“House of Boys”
A Gay Love Story Set In the Early Days of AIDS
Every once in a while a film comes along that knocks me over and while these are few and far between, they do exist and new distributor, Breaking Glass Pictures, has been lucky enough to have released several of them—“Into the Lion’s Den”, “Marathon” and now “House of Boys”. I was not prepared to like this film—the screener I had was grainy, the color was off and the audio was weak but before I knew I was totally engrossed in the story and found myself weeping openly at the end. I know there are many of you who feel that we have seen and heard enough about AIDS but I cannot emphasize enough the importance of what the disease did to us. Sure, we lost many valuable lives of many brilliant people but we also gained a togetherness that allowed us to become a powerful force socially, politically and economically. AIDS was (and still is) our Holocaust but we have not let it defeat us but we do have to remember how it was.
The film is a glamorous and colorful coming-of-age story that follows Frank (Layke Anderson), a high school student as he enters the gay world, a world of sex, drugs and music in Amsterdam of the early 80’s. He soon finds that his passion changes into a struggle of courage as he faces the AID crisis and watches it take away his true love in the most horrible of ways. Frank runs away from home (not because of any reason other than he wanted to be himself) and he enters a self-enclosed world of dancing, drugs, drinking and sex but he also finds true love. The film is an in-depth look at the Amsterdam scene as it fell to the threat of AIDS. The colors of the film show the fall of gay life as little by little, it succumbs to death. Here it was a mysterious disease known simply as the “gay cancer”. Director Claude Schlim tells a very personal story through the character of Frank in a very unhurried manner as he enters a dance club–cum-brothel. Schlim hangs onto the details of the boys and their eroticized lives and performances and the relationships between them. Frank immediately falls for Jake (Benn Nothover), his supposed “straight” roommate at the house and finally wins his heart but eventually loses him to the disease. The film is presented in three acts: the prologue shows Frank at home, Act I is his arrival in Amsterdam and his budding relationship with Frank and Act III is a deathwatch. There is an emotional honesty in the film which manages to blot out the dated style of the film.
The movie totally embraces the setting of 1984—we see Ronald Reagan on the television and we are privy to the consternation of the doctors as they are baffled but the large and increasing number of gay men with no T-cells. It is a time when everyone (but Frank) seems to want to be somewhere else.
Frank is happy to be dancing and getting dressed up as he falls for Jake, the star of the House of Boys. He is dismayed that Jake is saving the money he makes so that he and his girlfriend can run away but this is minor to Frank and he knows what he wants and intends to get it.
The movie starts of as a coming-of-age story but it ends very sadly. It is very open sexually yet it maintains an “old fashioned innocence” by giving us a look into the cheesy acts at the House of Boys which were the rule at the time. The story is told in a heavy-handed manner with a delightful soundtrack of rock music. The whole effect is one of nostalgia by showing us the highs and lows of coming out in the 80’s. The film is a wonderful contrast of the beauty of the young man with the physical reality of AIDS and the film is both campy and compelling.
It is almost like watching two films at one time. The coming-of-age story draws us in and then it is all changes when AIDS raises its ugly head and the beauty deteriorates as Jake falls victim to the virus and while these scenes are a bit uncomfortable, they are supremely important–we must never forget how the disease ravaged the beauty of our community. As the film ends, statistics of those lost to AIDS are flashed upon the screen. The performances are all excellent from seeing Stephen Fry as Dr. Marsh, a man seemingly broken by discovering that Jake has AIDS and Udo Keir as Madame, owner of the House of Boys and drag artist extraordinaire. Eleanor David is wonderful as Emma, the house mother of the boys but it is really the young cast that carries the movie.
The film also captures the period but because of that there will be some who will consider it to be dated and as if it were actually made during the period it depicts. (Funny that they never say that about gladiator movies that are indeed dated). Of course, the clichés are here especially regarding the early fears of AIDS and how those not exposed felt about it. Personally, I felt a certain Dickensian quality to the film. Frank is our David Copperfield who takes his time reaching adulthood but when he does, he becomes quite a man whose strength while taking care of his dying lover is amazing. That last cry of his went right through me and I can still hear it.
In my opinion, this is what movies are all about. Here is one that entertains and teaches. It will gain a very high place on my list of favorites simply because of what it does and does so well.