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Reel Affirmations ’96

To October 20 at the Cineplex

Odeon Embassy and West End

The genuine and the contrived always rub shoulders in Mike Leigh’s films, in which real people live next door to cartoons and deeply ambiguous human nature jousts with class-war propagandizing. The writer/director’s new Secrets & Lies may be his best film, exactly because of the way he combines true and false: It’s the plot that is farcical, while the emotions are authentic.

Having won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Secrets & Lies is poised to be Leigh’s commercial breakthrough, in large part because it’s sweeter than his previous films, especially its raw-nerve predecessor, Naked. But it’s also more expansive, full of memorably drawn characters both central and peripheral. Where 1988’s High Hopes, the first film of Leigh’s renaissance, actually offered little hope, Secrets & Lies dares indulge a low-key happy ending.

The film’s premise is not subtle: Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) loses her adoptive mother and decides to seek her natural one, whose identity the British social-welfare bureaucrats are required to reveal. Hortense manages to track down Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a factory worker whose life hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. She still lives in the decaying old family home in East London with her sullen daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), the second child she had out of wedlock; her portrait-photographer brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall, also seen in Life Is Sweet), and his bourgeois wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan), have moved to an upscale suburb. (The film is punctuated by brief glimpses of Maurice’s clients.) Cynthia is stunned when Hortense calls, but is even more perplexed when she meets her long-lost daughter outside a downtown tube station and discovers that she’s black.

In the U.S., where race still makes many people nervous, this set-up would yield a somewhat embarrassed discussion of somewhat embarrassing stereotypes. Leigh remains an old-school British leftist, however, for whom everything is a matter of class. College-educated Hortense is an optometrist with a nice apartment and good friends; as she and her newly located mother become pals, Hortense’s role is to show Cynthia that she needn’t lead the circumscribed, hopeless life mandated for the British working class. When invited to Roxanne’s 21st birthday party, Hortense is also the catalyst for the family revelations promised by the film’s title.

Leigh is famed for requiring his actors to devise complete lives for their characters, and then developing his scripts in improvisational sessions. The emotions unleashed in these sessions may be messy, but Leigh’s plots have a neoclassical tidiness. This film opens, for example, with the burial of Hortense’s adoptive mother; it ends with Hortense’s acceptance by her birth mother and her family.

There are additional parallels: Lower-class Cynthia has two children, while upwardly mobile Maurice and Monica brood privately on their childlessness. (The couple’s tendency to treat Roxanne as a surrogate daughter is one reason their relationship with Cynthia is strained.) Maurice and Hortense, perhaps the film’s two kindest characters, also have something in common: As a photographer and a optometrist, they’re both in the vision business.

These connections and contrasts can be a bit glib. It’s difficult to credit the transformation of the blubbery, disheveled Cynthia into a more confident, better-groomed woman under Hortense’s influence, or the notion that Maurice and Monica wouldn’t be quite sure what an optometrist is. Two other incidents, however, demonstrate just how electrifyingly complex Leigh’s characters can be.

The first comes when Hortense goes to retrieve her birth records, getting a little impromptu counseling in the process. The social worker (Leigh regular Lesley Manville) who talks to Hortense manages to be both compassionate and condescending at the same time. (In other words, she presumes herself to be Hortense’s mother figure for a moment.) Later, Maurice is approached by Stuart (Ron Cook), who sold the photographer his business and emigrated to Australia, which turned out to be a mistake. Simultaneously demanding and pleading, Stuart insists that Maurice owes him something. (Another awkward figure from the past, Stuart imagines himself a father figure to Maurice.) These exchanges are breathtakingly ambivalent.

Secrets & Lies builds toward a powerful emotional catharsis, but that’s not the reason its 142 minutes speed by; both the premise and the payoff are among the film’s least remarkable aspects. What’s most striking is the psychological and emotional intricacy. Unlike most American movies, in which character is developed only so far as the plot requires—frequently a negligible trip—Secrets & Lies is rich with everyday comic and poignant moments. For Leigh, more than ever humanity is in the details.

