After sexing things up a bit in 2016’s (co-directed) “Taekwondo,” wherein a bunch of underdressed, hardbodied men frolicked during a country retreat, indie Argentine helmer Marco Berger is back on familiar turf with his fifth solo feature. Not that there’s any lack of nudity or sex in this latest iteration of his usual theme: two dudes confronting a shared physical attraction while awkward about the whole “gay thing.” But “The Blonde One” closely hews to the template of Berger’s prior films (excluding 2015’s non-gay, what-if fantasy “Butterfly”) in prizing emotional nuance above titillation.
It’s a modest, touching drama whose limited U.S. theatrical launch on Sept. 6 comes with an incongruous title change — called “The Blond One” or “Un Rubio” everywhere else, the movie has no fair-haired female characters to warrant that added “e.”
Indeed, the only towhead here is Gabriel (Gaston Re), who’s so reserved and close-mouthed he’s jokingly nicknamed “Dummy” by some. Juan (Alfonso Baron), his coworker at a woodworking machine shop, invites him to move into his inherited flat in a nondescript Buenos Aires suburb after another housemate leaves. It’s a convenient and congenial-enough arrangement, with shy Gabe casually accepted into the circle of guy pals who routinely stop over to watch TV and drink beer.
Juan’s relationships with the opposite sex seem equally casual, as more than one naked female is seen sidling out of his bedroom door on occasion. For his part, Gabriel has a supposed girlfriend (Ailin Salas as Julia), but their strained, polite meetings are once a week at most. More of his attention goes towards daughter Ornella (Malena Irusta), a second grader being raised by his parents while he’s forced to live and work some distance away (her mother passed away some time ago).
When they’re alone, however, there is no mistaking the frisson between Gabe and Juan. Since his more humorously tilted debut feature “Plan B” a decade ago, Berger has been expert at charging the space between characters with erotic tension. It takes over half an hour for the dam to finally burst between his lead characters here, and afterward Juan seems dismissive, even cavalier about their interlude. But after a second tryst, their dynamic grows more intimate, even boyfriend-ly. Clearly puppy-eyed Gabriel is ready for a relationship based on more than just sex. Whether Juan is willing or able to make that leap is another matter. In the end, outside factors may not even allow them the freedom to make that decision for themselves.
Higher on meaningful glances than dialogue until a late gush of explicatory speech, “The Blonde One” is most intense in its early going, when the principles’ as-yet-unacted-upon desires create mounting sexual tension conveyed through a mix of charged gazes and lusty, waist-level p.o.v. shots. Later, the minimalist screenplay places a bit too much weight on Re, who’s fine, but shouldn’t have to shoulder so many scenes with repetitive expressions of mute hurt at Juan’s latest insensitive and evasive behaviors.
Nonetheless, there’s an unforced poignance to this tale, whose surface aesthetics (very little changed for Berger since “Plan B”) are as beguilingly simple as the emotions beneath are complexly conflicted. Indeed, an economy of presentation works so well here that the rare intrusion of Pedro Irusta’s solo piano score feels gratuitous.
Performances are assured, including those from an array of lightly sketched but credible support characters. Baron, a Paris-based dancer and stage actor, makes an auspicious feature-film debut.