"It's a dream," says Patrice Chereau of his new film Son Frere. "It's about two brothers who don't have a relationship with one another, then one becomes ill. Suddenly he discovers that he doesn't have the strength to resist and fight the disease. So he asks his brother to help him." Sounds like a standard-issue AIDS drama, doesn't it? But no, this time it's the straight brother (Bruno Todeschini) who's dying of a mysterious blood disease and the gay one (Eric Caravaca) who offers him support. The result is the simplest and most direct work by an openly gay artist long celebrated in Europe but barely known to most U.S. audiences, save for his performance as a French officer in The Last of the Mohicans.
In France, Patrice Chereau has been a name to reckon with since the '60s and '70s, when his physically forceful renditions of plays by Ibsen, Marlowe, Marivaux, and, above all, Genet's The Screens made Iris reputation in theater. Then in the 1980s his productions of Berg's Lulu and Wagner's Ring Cycle galvanized the world of opera.
But it's as a film director where Chereau has really shaken things up, with films like L'Homme Blesse, his 1983 study of a gay youth's painful coming-out; Queen Margot, his lavish version of Alexandre Dumas's violent Historical drama; and Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, his modern classic about a funeral and its aftermath, where gay, bisexual, and transgendered characters take center stage while the straights have supporting roles. His fearlessness in diving right off into the deep end makes such seemingly radical gay filmmakers as Almodovar, Ozon, and Van Sant seem timid by comparison.
"It's a film about a man who had two families," notes Chereau, regarding Those Who Love Me, during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "There's a biological family that's not very interesting. And then there's this other family--the gay family. That's what happened to me. When I was around 16 or 20 I discovered that it was possible to have family of another kind, a family of friends.
"The thing about Son Frere is, I don't have a relationship with my older brother. The fact that I'm gay stopped everything. He would never talk about it. So we don't talk about anything anymore. If he won't talk about me and the people I love, I'm not interested in talking with him about his children--my nephews, I'm not interested in talking about his wife. Sometimes the family is the place where nobody talks."
But in Chereau's films everybody talks, and if things work out, that talk may shortly be on this side of the Atlantic. There's a film about Napoleon that Chereau may shortly direct with Al Pacino starring. "And I'm fascinated by Los Angeles," he reveals. "I'm trying to figure it out."
Ehrenstein is the author of Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, 1928-2000.
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