Bright Lights Film Journal

Queer Love: Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger’s <em>Boyfriends</em> (1996)

This sweet, sad queer ensemble piece from Britain surpasses its more pompous American counterparts.

The bitchy, bittersweet gay ensemble movie of the pre-2000 era, e.g., The Boys in the Band or Love! Valour! Compassion!, has become a familiar, if not always welcome, cinematic subgenre. All the elements of the drama are narrowed and the focus concentrated – the setting is mostly a single, claustrophobic space; the time is typically compressed into a single night or a weekend; and the characters are invariably a handful of old friends in their thirties or older who get together for what starts as a simple social gathering and ends with a series of breakups, breakdowns, and reconciliations, with a little bed-hopping thrown in for good measure. Sexy window dressing often appears in the form of an unapologetically lustful, younger, working-class twink-outsider who wreaks havoc on the couples’ relationships.

Boyfriends, which has all these elements, is a smaller and in some ways sweeter version of its more blustery cousins. Written, produced, and directed by Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger, it’s one of the better examples in the canon, wisely taking advantage of what might first strike the eye as drawbacks. Unlike Boys or Love!, there’s no theatrical pedigree and thus no pre-sold audience for this British production. Boyfriends was shot on a shoestring in a mere 18 days with an unknown cast. But the lack of familiar faces, plus the intentionally rough lighting and framing, gives the story an immediacy and freshness that’s often disarming. Most of all, this well-acted film generously makes room for the complex traits of its couples-in-distress, incorporating sarcasm, sensuality, and psychodrama with equal skill.

The setting of Boyfriends is an unpretentious country cottage (not reminiscent of the luxurious restored manse of Love! Valour! Compassion!) away from the bustle of London. Owner Paul (James Dreyfus) and his lover Ben (Mark Sands) invite two friends to join them for a pleasant gay weekend. Will (David Coffey) is a social worker who brings his latest trick, a whorish 20-year-old former client named Adam (Darren Petrucci). Goody-goody Matt (Michael Unwin) brings his boyfriend of three months, the promiscuous, distracted Owen (Andrew Ableson). Amidst all the cooking, cleaning, and nature walks, each of these three couples see their relationships, where they exist at all, unraveling before their eyes.

Will cons the reluctant Adam into coming by telling the younger man, “It’ll give you a chance to see a group of well-adjusted homosexual men.” Adam’s life-lesson, however, doesn’t quite materialize because these men are anything but well-adjusted. Aggressive, bitchy Paul is distressed at the death of his brother, and spends much of his time haranguing Ben, who retreats into long silences broken by spells of talking to his plants, which he believes are being systematically murdered by Paul. “I bet Paul gave you something nasty, did he?” he whispers to one shriveled specimen. “Did Paul give you something?”

Matt tries to choreograph a picture-book romance with the reluctant Owen, overpowering him with love and elaborate, beautifully arranged meals. Owen’s response? “You’ve no idea what it’s like being loved by Matt,” he complains to a friend of Matt’s whom he’s “shagged” in a woodland tryst. “It’s like being smothered by a huge bear. That’s what our sex was – me trying to breathe.”

Will and Adam are on even shakier ground than the others, having spent only a night together before arriving at the cottage. Will’s a hopeless romantic, but Adam is faithful to his own code of one-night-stands-only. An ingratiating fuckhound who tries to screw his way through the group, he blithely swaps beds with the frustrated Will in order to facilitate his amours. Like Randy Becker in Love! or Robert La Tourneaux in Boys, he’s a working-class outsider disliked by his more bourgeois patrons and irrationally blamed for their problems. A drunken Paul complains about him: “You know there are two ‘t’s in ‘settee’ and he doesn’t use either of them!” In a typical scene, Adam tries to initiate a three-way with Matt and Owen. When Matt’s chilliness ends the lovemaking, Adam simply shrugs and runs off to bed Ben, who’s vulnerable after a breakup with Paul.

Adam’s refusal to take any of the other characters seriously provides much of the film’s comic relief. Interviewed by Paul for a vague video project, he comments on the “well-adjusted homosexual men” he’s met during the weekend, but the praise quickly slides into vexation and a younger man’s brand of bitchery. “Everyone’s been really friendly . . . they’re a bit mixed up. They’ve all got problems. They’re all quite old . . .” After the jilted Will recites a litany of Adam’s alleged crimes – chiefly his refusal to sleep with Will during the trip – an uncomprehending Adam still can’t figure out what he did wrong. “I brought you a cuppa tea this mornin’,” he insists.

Paul and Ben’s encounters provide the dark counterpoint to such light moments. Paul begins the film by dominating and abusing his partner, but in a series of subtle exchanges, Ben reclaims his power, forcing his lover to adopt the equivalent of an S&M “safe word” that Ben will say when Paul starts becoming abusive. The word? “Pig.” Paul and Ben’s relationship personifies the film’s theme of the lack of communication and understanding among these often very talkative characters. Matt and Owen pick up the theme in Matt’s refusal to read Owen’s signals of apathy, and Owen’s willingness to use Matt to get to one of the other men he’s pining for. Will suffers from similar romantic delusions, pursuing Adam in spite of the latter’s indifference.

Dinah Washington gives her spiritual blessing to these confused, endearing characters in the form of a wistful 1940s ballad, “I Wish I Knew the Name of the Boy of My Dreams,” which plays over a montage of the couples preparing for the trip and again in the closing credits. But the title is ironic. In Boyfriends, as so often in life, the characters do know the name of the boy of their dreams, but not much more.