GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM

Johan:
Mon ete 75
(My Summer of '75)

Waterbearer Films,
1976

Director:
Philippe Vallois

Screenplay:
Laurent Olivier, Philippe Vallois

Staring:
Philippe Vallois , Marie-Christine Weill, Patrice Pascal, Laurent Laclos, Georges Barber, Jean-Lou Duc, Karl Forest, Pierre Commoy, Manolo Rosales, Nicole Rondy, Éric Guardagnan

Unrated, 85 minutes

Another From
The Vaults
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, September, 2008

 

Johan: Mon ete 75, which is billed as "a French classic, complete and unseen since 1976," is one of the most sexually explicit art films I have ever seen. The day after seeing it, I watched Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, a new documentary about 70s adult film star, Jack Wrangler. The timing couldn't have been better because one of the talking heads commented how the early gay porn directors had more artistic aspirations than those today. He cited the lyrical photography of model Casey Donovan in the soft core 1971 Wakefield Poole film, Boys in the Sand, to make his point.

The reason that I mention this is because the same style of sensual imagery permeates director Philippe Vallois' Johan: Mon ete 75, and the film resembles a strange hybrid of Poole and Jean Luc Godard. Johan was made during a time when Europe was pioneering films that explored frank, and often explicit, sexuality. Blow Up, I Am Curious (Yellow), Last Tango In Paris and others were landmarks that pushed the envelope. It was time for a gay filmmaker to do the same.

Johan is an autobiographical fantasia about making a film which may, in fact, be the film that we are watching. Vallois stars as himself, a young director who is shooting a movie about Johan, the man he loves. Johan, however, has been arrested and sits in prison. Phillipe (Vallios) has a film crew waiting and cannot wait for Johan's release and so the hunt begins for the right actor to play his imprisoned lover. Phillipe wants to capture the passion of their affair while, simultaneously, he is confronted with knowledge that threatens to hurl Johan from his pedestal. But perhaps Phillipe recognizes reality only when he sees it through the lens of his camera.

Frequenting the cruising grounds in the Tuileries Gardens, Phillipe attempts to recreate his idyll with a string of attractive Parisian men. At the same time, his journey intersects with a variety of worlds that expand his horizons. One of his young actors describes his role as a "sadist" in S&M clubs, another explains the functions of his sex toys and gives a demonstration of fisting. Phillipe enjoys an interracial romance and their love scenes are the sexiest in the film. Interspersed throughout are lovingly lit exterior shots that celebrate the beauty of the male physique. A man dances nude in front of a wall of paintings; two shirtless legionnaires wrestle and then fuck in the desert; two men dressed as Arabian princes sit on horseback in a campy tableaux ala Pink Narcissus or Kenneth Anger.

The unusual narrative will either intrigue or infuriate the casual viewer. Johan was photographed with high-contrast and grainy black & white film but there are many scenes that suddenly explode into color without warning. The sequences in color represent the scenes that are being shot for the film within a film. We know this for certain because the boom mike enters the shot in several of these scenes and, whenever we see Phillipe behind the camera, the image returns to black & white.

But when the mike boom invades a monochromatic scene as well, you begin to question the film's reality. There are at least two erotic interludes in which Phillipe tricks with another man but he is played by a different actor. Are these also scenes from the movie he is making? Or are we in the director's mind as he visualizes his script? The filmmaker is being deliberately vague. Johan, who is never seen by the way, has a round tattoo on his forehead. Each actor who plays him will sport the same tattoo, as will his lady friend Christine and finally Phillipe, himself, when he decides that only he knows Johan well enough to be able to play him onscreen.

The film covers a lot of ground, perhaps too much and the action is often meandering as it drifts from one scene to the next. A lengthy flashback set in New York City, involving a brief romance with an expatriate Cuban poet, provides a nice diversion but one that could have almost have been a seperate movie by itself.
Johan was actually screened uncut at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. The French censors, however, slapped an X rating on the film and the naughtier bits (like the fisting scene) were edited for general release. The negative was destroyed and the film itself vanished from view for years. It was rarely screened, and was eventually forgotten; there is no mention of Johan in any of my queer film texts. On the documentary that comes with the disc, director Vallois tells how a French film archive discovered a small reel labeled "Johan" that was forgotten in a projection booth 30 years before. It contained all the footage, long thought to be lost, that was cut to avoid the X rating. All the explicit imagery that the audience saw at Cannes has been lovingly restored and a new generation can see the film as it was originally screened.
This is not my first encounter with the filmmaker. 10 years ago, one of the first films that I reviewed for Outcome was a later title from the same director. It was an off-beat World War II drama, entitled We Were One Man, in which a village half-wit finds a wounded Nazi soldier and takes him back to his cottage. While not quite as convoluted as his first feature film, this one also threw conventional narrative out the window.
Vallois wanted cinema to celebrate male sensuality and Johan erupts with passion. While explicit, its honesty and gritty realism transcends the pornographic. Johan was lightyears ahead of its time - consider, for example, how gay men were being routinely portrayed in Hollywood films. For those who would dismiss the film as being just "artsy porn," the director has captured a long gone era of pre-AIDS gay liberation and the queer milieu of 1970s Paris is carved into celluloid forever just as the British film Nighthawks (1978) would preserve the London nightlife and even Cruising (1980), in its own way, left us with a document of the New York meat packing district leather scene.

Opinions on Johan's merits as cinema will no doubt vary with the individual. I found it to be a daring and unapologetic exploration of homosexuality for its day but felt that it lacked a coherent narrative. Still, that hasn't stopped me from enjoying similar films in the past (David Lynch's Eraserhead anyone?). Johan is a great historical document and should be preserved as such. At the very least, Phillipe Vallois should deserve recognition, along with iconoclasts like Fassbinder, for bringing the gay experience to the screen during a time when it was far from commonplace.

 

More on Philippe Vallois:
We Were One Man

See also:
Fabulous: The Story of Queer Cinema

See also:
Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon

 

Similar films:
Saturday Night At The Baths
Nighthawks
A Very Natural Thing