affair does: Drinking heavily with friends at a trendy city bar, callow blond Paulo (Matila Malliarakis) locks eyes with hulking Albanian bartender Ilir (Guillaume Gouix) and wakes up the next morning in Ilir’s bed. Cue an intensive series of hook-ups between the men, the only obstacle being the bisexual Paulo’s seamstress girlfriend, Anka (Melissa Desormeaux Poulin), who gets wise to his exploits and throws him out of their apartment. When Paulo, homeless, falls on the other man’s mercy, Ilir senses their living together is premature, but relents anyway.
What follows is a blissful honeymoon period of sorts, unceremoniously curtailed when Ilir leaves town for a weekend away and never returns. Word slowly comes to the panicked Paulo that his boyfriend is serving 18 months in prison for hash possession, effectively severing the relationship. Clingy and deceptively manipulative, Paulo is eventually instructed by Ilir, conscious of maintaining his tough-guy image in the clink, not to visit him any more. This decision comes as an obvious blow to Paulo — and to the audience, now forced to spend significantly more time in his whiny, weak-willed company, while the prison experiences of the sturdier, less neurotic Ilir remain offscreen. Character reservations notwithstanding, the thesps are attuned both to each other and to the script’s subtle shifts in characterization.
Their eventual reunion is handled with a tender ambiguity that presses on the heart without leaving auds convinced that the two are meant to be — not that the middle-aged sex-shop proprietor Paulo takes up with seems much more suitable a companion. The melancholy final act, haunted by missed chances and next-best solutions, underscores cinema’s scarcity of happy endings for gay men even in their own stories.
Technically, the pic reps a somberly handsome package for its budget, and Mathieu Poirot Delpech’s dusky, textured widescreen lensing reps an attractive asset. Musical choices are interesting throughout, with Canadian art-pop collective Valleys contributing dreamily mournful songs, while Paulo’s night job — a piano accompanist at a silent-movie revival house playing Victor Sjostrom’s “The Wind” — pays off in this department, too.