Beyond the Walls
(Hors Les Murs)

Strand Releasing,

David Lambert

Matila Malliarakis,
Guillaume Gouix,
David Salles,

Unrated, 98 minutes

Last Tango In Belgium
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online September, 2013

There’s nothing like the thrill of a new relationship before things get messy. Look at what happens to poor Paulo and Ilir. Beyond the Walls (Hors Les Murs) is a remarkable first feature set in filmmaker David Lambert’s native Belgium. A selection at Cannes, Beyond The Walls chronicles the dizzying highs and plummeting lows of a doomed tryst between two very different men. It is also a coming of age story of sorts; Paulo is an immature young man who is forced to grow up in a hurry.

Paulo (Matila Malliarakis) is impulsive and doesn’t know what he wants. The film begins with Paulo passing out at a bar. While drinking himself into a stupor, he was also making some serious eye contact with the handsome bartender (Guillaume Gouix). His name is Ilir. He winds up carrying the drunk Paulo, over his shoulder, back to his apartment. His motives seem noble but he also wants to get laid. He tenderly lays Paulo on his bed and unbuttons the lad’s shirt and then his pants. But Paulo is unconscious and so Ilir rolls over and goes to sleep too.

They bond over breakfast as Ilir nursemaids Paulo through his hangover. Ilir tells him that he is from Albania and that his name means “freedom” in France. They smile at each other a lot. Paulo admits to a girlfriend but is being very non-committal. Ilir understands immediately. “You’re still trying to figure it out, aren’t you?” he asks. Paulo goes back home. His girlfriend, Anka, is waiting for him and, judging by her welcome, this isn’t the first time this has happened.

Paulo and Ilir meet again. Both are musicians. Paulo plays the piano accompaniment to silent films, and Ilir plays bass guitar in a band. Paulo goes to hear him perform. We watch Ilir through Paulo’s eyes. The rest of the band fades out until the bass dominates the soundtrack, suggesting that is all that Paulo hears now. Ilir looks straight at the camera, at Paulo, at us; the moment is electric.

Mirroring the last scene, Ilir’s eyes are definitely not on the movie screen when he goes to see his young friend play the piano. Afterwards, lust gets the better of them and they race up the stairs to Ilir’s apartment. Inside, still breathing heavily from running, they stare at each other and then finally kiss - for a very long time. Later, they smoke some hash. Ilir gives Paulo a “shotgun” and blows the smoke into his eager lover’s mouth, and the tableaux is very sexy.

Paulo knows that he likes men yet tries to maintain a conventional, heterosexual relationship. Anka has had enough and throws Paulo out. Laughably, Paulo is so oblivious to the consequences of his actions. (“But we’re so good together,” he insists as his girlfriend slams the door.) He shows up at Ilir’s doorstep with his bags and asks if he can move in. Ilir is less than thrilled. “All we did was have some fun, that’s all,” he tells the desperate, but also smitten, young lad. “Take care of me?” he pleads. “You’re all I got.” When that doesn’t work, Paulo imitates a child’s voice and asks, “Blow jobby?”

His persistence pays off because Ilir lets him stay and they become very affectionate lovers. Their relationship is quite charming actually; they have a lot of fun and it’s fun to watch them. Paulo ties a lock of his hair around one of Ilir’s toes and says “I’m attaching myself to you.” He’s a little clingy but he’s so cute about it. He’s lovable and annoying all at the same time. “Do you love me?” he asks. Ilir smiles and responds, “Not at all.”

Ilir might not love Paulo yet but he has succumbed to the young lad’s charms. Ilir is a little bit older and more butch than Paulo. This is apparent by just looking at them. Ilir’s hair is short, Paulo’s is shaggy. Ilir has a full bear’s beard, Paulo can only grow a patchy goatee. At one point, they arm wrestle to see who gets to bottom; they are shirtless and Paulo looks like a boy compared to his burly Albanian Daddy.

Ilir leaves the country for a few days to play a music gig. Their long and playful kiss in the train station ends with my favorite image from the film: Ilir moving away backwards from Paulo down the escalator. It is a very romantic moment with flashes of humor and the director holds the widescreen image for a long time. And then… Ilir doesn’t come back and the entire tone of the movie changes.

Up to this point, the film has been a lot of fun. What I especially liked were the lack of clichés and the irreverent approaches to their romance. There was a very funny scene in a grocery store where Ilir loudly asked, in front of everyone, where the condoms are kept and this was followed by a search for kiwi-flavored lube in a sex shoppe. For those who hate sappy love stories, how about Ilir locking a metal chastity toy on Paulo’s penis and then taking the key with him when he goes away? (Isn’t it interesting how European filmmakers can pull off scenes like this, while similar scenes in Hollywood movies are almost always juvenile?)

The first act emphasized Paulo’s childish need to be taken care of. Their roles are reversed in part two. Ilir was busted for hash possession and he made things worse by resisting arrest. He has been sentenced to eighteen months in prison. Their visits are portraits in anguish. Thinking only of his own pain, Paulo blames Ilir for getting arrested and cries like a baby. Ilir, needing to project a tough image in order to survive behind bars, asks Paulo to stop coming. After Ilir has served his sentence, he acts like Paulo did in the beginning; trying to be cute so that he can get back into his life.

With Ilir gone, Paulo fills the void in his life by moving in with the man at the sex shoppe who sold them that chastity toy. Part two is more episodic and we don’t see how they become a couple, but we do see Paulo go back to the shoppe, embarrassed, to ask for help getting the metal thing off his dick. Surrendering even further to this new partner, he lets the older man tie him up and play a few S&M games. But he learns new maturity along the way. In his later dealings with Ilir, Paulo has grown up and emerges as the more mature and grounded member. He looks like a kid in the beginning; he’s older and more groomed at the end.

Beyond The Walls is like two films; the first being a fun comedy, the second an intense drama and both halves work. The script is nicely constructed. Numerous scenes mirror each other; some even acting as bookends. The characters, and our reactions to them are complicated. We like them and feel sorry for them even when they are not at their best. Both are likable, but also can be needy, opportunistic, and not above using the other for his own selfish gains. Far from one dimensional, we watch them at their best and at their worst.

The acting is outstanding; Malliarakis and Gouix are terrific as Paulo and Ilir. Their chemistry together lights up the screen. Each is equally adept at expressing both joy and misery. When Ilir inexplicably disappears, Malliarakis beautifully conveys the lad’s panic. His moodier scenes avoid descending into complete melodrama with the addition of such eccentric touches as the metal chastity device that he needs the key for. Gouix also excels at showing both Ilir’s tough and teddy bear sides. Every look that they give is packed with meaning and they command each one of their close-ups. Director Lambert trusts his actors and many scenes are captured in long takes, preserving the intimacy of their performance. The photography – which could be a little lighter in some scenes – is shot with a painter’s eye for composition and heightens the mood.

A number of mainstream reviews have compared Beyond The Walls favorably with Weekend and Keep The Lights On. There are certainly similarities, and it’s refreshing to see them being noted by straight reviewers (a phenomenon mostly unheard of even a decade ago). While it might not reach the same heights as the above-mentioned films, Beyond The Walls comes pretty damned close. Queer cinema has been enjoying quite the renaissance these past couple years.