There are more than 20 features—and many more short films and videos—in this year’s Reel Affirmations gay and lesbian film festival. I’ve only seen four of the features and one of the shorts, so it would be rash to generalize. Rashly, though, it looks like a pretty good year.

One indication of the appeal of this year’s offerings is that three of the featured films will soon open commercially: Beautiful Thing, the well-recommended opening-night picture that will probably have already screened by the time you read this, is scheduled for Oct. 25. Twelfth Night (Oct. 18, 9 p.m.) and Madagascar Skin (Oct. 15, 9 p.m.) should follow in November and December.

The latter is the most striking, if not the most affecting, of the films I previewed. The tale of an unusual romance, it’s laconic, elliptical, and highly stylized, with a minimum of dialogue—almost as austere as director Chris Newby’s previous film, the mystic, medieval Anchoress. Harry (John Hannah) abandons London’s gay-disco scene after his prominent facial birthmark leads to yet another rejection; he flees to a remote coastal location, where he happens upon Flint (Bernard Hill). At first the two seem to have little in common: Flint is a swaggering, heavily tattooed, avowedly heterosexual world traveler, while Harry hates people who talk about their “poxy adventures.” Gradually, though, the two outsiders develop a powerful bond.

The catalog bills Butterfly Kiss (Oct. 14, 7 p.m.) as the fest’s most controversial film, which is not necessarily a recommendation. A nihilistic Brit-TV variant on Thelma and Louise, it’s the tale of a traveling serial killer who murders innocent people in order to keep proving to herself that “God has forgotten me. I kill people and nothing happens.” What does happen is that chained, pierced, and tattooed bisexual psychopath Eunice (Amanda Plummer, wild-eyed as always) attracts an acolyte: mild-mannered and provincial Miriam (Saskia Reeves), who insists in a series of post-spree, straight-to-the-camera comments that “I never stopped looking for the good in her.” Viewers may not share Miriam’s dedication to finding the nuance in director Michael Winterbottom’s one-note portrayal, which is rendered more icily hip by a soundtrack that includes the Cranberries, Björk, PJ Harvey, and New Order. When a blank, affectless film insists that only murder can punctuate the dreariness of contemporary life, you have to wonder what’s been found wanting: the modern world, or the modern cinema.

Butterfly Kiss aside, British TV has traditionally provided Reel Affirmations with some of its most interesting documentaries. This year, director Kim Longinotto (The Good Wife of Tokyo) returns to Japan (with co-director Jano Williams) for Shinjuku Boys (Oct. 12, 6 p.m.). This candid film examines the phenomenon of onnabe, women who dress like men to act as hosts in expensive nightclubs such as Club Marilyn in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. In a culture where women are supposed to stay home, the onnabe attract women (some lesbian, some not) who enjoy being entertained by “ideal men” more solicitous than any they’d find in mainstream Japanese society. As the film demonstrates, even in the specialized world of the onnabe, there are various ways to define masculinity: some of the cross-dressing women get hormone injections to alter their bodies; others merely behave like cavalier playboys.

Unexpectedly, the most moving of the films I previewed was It’s Elementary (Oct. 15, 7 p.m.), a study of how gay issues are taught in a handful of elementary and junior high schools in the cities you’d expect (New York, San Francisco, Cambridge, Mass., and Madison, Wis.). Debra Chasnoff’s documentary provides occasional glimpses of reactionary politicians and uptight parents, but the film emphasizes the dialogue between patient, articulate teachers and kids who are mostly too young to have figured out who they’re supposed to hate. The levels of sophistication vary greatly: Some grade-schoolers have been to gay-rights marches and know words like “homophobia”; others are stunned to find out about Elton John or imagine that “gay” is a synonym for interracial. Still, when a third-grader reads her essay on having two mommies to an enthusiastic class, it’s impossible to doubt one teacher’s testimony that elementary-school discussion of gay identity will make America “a better and a safer place.”CP