Way back in 1994 British filmmaker Steve McLean wrote and directed the gritty, groundbreaking Postcards from America, a provocative dramatic depiction of the life of gay artist David Wojnarowicz that was hailed as marking the tail end of the New Queer Cinema. Nearly twenty-five years later McLean returns with this clever if mannered meditation on a quartet of art history obsessed rentboys in London’s Soho district who guide wholesome young newcomer Jim (the knockout handsome Harris Dickinson, last seen in Beach Rats) into a life of homo historical aesthetics, postmodern self-referential humor and sex work.
The film’s vibrant, color-saturated aesthetic and thematic reflections on gay art history evoke the British queer cinema of the 1980s and early ’90s (think Derek Jarman and Isaac Julien) as Postcards from London offers up a kind of CliffsNotes crash course on gay cultural icons like Caravaggio, Oscar Wilde, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. That said, the sheer weight of the film’s stylized aesthetic does wear a bit thin at times.
“I imagine a world full of mystery and possibilities,” Jim tells his provincially caricatured parents before fleeing his podunk hometown of Essex. Jim lands in London where he meets a mysterious homeless artist (played by Jerome Holder, star of the UK weed-comedy, Dough) who insists on charging him rent for sleeping in a cardboard box. “The streets of London are cold as ice, they stink of piss and they’re not paved with gold,” his new friend warns.
After being relieved of his wallet by a thief in the night the lad promptly stumbles into a gay club where the bartender reassures him: “You’re young and fit with the face of an angel. You’ll have plenty of friends soon enough.”
Enter David, Marcello, Jesus, and Victor—the culturally upscale rent boys who describe themselves as the Raconteurs. A Brit, an Italian, a Spaniard, and a Frenchman, they marvel at Jim’s perfect masculine beauty while grooming him for a career as a high-end hustler.
“He could have stepped out of a Caravaggio,” they all agree.
“Social media is a definite no-no. People want to suck your cock; they don’t care what you had for breakfast.”
Jim’s immersive training includes a wonderful sequence in which he studies the great gay writers, artists, and filmmakers. Caravaggio, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Wilde, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Mapplethorpe, Cavafy, Forster, Genet, Rimbaud, and even Joe Dallesandro. These names being dropped simultaneously evoke their actual broader gay heritage while also standing as unmistakable homage to Jarman. In particular Jarman’s 1986 drama, Caravaggio is clearly a significant influence for McLean.
Case in point: There are several brilliant sequences featuring re-enactments of Caravaggio’s best-known paintings. These are some of the best moments of the film, laugh-out loud funny in their anachronistic language and featuring running gags about the great master’s sexuality.
Jim’s career evolves from being a figure of sexual amusement for sundry male clients (one heavyset john in a toga requires Jim to play St. Sebastian) to becoming the muse to an older painter—portraitist Max (Richard Durden) who enlists Jim’s services as a model. Before long Jim discovers he’s suffering from an illness which causes him to faint at the sight of great works of art.
“The sex I can deal with, it’s the art that fucks me up,” he tells his friends. Diagnosed with Stendahl Syndrome (a lovely, poetic—and actually real—disease characterized by an over-sensitivity to art) Jim reinvents himself once again as a kind of art whisperer with the ability to detect forgeries (because of course in their fraudulence any fake masterpieces will fail to elicit his fainting spells).
This yet more lucrative form of prostituting himself brings even greater prosperity as Jim walks away from one form of hustling into another.
While McLean’s overall tone and themes may sometimes try one’s patience, Postcards from London ultimately wins you over with its colorful quirky ambitions. The whimsical constrained visuals of the film play like a queer mash-up of Wes Anderson and R.W. Fassbinder—these are truly some of the queerest postcards you’ve ever seen.
Look for Postcards from London in limited theatrical release starting November 9, 2018.