The early 1970s was an electric time to be an artist. All of the currents of change and cultural revolution were crackling, helping create a creative atmosphere that was the perfect hothouse to challenge and re-route convention. A filmmaker that emerged in this era that broke ground both for the LGBT community as well as the cinematic community was Wakefield Poole. He’s a southern boy with an enviable resume in the theatre, including working with the Ballet Russe before becoming both a respected choreographer and Theatre director. By 1971, he broke new ground with his film Boys in the Sand, a pioneering explicit gay film that achieved mainstream crossover success and was positively reviewed in Variety. Following up the huge success of Boys, Poole created something truly unexpected, unique and dreamlike. He made Bijou.
Bijou is less of a structured, narrative film and more of a living, breathing sensual and sensory experience. The human center of the film is a young construction worker (Bill Harrison), who looks both masculine and boyish. He finishes his shift and starts to head home. On the way, he ends up seeing a lanky woman (Cassandra Hart) getting hit by a car. Her purse ends up flying in the air near him and impulsively, he grabs it, but not quite for the reasons one would think.
Instead of dashing for the cash, once home, he examines the contents, all basic items like lipstick and keys, almost like a curious child. Curious is the right word for it since the one unique item he finds is an invitation to a place called “Bijou.” He showers up and heads to this mysterious place. As soon as he arrives, the starkness of the concrete jungle on the outside, not to mention the muted tones of his teensy apartment are replaced with bright, vivid, Italian-style lighting set against black walls. He hands his invite over to a ticket-taker worthy of a Fellini film. He enters the main area.
Lit up theatrical style signs instruct him to remove his shoes, then clothing. He is flanked by a Dan Flavin-inspired lighting design, then descends deeper into a surrealistic landscape where sculptures and objects are framed in a way that makes them transformatively huge and take on a new life. He then stumbles upon a nude man, lying face down and supine on the ground. They start to make love. More men enter and instead of the aggressive, slap and tickle orgy antics that such a scenario would normally entail, especially in explicit film, what follows is a sweet, intimate and yet, a 100% artsy experience.
Poole’s theatrical directing background shines sweet and strong. He frames the human body like a trained painter or sculptor. Every physical act is there not so much to arouse pure pleasure, but more to invoke a quizzical but sweet mood. Our protagonist is basically cocooned in a languid landscape of love. Like any proper dream, there are hints of darkness, including one gorgeous, but troubled looking Steve Reeves look-a-like who wanders around brandishing a whip like Chekhov’s gun that never, ever goes off. He never gets directly involved, except at one point loosely wrapping the whip around the lead’s neck. But that never quite goes anywhere, as if the affection of the other men exorcises the violent threat away before it can bloom into anything truly sinister.
Poole has very carefully weaved everything together here, with every element, whether it is the lighting, composition, the use of audio (including one of the best incorporation of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” ever) or even the dearth of dialogue, which is basically relegated to the tiny handful of lines the human pastiche ticket taker utters, creating an experience like no other. Even more important, though, is is his body of work, with Bijou being a huge part of the picture. This film was a revelation for the gay community. Gone are the stereotypes, especially the “self-loathing” homosexual and in its place are human beings of different physicalities being expressive in a way that conveys the message that hey, not only is it okay that you are gay but in fact, it is beautiful. This is some life altering and occasionally, life saving, stuff, especially when your realize that the specter of the Stonewall riots were only three years behind the film. Even more importantly is that Bijou was made the year before the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
Luckily, Bijou has recently gotten a very nice DVD release courtesy of the great folks over at Vinegar Syndrome. The print looks lovely and there are some terrific extras, with the absolute highlight being a director’s commentary with Poole himself. He reveals himself to be incredibly sharp, funny and quite warm. Hearing him talk about how he intentionally crafted Bijou to be obtuse, leaving everything wide open for any and all interpretation, is a gem. There are no right and wrong answers, granting all the power to the viewer. Which is a ballsy move, all the more fitting for such a bold movie.