Mix curiously retro, guilt-ridden gay sexuality with equally antique symoblism of the flaming-crucifix experimental school, and what you’ve got is just “Smoke,” writer-director-star-producer-editor Mark D’Auria’s all-too-private portrait of one man’s bottomless angst. Painfully earnest but low on illumination, pic’s theatrical prospects look as cheerless as its unfortunate protagonist.
Michael (D’Auria) is on the brink of middle age. After an older presumed ex-lover punches him in the stomach, he wakes up in the hospital, masturbates while gazing at his obese roommate, and flees.
So it goes. Michael works as a bathroom attendant at a posh hotel, whose owner humiliates him. He protests — yet this seems to be his sexual metier. Attracted to stout older men, he pursues public bathroom encounters, a seedy personals-ad interlude, and is repeatedly dismissed over the phone by a married policeman he’s stuck on.
Taking his agony to church, he’s shot in the neck by a disturbed woman, wakes up and flees the hospital again. An Italian-speaking, elderly mom keeps beckoning him back to hearth and home, and sepia flashbacks point to a gloomy, father-deprived childhood.
Murky close offers some sort of reconciliation with this troubled past. But the preceding 90 minutes are pure dirge, complete with portentous choral music, images of Roman Catholic purgatory (silent screams amid hellfire, bummer sex amid votive candles), et al.
D’Auria comes up with the odd striking visual, such as racing buck-naked on a winter morning down a Manhattan street. But despite OK acting and tech work, effect is often heavy-handed to the point of silliness. The suffocating pretentiousness will red-light arthouse prospects, and a modern gay aud is likely to resist its own implicit portraiture as an unhappy, isolated lot.
When Gus Van Sant made his feature bow with “Mala Noche” in 1986, he made sure his hero’s questionable pursuit of love and lust was tempered by humor. No such luck here: Michael is presented as a full-on martyr.
Slow-mo regurgitations are the order of the day; hallucination segs are like the bleakest possible wedding of early Terrence Davies with ersatz Kenneth Anger.
No one makes a movie as insistently joyless as “Smoke” without some profound personal commitment.
But D’Auria fails to communicate his passion in digestible terms.
He’s pastiched together a personal language hardly anyone would want to translate.