The first time we glimpse the nude profile of the womanizing Juan (Alfonso Barón) in Marco Berger’s Argentinian drama The Blond One (Un Rubio), the camera lingers a moment, enough to tantalize the watchful gaze of his co-worker, now housemate, Gabriel (Gaston Re). I doubt he was thinking that Juan (or, more precisely, Barón) is the Argentine Michael Fassbender, as I was, though his thoughts are surely appreciative and quietly carnal.
The Blond One lives and breathes in the spaces between silence. Berger sets up his simple story — the co-habitation of colleagues and the sexual tension that slowly emerges between them — and then he observes, gently, not unlike Gabriel himself, the fraught, unspoken communication between them. It’s unnerving and exciting; a flirtatious dance that’s borderline dangerous as Gabriel, introverted and measured by nature, can’t fully read Juan’s intentions.
The furtive glances across the kitchen table; the proximity in which they stand in a crowded bus, face-to-face, close enough to kiss, negotiating the limited space to signal both an aloof disinterest and a tentative curiosity; or that lingering hallway nude shot: is Juan coming on to the kind new stranger in his life, or is he the type of masculine presence — just shy of toxicity — so comfortable in his own skin that he’s unaware of the homoerotic frisson bubbling beneath the surface?
It’s obvious to the viewer that Juan has desires for Gabriel — Barón’s doe-eyed glare is a question and a come-on — yet his posse of blue-collar buddies and the revolving door of his female bedmates keep throwing the gentle outsider off-balance. This is nearly all intuited through the actors’ performances because, while The Blond One isn’t a silent film, it might as well be. The dialogue between the men, and their circle of friends, is initially functional to the point of banality. Berger creates so much resonant space between his leads that we read their faces, their bodies, for signs. And their tentativeness, even to a modern audience, makes sense in an atmosphere of offhand, cultural homophobia.
“I let others talk about doing controversial projects that they think will end up at Cannes,” the director has said regarding his previous film, Hawaii. “Whereas I think my work is always talking about love. Love between men. And I’m going to keep doing it until I die.”
But before love: sex. The atmosphere in Juan’s house — all that unbridled testosterone only occasionally muted by Juan’s women — is practically fragrant. And though the film is leisurely to the point of monotony, the chemistry between Barón and Re is unbearable. I’ve never wanted two characters in a film — straight, gay, bi, whatever — to not just kiss, but fuck. Yet what Berger does afterwards is just as charged (and reminded me, to a point, of that modern gay classic Weekend): was this release, this experience, a one-off for Juan, or is there the possibility of more? At one point, Juan undresses Gabriel down to his underwear, kneels in front of him, and just smells him, breathes him in; it’s casually erotic.
The Blond One doesn’t cover new ground — in some form or another, we’ve seen all this before, but with different bodies, other actors, in various languages. Its pace will drag for some — what a friend of mine once said about Mad Men being like “watching paint dry” — though the film wouldn’t be half as effective if it was tricked out with jump cuts and shiny pop and hot lighting. And responses will be varied. I entered its space and submitted to its charms; my companion, nearly as silent as Gabriel except for his exasperated sighs, clearly did not.
Regardless of your personal response to the movie, The Blond One makes one thing abundantly clear: Berger is a filmmaker to keep our eyes on. I had not been aware of him until now, and I will be doing some catch-up, gladly. He may well be our next Fassbinder or Almodóvar.