Film: Short, but perfectly formed

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The Independent Culture
WHAT ARE gay shorts? There are those ones that you can get at the Zipper Store, which comprise various secreted entrances and exits stitched into a scrap of PVC no bigger than a slice of ham. Expensive, considering what you get. Then there are the kind playing at London's ICA for the next two weeks in the programme "Majorettes in Space: Five Gay Tales from France". It will be cheaper to plump for the latter brand of shorts and, without wishing to cast aspersions on the sensual properties of PVC, I would also consider them to be the more pleasurable option.

The short film is generally thought to be a lesser art form - a rehearsal for those directors not yet up to feature-length speed. This perception has only really prevailed in the last 25 years. During that period, the convention of the supporting feature has been phased out, while the rise of the blockbuster has created a depressing equation between quantity and quality. These days, a film is likely to be judged by the weight of its fabric, rather than the refinement of the brocade.

Do not forget that the short has an illustrious history - any appraisal of cinema that neglects Un Chien Andalou, Zero de Conduite or La Jetee would be an invitation to derision. And the area of gay short film-making in particular has never suffered from a dearth of distinguished practitioners, from Cocteau, Genet and Kenneth Anger through to modern artists such as Chris Newby (whose Aids-themed Relax has proved to be wildly influential) and Todd Haynes (Superstar, Dottie Gets Spanked).

It would not be overstating the case to insist that at least two of the film-makers featured in "Majorettes in Space" are fit to join this roll- call. And the whole programme has clearly been curated with intuitive editorial sensitivity. There are no discernible messages, though, on the evidence presented, you would be forgiven for thinking that the French have no truck with foreplay - but then these are shorts, after all.

Of the directors showcased, only Pierre Salvadori is likely to be familiar to British audiences. Two of his features have been released here, Wild Target and Les Apprentis, both sublime comedies and both notable for contriving situations in which Guillaume Depardieu must shed his clothes (trust me: it's infinitely preferable to seeing his dad do the same). Salvadori's Un Moment employs that notoriously troublesome stylistic device, the subjective camera, to locate us behind the eyes of a man lowering himself into the choppy waters of unprotected sex. The script tunes into the language of rickety logic summoned up to justify the unjustifiable, and the sharpness of its reception can make you wince. "He's too young to have `it'," the unseen hero persuades himself before plunging into bed with a youthful stranger, as though positive thinking offered the same level of protection as rubber.

The simplicity of the idea belies the technical complexities involved - to create this level of intimacy through subjective photography without falling prey to stray shadows is a considerable achievement. Un Moment isn't as effective as it might have been if it had been played out in real-time (it's a mere five minutes from doorstep to post-coital dread). But what it shares with the other works in the programme is a sense of formal daring which too many British film-makers, in their deference to an unyielding word over a cryptic image, treat as an unnecessary extravagance.

Dialogue is sparse here, but not taboo. In the piece that relies most heavily on words, David Fourier's six-minute Des Majorettes dans l'Espace (Majorettes in Space), verbal and visual language are inseparable. The images in this playful, snappy short flash up in swift succession, suggesting the pleasingly bumpy surface of a scrapbook collage, while the narration rolls along like the dizziest word association game you ever played. The film rests on a series of surreal non sequiturs that gradually converge to form a view of the universe as a junk-yard of interconnected spare parts. Which may just be a convoluted way of trying to convey its essence without spoiling the jokes. Suffice to say that Fourier provides the missing links between majorettes, safe sex, the Pope and the latent homosexuality of Russian astronauts.

The longest work here, Bruno Rolland's Quelque Chose de Fifferent (Something Different), lives up to its title. Rolland favours long, static takes; during a dinner scene, you tell yourself that surely no director would dare keep the camera running, in the absence of dialogue, until the last morsel has been consumed by the last diner. Rolland would, and does.

His film has a stately, Gothic presence: the story of Robert (Roland Amstutz), a transvestite butcher, is embroidered with the ripe details of a Grimm's fairy tale. The colour red is everywhere: violent lipstick, bruised walls that might have been punched until they blistered and bled. When the butcher takes a waif under his wing, you steady yourself for a macabre jolt. But this truly is something different - a version of Hansel and Gretel where the only motivation for the witch to fatten up her captive is because he looks a bit peaky.

While the collection plays very well as a complete programme, there is one individual writer-director whose work has the inimitable zing of truly refreshing and original film-making. Francois Ozon has already mesmerised festival audiences with his 52-minute film Regarde la Mer, while his first feature, an extravagantly tasteless comedy called Sitcom, has just opened in France. In "Majorettes in Space", he is represented by two pieces. La Petite Mort (A Little Death) concerns a young photographer (Francois Delaive) who forges a last-minute relationship with his dying father. And in the very funny Une Robe d'Ete (A Summer Dress) a teenager (Frederic Mangenot) bored with listening to his boyfriend's "stupid fag songs" visits the beach and has his interest in life, love and stupid fag songs unexpectedly rekindled.

Ozon is only 31 years old, but watching these jubilant films returns you to the first time you saw Ma Nuit chez Maud or La Regle de Jeu. Not that Ozon is a Rohmer or a Renoir; but he shares their effortless grasp of the intricacies and contradictions of human behaviour, and those directors' addiction to chronicling those patterns. His use of colour reflects the luxurious vitality of his characters and observations. In Une Robe d'Ete, the hero's golden skin has the same deep texture as the yawning blue sky above him and the same impenetrable mysteries. La Petite Mort is the more sober work, though it also finds triumph and reconciliation in some unusual places - a darkroom, a hospital ward, the past.

Ozon's films can give you butterflies. He taps into the enigmatic sensuality of the greatest cinema, and isn't afraid to drench you in it. I feel hungry for his work; I can't wait to see what he does next.