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    Man at Bath Provocatively Explores Intimacy and Coping

    garysoloChristophe Honoré’s 2010 film Man at Bath, now out on DVD, is a provocative investigation of the disintegrating relationship between Emmanuel (beefy French porn star François Sagat) and Omar (Omar Ben Sellem). Emmanuel is the “man at bath.” As Omar spies on his lover toweling off after washing, Honoré is paying homage to artist Gustave Caillebotte’s painting of the same name.

    As the film opens, Omar is about to leave the Paris suburb of Gennevilliers for a film screening in New York City. However, Emmanuel forcibly sodomizes him first. Omar insists that Emmanuel must leave their home before he returns.

    Man at Bath juxtaposes how both partners respond to this “breakup.” While Emmanuel pays a visit to Robin (Dennis Cooper), and poses nude for him, Robin insults the muscled stud, calling him “kitsch.” Meanwhile, Omar attends a seminar his actress Chiara Mastroianni gives at the School of Visual Arts, and becomes besotted with Dustin (Dustin Degura-Suarez). Omar soon films Dustin in various locations and in various stages of undress and arousal.

    Honoré’s film is sexually explicit, with ample nudity including erections, but it is less about sex, and more about how the lovers each cope with their breakup. Omar films Dustin to examine the love and intimacy he wants with Emmanuel. That Emmanuel gives Rabah (Rabah Zahi), a teen he meets at Robin’s, Omar’s bathrobe, and poses him in front of images of Omar, suggests he is projecting his love and desire for Omar onto this boy he has access to in Omar’s absence.

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    In an email exchange, writer/director Christophe Honoré explained that Man at Bath came about as a project for the Théâtre de Gennevilliers. “Every year, they invite a filmmaker to shoot a short film, with the only requirement being that you have to shoot it in the city.”
    Honoré said that he met François Sagat around the time of the project and took the opportunity to film the actor and his body as “a canvas, a study for a male nude.” The filmmaker explained the appeal of having Sagat star in Man at Bath.

    “I think he belongs to a generation that has already disappeared, the cult of toughness—based on the cult of femininity that was very popular among women models at the end of the Eighties. François’s body seems to relate to the violence of men, their ability to seize control and impose themselves.” But, he adds, “Francois’ (work) as a porn actor—he is mostly a bottom—makes this violence, this power, seem fake, a sham.”

    For Honoré, the depiction of nudity, sexuality, and intimacy are “the object and the subject” of the film. The filmmaker enjoyed the challenge of filming the erotic scenes and wanted to use his camera to explore what he described as “Sagat’s exceptional body and his lovers’ insignificant ones.” His purpose was “to study these various types of bodies” and the humanity of the men who have them, yet “not lead to any sexual excitation for the audience.” However, some viewers are likely to be aroused by the explicit sex scenes featuring Sagat and Degura-Suarez, separately.

    The result is not traditional “pornography,” but a striking film that focuses less on constructing desire and more on ways of depicting the truth of the gay relationships. Honoré acknowledged, “The scenes that usually reflect the intimacy of a gay couple mostly remain off-screen. The film is an object of contemplation, surprising, but familiar at the same time.”

    Man at Bath also offers Honoré a chance to explore his own identity as a filmmaker, casting Omar Ben Sellem as his alter ego in the film. Honoré revealed, “I’m always trying to put something personal in my works—to translate into shots the questions and thoughts in my mind at the moment the film happen. With Man at Bath, I looked at intimacy, both as love and as sexual intimacy, and I wanted to mix this reflection with fiction and documentary. Therefore, I added a filmed diary onto the fiction of a romantic breakup.”

    For the filmmaker, Man at Bath, is less a film and more what he called “a workshop project.” He continued, “It was not meant to be screened in the cinemas, only (to be) shown at the Theatre de Gennevilliers. It is an exercise of freedom and invention…And it has been a happy moment of my work life.”

    © 2014 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer