Horseplay – BFI London Film Festival

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Marco Berger

Boys will be boys, or so it seems in Marco Berger’s new film Horseplay. A group of young Argentinian men spend the Christmas holidays together in a house in the country. For the most part, the film has the same visual aesthetic as an aftershave advert for Calvin Klein or Jean Paul Gaultier. In Horseplay the men hang around in their underwear, play FIFA on the computer, talk about girls and make constant homophobic remarks. Berger’s 2016 film, Taekwondo, was a delicate study of male homosocial relationships but his latest is a darker affair.

With no women in the early sections of the film, Berger explores the line between homoeroticism and homophobia. The men call each other “homo” as a joke and yet share beds together, arms slung over chests in their sleep. One morning, two men arrange the sleeping bodies of two others, knocked out by drink, to make it look as if they are tender lovers. The men revel in the fun they have in crossing the line and, for all the apparent queerness of their acts, their heterosexuality is never at risk. Indeed, it is protected by these forays into the other side, On Christmas Day they push the boundaries even further as they begin to make mock pornography.

Of them all, it is only Poli who seems reluctant to join in this horseplay. He remains physically and emotionally distant from the others as they continue in their antics. When Poli gets dunked in the bath in which his friend is stood, naked apart for some well-placed bath foam, he fails to find the soaking funny, and storms off to find dry clothes. It’s hard to see why he was invited or why he accepted the invitation so obvious is his disdain. He has a secret for sure.

Berger asks difficult questions in the early scenes. Should we find the men’s behaviour repellent or should we see it as innocent, as young men engaging in just a little fun between themselves? Berger’s camera makes this question harder to answer as it lingers voyeuristically on the men’s sleeping bodies, and most of them have Adonis torsos. This queer gaze problematizes ideas around masculinity, and the camera’s intimacy with the men’s skin and their hair, could lead a audience, a gay male one perhaps, to interrogate why it desires such a masculinity as these men portray.

When the men are joined by some young women, Berger’s approach is more obvious. In comparison to the men, these women are intellectuals. One man proclaims that Flat Earthers could be right in their beliefs; with the help of a drop of water one woman quickly proves to him that the earth is indeed round. The women philosophise on the morals of pornography while the men sit around, awkwardly listening. Only one man stands out as having a deeper and more responsible attitude towards women and gay men. The rest seem to have no interior lives.

Apart from Poli, played well by Franco Antonio de la Puente, the majority of the men are just a blur of bodies and testosterone. However, there is quiet menace in Bruno Giganti’s Nico, who acts as the leader in the group and is the one who goads the others into taking more photos that they can then share in their WhatsApp group. His heterosexuality hinges on the existence of the ‘other’; without an opposing binary, Nico’s identity would shatter.

The men in this film all proudly show their chest hair, which perhaps makes this examination of masculinity a particular Argentinian one. Surely if this had been set in Britain, some of these men would have had their chests waxed and their eyebrows threaded? But in a nice touch, which is sure to bring wry smiles to a British audience, the subtitles have been translated into a very British English where, for instance, men are referred to as ‘blokes’ and have ‘wanks’ behind closed doors. It makes one wonder if there could be an equivalent British version. We can only hope that in Britain there is more awareness of the damage that can be caused by casual displays of homophobia and toxic masculinity.

Horseplay is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

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