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Film Review: ‘Postcards From London’

Steve McLean's first feature in a quarter century is a colorful yet anemic fantasia of high art and bared skin.

Steve McLean
Harris Dickinson, Richard Durden, Jonah Hauer-King, Jerome Holder, Silas Carson, Leemore Marrett Jr., Stephen Boxer, Trevor Cooper, Alessandro Cimadamore, Leonardo Salerni, Raphael Desprez, Silas Carson, Leo Hatton, Emma Curtis, Ben Cura.

1 hour 29 minutes

What critic B. Ruby Rich dubbed the “New Queer Cinema” encountered little but praise (plus some attention-getting damnation from political conservatives) with such early ’90s titles as “Swoon,” “My Own Private Idaho,” “The Living End,” “Paris Is Burning,” and so forth. But by mid-decade the vogue had run long enough that even gay audiences felt less inclined to embrace every creative effort, giving a relatively cold shoulder to Steve McLean’s “Postcards From America” (1994) and Todd Verow’s “Frisk.” Both were adapted from edgy gay lit figures — the former from autobiographical writings by David Wojnarowicz (who’d died of AIDS), the latter from a typically violent, queasy novel by Dennis Cooper.

These films look better now than most critics or viewers allowed then. The revulsion “Frisk” was greeted with (at a time when gay films were expected to provide some measure of reassuring uplift) only emboldened Verow as a since-highly-prolific director of microbudget features, often starring himself. Yet the tepid reception accorded “America” — a wildly uneven, somewhat pretentious, but often adventurous and touching biographical fantasia — seemed to stall McLean’s career at its start.

It’s taken him nearly a quarter century to make a second feature. “Postcards From London” echoes its predecessor in title and some stylistic elements. Still, it’s a very different animal, a pixilated pose fest landing somewhere between “Pink Narcissus,” “Querelle,” and Derek Jarman — though that sounds more fun than it actually plays. Idiosyncratic, accomplished, albeit more than a little airless, this overeducated lark is seldom as funny or sexy as it means to be. Beyond gay fests it will face an uphill road, with a U.K. theatrical release planned for later this summer and Strand planning a U.S. one for later this year.

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The archly chaptered proceedings tell the story — insomuch as there’s a story here — of Jim (Harrison Dickinson of “Beach Rats”). He’s a body-beautiful naïf of 18 who arrives FOB from Essex and is plucked off the London streets by four multinational male escorts (Jonah Hauer-King, Leonardo Salerni, Alessandro Cimadamore, Raphael Desprez) who deem him fit to join their company of Soho “Raconteurs” — hustlers appealing to a select grade of clients by virtue of their particularly erudite postcoital conversation.

“You’re young, you’re fit, you have the face of an angel,” they say approvingly. But Jim must be educated to suit their “high end of the market.” This proves an amazingly fast process, seemingly accomplished by name-dropping a laundry list of queer cultural icons. It doesn’t hurt that Jim is so naturally sensitive to “beauty” that he faints at the sight of museum masterpieces. In his unconscious state he experiences Stendahl syndrome (a rare actual condition that also occasioned a Dario Argento film of the same name), imagining himself “inside the painting” as we see living tableaux of canvases by Caravaggio (Ben Cura).

Though Jim’s now able to chat about Wilde, Pasolini, and Francis Bacon with the best of them, his johns (like Richard Durden as crusty famous portraitist Max) mostly prefer that he shut up. Indeed, many of McLean’s coy conceits similarly lead nowhere. Despite Jim’s frequent undress and busy appointment book, he never seems to have sex with anyone. He supposedly experiences first love, exploitation, and disillusionment with ex-Raconteur Paul (Leemore Marrett Jr.), but these events too are so bloodlessly artificial we never feel a thing.

Entirely soundstage-shot, “Postcards’” luxuriant self-consciousness makes ample use of color-saturated lighting, neon signs, iris-outs, vertical wipes, theatrical sets, visual quotes, actual quotes, and a general sense that the film itself should be hung in a trendy gallery with quote marks around it.

The characters’ musings about art and desire strike an attitude of wit without quite being genuinely witty. When professional muse Jim sighs, “I used to model myself on George Dyer, but now I’m thinking more Joe Dallesandro,” one begins to feel trapped in a time-warped Brit “Boys in the Band,” where the stale bons mots never end and the bitching will surely soon turn to tearful recrimination. If the film were posited more specifically as nostalgia for a lost gay epoch, its snow-globe quality would seem more purposeful. As is, it feels dated in the wrong way, a salon of yesteryear’s desiccated gay aesthetic tropes — and sorely lacking in the emotional immediacy that Wojnarowicz’s often wrenching stories brought to the sometimes equally stylized “America.”

Dickinson is a more flexible (not to mention trained) actor than Dallesandro ever was; he’s game and lively in addition to providing the requisite physical appeal. But coming after “Beach Rats,” it’s too soon for him to be stuck playing another blank object of others’ fantasies. The supporting turns are tolerably colorful and variably amateurish, the design contributions flamboyant on a budget.

Pretty but hollow, “Postcards From London” isn’t quite clever enough to get away with being this deeply frivolous. It exudes a sense of high amusement at itself but doesn’t make that satisfaction so easy to share. One real pleasure is the soundtrack, which sounds like a punk rock best-of as fussily curated as the visual elements but consists mostly of original songs written by one Tom Baker and performed by Bowling.

Film Review: 'Postcards From London'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, June 21, 2018. Running time: 89 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Strand Releasing release (U.S.) of a BFI presentation in association with Creativity Capital of a Diablo Films production. (Int'l sales: The Bureau Sales, Paris.) Producer: Soledad Gatti-Pascual. Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Patrick Fischer, David Gilbery, Bertrand Faivre.

Crew: Director, writer: Steve McLean. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Annika Summerson. Editor: Stephen Boucher. Music: Julian Bayliss.

With: Harris Dickinson, Richard Durden, Jonah Hauer-King, Jerome Holder, Silas Carson, Leemore Marrett Jr., Stephen Boxer, Trevor Cooper, Alessandro Cimadamore, Leonardo Salerni, Raphael Desprez, Silas Carson, Leo Hatton, Emma Curtis, Ben Cura.

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