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Reel Affirmations

Pride Film Festival

At the Lincoln Theatre June 5 & 6

One in Ten, the sponsoring group for Reel Affirmations, D.C.’s annual October gay-and-lesbian film festival, also presents a spring minifest to coincide with CapitalPride. Last year, the three features available for preview offered little reason for pride and even less affirmation: Two of the films’ same-sex relationships were terminated by violent deaths, and a third dissolved when one of the partners turned straight. Overall, this year’s selections are less glum and, happily, considerably more impressive as works of art.

Tipping the Velvet (at 9 p.m. June 6), the title of the three-part BBC miniseries based on Sarah Waters’ novel, isn’t explained until the third hour. By the time you learn that it’s a vintage euphemism for oral sex, screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Geoffrey Sax have regaled you with so much bawdiness that you’re barely fazed.

The beautiful daughter of a Kentish oyster-monger, Nan Astley (Rachael Stirling), can’t figure out why her boyfriend’s kisses leave her cold. She gets a clue, however, when her temperature soars at a local music-hall performance by Kitty Butler (Keeley Hawes), a cheeky male impersonator reminiscent of Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria. Moonstruck Nan accepts Kitty’s invitation to travel to London as her dresser, and soon the two form a partnership both onstage and in bed.

But Kitty betrays Nan, condemning her young friend to a life of street prostitution in male drag. She’s picked up by socialite dominatrix Diana Lethaby (Anna Chancellor) and instructed, without an excess of persuasion, to participate in erotic tableaux vivants and lesbian orgies. After a rare outburst of defiance, Nan finds herself back on the street once more. Her fortuitous involvement with a socialist sister and brother helps her get back on her feet and, after a lady-or-the-tiger trial, embrace true love.

Tipping the Velvet is an elaborate, colorful production, with detailed sets and costumes evocatively re-creating 1890s England. Its tone is complex and enjoyably perverse, a mixture of period romance, Dickensian melodrama, Victorian pornography, and camp. Sax paces the narrative at a dizzying clip, exploiting every photographic and editing trick he can think up. (He frames Nan, during her brief career as an alley fellatrix, through the unbuttoned flies of her elderly patrons.) As can be expected from any BBC production, the acting is superlative, with jet-tressed, porcelain-skinned Stirling (actress Diana Rigg’s daughter) contributing a game, star-making performance as Nan—a role that requires her, among other things, to wear gold body paint and brandish a long gilded dildo.

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Running just over an hour, Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox’s Yossi & Jagger (at 7 p.m. June 5) packs a powerful punch. The title characters—Israel Defense Forces soldiers stationed at a military post in Lebanon—are lovers, discreetly concealing their affair from their colleagues. Dour, macho Yossi (Ohad Knoller) fears exposure; charming, popular Jagger (Yehuda Levi) dreams of completing military service and living openly with his lover. But a tense all-night maneuver, during which the company anticipates a Hezbollah attack, forever shatters Jagger’s hopes.

Avner Bernheimer’s compact screenplay offers some illuminating insights into Israeli military life, in particular via his female characters, who are as empowered, professionally and sexually, as their male counterparts. The closing scene is especially affecting, with Yossi, driven by love and loss, finding the courage to expose his emotions. With its handheld, neo-documentary images and muted performances, Yossi & Jagger is a little gem of a movie.

In 1970, the groundbreaking film adaptation of The Boys in the Band established a formula for gay movies that has been recycled with little variation for three decades: A close-knit circle of homosexual men experience happiness and heartache. Writer-director Patrik-Ian Polk’s screenplay for Punks (at 9 p.m. June 5) adheres to this queer-cinema template, but inhabits an atypical milieu: Three of the four pals are African-Americans, the fourth a Latino.

During his 30th-birthday bash at the house he shares with his friends, Hill (Dwight Ewell) spots his French lover, Gilbert (Rudolf Martin), making out with a guest. Hill throws Gilbert out and is consoled by his roommates, who naturally have problems of their own. Crystal (Jazzmun), the diva of a fantastically costumed, lip-synching Sister Sledge-clone drag group, is about to be abandoned by her jealous cohorts for hogging the spotlight. Young Dante (Renoly Santiago) shuttles between his wealthy, respectable parents and his uninhibited West Hollywood buddies. And virginal Marcus (Seth Gilliam), a talented photographer, struggles to sustain his faith in romantic love in a milieu in which relationships seldom last longer than the time it takes to have an orgasm. He forms a platonic friendship with new neighbor Darby (Rockmond Dunbar), a muscular, gay-friendly record producer recently arrived from New York with his girlfriend, Jennifer (Vanessa Williams). But Jennifer dislikes Tinseltown and soon splits, paving the way for Punks’, er, fairy-tale ending.

We’ve seen all of this before—the drag numbers, the cruising queens, the AIDS anxieties—but Polk’s ensemble is so attractive and appealing that Punks’ clichés go down easily. It really is a shame that the film has been shelved since 2000, the same year that The Broken Hearts Club, a bathetic yawn filled with vapidly pretty white boys, briefly clogged theater screens.

Danny in the Sky (at 7 p.m. June 6), co-written and directed by Quebec filmmaker Denis Langlois, is far and away the festival’s weakest selection. We first see the title character, played by Thierry Pépin, stretched out on a sidewalk, blood gushing from a wound in his stomach. In a Sunset Boulevard-style narration, the luckless young man recapitulates the story of his life—a banal, unconvincing psychodrama that Langlois and co-scripter Bertrand Lachance illustrate in flashback.

The son of an emotionally distant gay father and a fashion-model mom who died of a drug overdose, Danny searches for validation in all the wrong places. He drops out of college to become a model, falls prey to recreational drugs, and resorts to performing in a strip club—and, ultimately, in a porn movie—before being stabbed by a rival whom he double-crossed early in his career. As he’s carted off to the hospital, Danny nonetheless beams with hope because he’s finally made an emotional commitment—to a voyeuristic Diane Arbus-like photographer who has been stealing images of him throughout the film.

With his chiseled features and taut physique, Pépin makes a plausible model. But his whiny, one-dimensional performance creates no sympathy for narcissistic, blame-gaming Danny. And though he’s ostensibly heterosexual, Danny’s love scenes with several female characters never catch fire, whereas his interactions with other males—a handsome young cousin, other toned models, a fellow stripper—simmer with homoerotic subtext. Langlois’ camera ogles the muscular bodies of his characters, who in turn seem barely able to repress their desires for each other, belying the screenplay’s assertion that Danny in the Sky is about men seeking fulfillment with members of the opposite sex. Clearly, what these conflicted pretty boys need is someone to pry open their closet doors and escort them to a gay-pride parade. CP