The German film “Freier Fall,” or “Free Fall,” was released in its native country in May 2013, but at times this film about one man’s gay awakening feels like a throwback to Hollywood movies from the late 1960s and 1970s, which explored what conservative filmmakers viewed as the inevitable loneliness, sadness and alienation of “choosing” to be gay.
It could be that American moviegoers are so used to current gay films that show happy male couples making the most of life — and reinforcing the viewpoint in the current court battles arguing that same-sex marriage is as legitimate as a traditional heterosexual marriage — that “Free Fall” seems surprisingly downbeat, like a throwback to a time when filmmakers appeared to start with the premise that if a man opts to walk down the risky path of exploring homosexual feelings, tragedy awaits.
And yet, I don’t think that’s at all what the writer/director, Stephan Lacant, had in mind. “Free Fall” doesn’t feel like a Christian Coalition morality film, but rather one that has two distinctly European traits that American filmmakers don’t always share.
One is a more cynical outlook in general – name the last serious European drama that went for a happy ending in the way American movies do – and the other is to paint the tale on a more universal canvas about the human condition, even if it does involve just three main characters. The lesson from the sad events in “Free Fall” seem to have less to do with being gay, then being true to your own feelings.
Marc is a handsome young man studying in the police academy, training for a promising career in law enforcement. He has a pregnant girlfriend, Bettina, and to save money they live with Marc’s supportive parents. It seems like the picture of domestic bliss.
At the same time, Marc finds himself curiously drawn to another handsome cadet, Kay – and Kay likewise seems to be interested in pursuing a friendship with Marc. They take to jogging together, in the woods outside the academy, and that’s where Kay makes his first attempt to declare his sexual interest in Marc by kissing him.
Marc is shocked, horrified, and warns Kay not to come near him again.
But it doesn’t take long for Marc to realize that he was highly aroused by that kiss, and he eventually gives in to his feelings and chases after Kay one morning while he’s out jogging. Alone in the woods, they begin to explore one another, even if Marc feels at this stage that he’s just experimenting, and not truly gay.
Kay starts to represent an exciting new world for Marc, who returns home to a house filled with family members and a pleasant but bland pregnant girlfriend. Kay has his own apartment that he and Marc frequently go to at night, and Kay introduces Marc to gay nightclubs and drugs like ecstasy that enhance sexual performance. Bettina begins to suspect something is up when Marc is out so late every night, but he’s telling the truth when Bettina confronts him and asks if he is sleeping with another woman, and he flatly denies it.
At this point, “Free Fall” almost does seem like one of those old conservative morality films from the pre-liberation days in Hollywood, which used to warn that nothing good would come from straying off the path of the traditional straight family. Suddenly Marc is jeopardizing his future through gay sex, drugs and a wild nightlife.
But condemning homosexuality isn’t really what Lacant has in mind. When Kay is spotted in a gay bar and finally comes out to his classmates at the academy, a supervisor warns them all that discrimination won’t be tolerated. When one arrogant male cadet complains to his girlfriend that he can’t stand gays, she quickly chastises him, saying not everyone is homophobic like he is.
It’s not necessarily an anti-gay community that Kay and Marc find themselves in; the choice, really, is whether Marc wants a life as a husband and father, making his family happy by fulfilling the traditional male role in society; or if he wants to follow his true feelings and passion for Kay. He ultimately tries to straddle both worlds, staying loyal to Bettina and their new baby boy, while secretly maintaining a discreet connection to Kay. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t work.
Although the movie is realistic and tells a believable story, and benefits from Lacant’s understated writing and the excellent performances by Hanno Koffler as Marc and Max Reimelt as Kay, there were times when it reminded me of Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic existential play “No Exit,” even though the plot – three people who died and are now in Hell, trapped in a room together – couldn’t be more different.
In the play, one man and two women are stuck for eternity in a room with someone they’ve fallen in love with – only that person will never share those feelings. Of the three damned souls, Ines Serrano is a lesbian who loves Estelle Rigault, but she loves the man, Joseph Garcin, who is not attracted to her and instead wants Ines. The “Hell is other people” theme is reinforced when all three characters find it maddening and torturous that they’ll never get who they truly want.
In a similar way, Bettina loves Marc but is stunned to learn he’s secretly having a gay affair. Marc is not really attracted to Bettina, though a part of him still wants the old-fashioned, non-controversial domestic homelife that other married men have. Kay is in love with Marc, but Marc is reluctant to embrace a gay lifestyle. Taking a path that doesn’t match your true feelings, Lacant seems to be saying, is never going to work.
As Marc’s secret slips out and his family life spirals out of control, and he becomes more and more depressed as he starts losing everything, I began to wonder if the movie was headed in the same direction as those glum 1970s Hollywood films, with a gay suicide. It didn’t; but it also didn’t follow the classic American happy ending approach, and have Kay show up at the same minute, with the two men going off into the sunset together, happily ever after. “Free Fall” finds a believable place somewhere in the middle.
In an era when American gay marriage advocates are winning every court battle they confront, “Free Fall” seems less like a cautionary warning about men becoming gay than about gay men not being true to who they are, and not walking the risky path of pretending to be straight just to please those around you. It’s also a remarkably somber, compelling and effective modern drama.
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