Saturday, October 17, 2009

Worth a look: Philippe Vallois' JOHAN, seminal gay French film from the 70s

An iconic fragment of the French gay 70s that evidently has not been seen since its debut year of 1976, JOHAN is a kind of documen-
tary in which its writer/director Philippe Vallois and his film both search for a replacement for his lover and supposed star -- who's in prison for multiple petty larcenies and thus unable to either film or fuck. In fact, the movie comes close to being a near- (and quite early) example of a mockumentary: full of knowing ironies; deliberately provocative (in its own day and even now) with its views of handsome young men, often full-frontal and sometimes engorged; exhibiting sly humor combined with vexing self-satis-
faction and self-pity. And, as was the wont of filmmakers in this era, the footage alternates between color and black-and-white.

The movie takes its title from the Vallois' unseen but constantly talked-of and now imprisoned companion, to whom all the young men we see in the film are compared and found wanting. Yet, meeting these yummy youths -- who wear their tight, basket-bulging bell-bottoms of the time and disrobe at a moment's notice -- takes us on a kind of tour of the gay haunts of 70s Paris, and of the filmmaker's friends, including one very attractive blond young woman, who's equally happy to disrobe. And not only does the titular but unseen Johan have his stand-ins, so does the director, shown below, left, with his own little cutie, played by Patrice Pascal, at right.

We meet a transvestite, Philippe's mom, a Genet-like young man who's into S&M (actually, he explains, he's much more a sadist; it's the older men who are masochistic: yeah, sure), a Cuban refugee, and one amazingly beautiful black man who's a kind of actor/dancer/pastry cook (below) who, together with the the filmmaker's gorgeous stand-in actor, brings the films to a heady, sexy visual finale (below) with a bout of lovemaking that is, well, memorable. Although said to be 90 minutes long in the original French version, what's on the DVD amounts to only 80 minutes, but this is just enough, considering the film's mix of auteurism, irreverence and pretention/gradiosity. Around the time our ass begins experiencing the Harry Cohen test, the movie ends.

But there's more, and it's a must-see. Johan was preemptively banned and dumped by the French censors as pornographic, after making a splash at the Cannes festival that year (if you feel a male erection constitutes pornography, then it was and it is, even though standards have changed since '76). Some thirty years after Vallois made his movie, the filmmaker discovers a relatively pristine copy of an early version containing some of the scenes that were cut out and so is able to release his groundbreaking work on DVD -- along with a 30-minute "now" documentary in which he shows and tells of the making of his film and what happened to many of the characters we've just seen. This is fascinating enough, adding greatly to our understanding and pleasure, but Vallois also tells of his own early life, his lover/mentor who headed the French Opera, and his relationship with the real Johan (whom we finally see at last) pre-, during and post- moviemaking. This little documentary provides a wonderful addition to the movie itself and, in fact, is in some ways as good as the film that precedes it.

Comparions have been made to Taxi zum klo, released five years later, but that film is much grittier and more overtly political. For visual appeal alone, I'll take Vallois' movie. Distributed by Water Bearer Films, Johan is available for rental from Netflix and for purchase via TLA or Amazon.
(All photos are from the film.)


Philippe Vallois said...

Thank you for your page.

Philippe Vallois (the director) from Paris

James van Maanen said...

And thank YOU, Philippe! It's been over three years since I first saw your film and posted on it, but I still remember it well. You were (and I hope still are) a groundbreaker. I also hope my post enticed some others to take a look at your very interesting work.