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    Postcards from London May Leave Viewers Spellbound

    Jim (Harris Dickinson), the hero of writer/director Steve McLean’s highly stylized drama Postcards from London, now out on DVD, is “young, fit, and has the face of an angel.” He also has a sickness; when he encounters an artistic masterpiece, like a Titian in a London gallery, he faints. Jim is that sensitive to beauty.

    McLean’s film will leave viewers who connect with it equally spellbound. It is a heady—albeit talky—mix of beauty, art and intellect shot in a deliberate style that plays up its own artificiality. The film features a handful of vignettes in which Jim imagines himself posing for Caravaggio (Ben Cura), getting into debates with the artist about his sexuality, and even participating in a duel with the painter. These are fun episodes that may come across as campy or silly, but McLean’s focus is to examine the nature and value of beauty and objectification.

    In one of the film’s wittiest scenes, Jim, who works as a rent boy—though that term is frowned upon—poses as Saint Sebastian. The joke is that, despite the efforts to transport his client back to ancient times, the vibe is spoiled because the men keep getting interrupted. Nevertheless, a gorgeously lit shot of Jim posed as “the world’s first pin-up” is quite striking.

    But this is getting ahead of things. Postcards from London opens with Jim moving from Essex to a neon-lit Soho “to make his fortune.” He encounters men and women selling sex and drugs on the very street he will soon sleep on. After being robbed, Jim is encouraged to head to a bar, hoping to find a job. Instead, he meets the raconteurs, a group of handsome young men—David (Jonah Hauer-King), Jesus (Alessandro Cimadamore), Marcello (Leonardo Salerni), and Victor (Raphael Desprez)—who offer him a vocation: providing intimacy to older men as well as post-coital conversation.

    Their mission is to “drag male prostitution into the 21st century while paying homage to the artists who came before.” As such, the raconteurs educate Jim about filmmakers Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and artists such as Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. For Jim, sex is the easy part; it’s the art that messes him up.

    McLean prefers showing beauty, not sex. An amusing bit has a shirtless Jim posing for photos to advertise his good looks. The camera loves him, especially when he reveals his penis. (Spoiler alert: the nudity in the film is kept to a minimum). Jim’s first tryst unfolds as a series of arty shots of hands intertwined while a stripped-down version of “My Funny Valentine” plays on the soundtrack. Jim later becomes a muse to Max (Richard Durden), an older artist who is inspired to paint this handsome young man.

    Jim’s fainting upon seeing great art, however, starts to have serious consequences for him. He is diagnosed with “Stendhal Syndrome,” a rare condition that stems from the strong emotions he feels. Whether audiences will feel anything emotional for Jim or Postcards from London will depend on how seduced or empathetic they are to the protagonist’s actions and exploitation. Jim’s encounters become more difficult for him, but the film becomes less, not more, interesting because of how detached the character becomes.

    In the film’s third act, Paul (Leemore Marrett, Jr.) lures Jim away from the raconteurs. Paul wants Jim to evaluate various paintings by fainting, so he can determine if they are authentic and valuable. This episode shifts the film’s earlier messages about beauty, creativity and intellect to commerce—but it also suggests the promise of romance and possibly love. This episode feels underdeveloped, though, and the film becomes somewhat tedious with dialogue being repeated, albeit for effect.         

    McLean may box his protagonist into a corner dramatically, but he does use some clever visuals to tell his story. In addition to the anachronistic dream scenes featuring recreations of Caravaggio paintings, there are irises, peepholes and split screens employed to focus the viewer’s attention on Jim. There is also a curious sequence of Jim walking through a bar where all the characters posed around a pool table appear frozen in time. These gimmicks may be a bit pretentious, but they emphasize Jim’s objectification.

    Postcards from London will be most appreciated by viewers who are as attracted to the actor as the film’s characters are. Dickinson, who played gay last year in Beach Rats, gives another mesmerizing performance here. He makes Jim both self-aware, and adorably clueless. It comes off as charming because he is in on the sly joke.

    McLean’s film is a companion piece of sorts to his last feature, 1994’s Postcards from America, adapted from the writings of David Wojnarowicz. This new film, like the last one, is an acquired taste, but the combination of Jim’s chiseled chest and cultural learnings is certainly enticing.

    © 2019 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.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer