“House of Boys”… The title of this movie may lead us to believe that this is an exploitation flick, with bare skin being the main attraction. Indeed, the viewer is treated to cute, clever, and sexy boylesque numbers, as well as a good amount of man-to-man love scenes and even a rock concert thrown in. The boys in this house clearly live their lives with no limits, with all the freedom that youth and sexual liberation have to offer. But there’s much more than that in this brilliant film. Set in a very pivotal time in gay history (the 80’s), the movie truly reflects the roadmap of that roller-coaster era: when extreme freedom and changing sexual attitudes gave way to extreme tragedy and new priorities for the gay community. “House of Boys” is also, very clearly, an intensely personal work for director Jean-Claude Schlim. Every frame looks like it was individually thought out and hand-painted, with many scenes tinted in the bright colors that embodied so much 80’s fashion and music video.
It‘s Amsterdam, 1984. We are introduced to Frank (Layke Anderson), a flaxen-haired (Even his skin looks blond!) teenager with a lithe body of a fledgling ballet dancer and curious, yearning eyes. Boyish persona aside, Frank knows how to play hard. He spends his nights in Amsterdam’s famous nightlife scene of raves, drugs, and hot-to-trot young men. After a quibble with his fabulously butch gal pal over his extreme partying, Frank is left with nowhere to crash for the night. He ventures out in the darkness during a rainstorm, and that’s when he stumbles quite accidentally across “The House of Boys” of the title. It’s a twist of fate that will ultimately change his life. Like its name suggests, the House of Boys is home to a family of young male dancers who willingly exploit their unblemished charms on stage for money. Among the inhabitants of this frat house of sorts are the flamboyant and funny Angelo (excellently played by Steven Webb ), who’s saving his money for a sex change in Singapore; Dean (Oliver Hoare) who sports a lime-colored Mohawk and cocksure “What the fuck?“ sexiness; and Jake (Benn Northover), the club’s star dancer… who‘s straight. Jake’s purported heterosexuality gives him a cool detachment from his horny admirers, and the crowd eats it up. Completing the picture are a kind “den mother“ Emma (Eleanor David), and German character actor Udo Keir as Queen of this testosterone-soaked house of burlesque. As “Madam”, Keir gets to perform torch songs in “grande dame” drag as a cooldown period between the boys‘ strip numbers. Absolutely fascinated by his new surroundings, it’s not long before Frank becomes the club’s most popular boy. He also gets a heavy duty crush on Jake, who reminds us that he’s straight but who’s not above being “gay for pay”. In other words, he takes his act beyond the stage– if you know what I mean. Frank and Jake soon embark upon a relationship which colors the entire rest of the movie. For our golden boy Frank especially, it’s just one big party. That party comes to an end with the speed of a guillotine dropping, however, with the advent of a new “gay cancer“. To the movie’s credit, “House of Boys” does not gloss over or shy away from the horrors of the disease (KS lesions and all…) , which makes the film heartbreakingly provocative but also very difficult to watch at times. For anyone who lived during that era in gay history, it’s likely to open a Pandora’s box of emotions. The audience should be happy to know, however, that hope springs eternal– and “House of Boys” rewards the viewer with a good serving of it in the last scenes.
Destined to become a classic in the library of GLBT cinema, “House of Boys” is bolstered by many creative directorial touches, including an impressive soundtrack. Some of the songs are major hits (1981‘s “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell) and others are closet classics aching to be heard again. (In the very first scene, one of the characters sings a few lines of 1983‘s “Shoot Your Shot” from the late great Divine.) We are also treated to some superb performances by veteran actors. Underused Brit Stephen Fry (“Jeeves and Wooster”) plays a sympathetic doctor who is on the forefront of what was to become the epidemic of the century. As “Madam“, 68-year old Udo Kier (Cult movie lovers may remember him from “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” and “Andy Warhol’s Dracula”.) offers a complicated persona: He simultaneously nurtures and exploits his “boys”, and always maintains a dignified presence even as he recalls his own lost youth. However, it’s the young actors’ movie all the way. They convey just what it feels like to be young, when every emotion is so piercingly passionate: Intense joys live alongside intense lows. For some of the characters in the film, the joys are indeed all-consuming, but the lows run the extreme range from the first heartbreak to the fight for life itself.
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