(Words: Jamie Tabberer)
Sexual awakenings in 2020 can be turbocharged with a swipe of a smartphone - so what's the fate of gay erotic fiction, which coaxed so many into adulthood? (Call Me By Your Name, by the way, came out back in 2007…)
Forget fan fiction, tube sites: for those who came of age before tablets and superfast broadband, the thrill of a well-thumbed copy of whatever salacious, faintly ridiculous read - of described sexual acts and scenarios, formed in the imagination - is singular.
It’s a quality translated to the screen in Sebastián Muñoz’s directorial debut: a fantastical, dreamy film called The Prince.
Inspired by the obscure Mario Cruz novel of the same name, it’s like stepping back into a story you read on the down low years ago: nostalgic, but prompting amused embarrassment at the things that used to get you off.
Because The Prince, like all the best gay erotica, is frankly a little insulting at times. We’re talking characters so undeveloped they’re barely given names; scenarios so heightened, they’re laughable.
Set in a 1970s Chilean men’s prison, most if not all the major players are into guys. Basic enough for you?
But here’s the thing. It’s kind of basic on purpose.
We experience life behind bars through newbie Jaime (Juan Carlos Maldonado, 31, playing younger); a deer in headlights-type whose crime of passion is revealed in flashback.
Maldonado’s acting knowingly swings from flat and lifeless to wildly over the top – and it works. We’ve all met a Jaime: a Dorian Gray type whose emotional growth has been stunted by good looks.
The curly-haired beauty’s new reality is a series of prison cliches: tactile communal showers, age-gap relationships, opportunities for sexual voyeurism at every turn. The scenarios raise an eyebrow and occasionally titillate - albeit the film’s not remotely as sexually extreme as the trailer suggests, save for one boner.
Somehow, the stereotypes don’t grate. Perhaps it’s because production designer Muñoz approaches every perfectly-lit, immaculately-framed shot with utmost seriousness. For example. the inmates all wear shabby but achingly cool clothes. I had to keep pausing to take a closer look. An outdoor haircutting scene, improbably, looks like an edgy fashion editorial.
There’s a quality to these ugly-pretty visuals; a meeting of class and trash that’s magnetic.
The Prince is further elevated by the powerful acting of Jaime’s much older cellmate and top dog Potro: known as ‘The Stud’, he’s played by the domineering 64-year-old Alfredo Castro, who’s literally balls to the wall.
He takes a reluctant Jaime under his wing (among other places), while persuasively grunting: “To survive in here, you’ve got to be tough.” To make space for his new toy, he kicks his existing lover out of bed, before physically and verbally abusing him, misgendering him and forcing him to cook and clean. And all this to the smirking entertainment of a handsome couple on the top bunk, who are so preoccupied with touching each other, they hardly speak.
Their threadbare presence is at once distracting, annoying and sort of hot. And speaking of lack of characterisation, The Stud’s rival – a hugely charismatic Gaston Pauls – is criminally underused. Some private interactions with Jaime could have been explosive.
A bigger issue: the film doesn’t really earn the dramatic license to depict some of its scenes of violence and possibly unconsensual sex. The sometimes merciless imagery - in particular the very strong opening shot - doesn't stand for much, and deflates the fun and froth factor. There again, I'm sure such imagery exists in the kinds of books previously described.
One wishes the film had pushed harder to subvert the problematic genre tropes of yore - think Todd Haynes’ postmodern spin on the Golden Age of Hollywood in 2003’s Far From Heaven - but The Prince is nevertheless an intoxicating, uncompromising ride.
The Prince is out on DVD and on digital on all major platforms on 7 December