Porn Theatre

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Porn Theatre

Cast:

The transfixing relationship between movies and audiences is often talked about like a sorcerer's spell: When the lights go down, viewers become so engulfed by escapist fantasy that they can readily abandon their problems (and, by extension, themselves) for the duration. When the lights come up again, the spell is broken and reality comes crashing through. In Porn Theatre, a peculiar and fascinating slice of life set in a dingy Paris grindhouse, the screen acts as a buffer that allows outré sexuality to pass through ordinary social constraints. The titular establishment's movies cater exclusively to straight men, yet its aisles and rows crawl with drag queens and hustlers looking to administer blow jobs and quickies in the seats, in the seedy bathroom, and in the small pockets of open area near the front of the theater. So long as a straight guy can connect himself to the heterosexual world onscreen, he can pretend that his hairy, overweight, badly wigged sexual partner is actually a woman. Or, just as likely, he can indulge in fantasies that he has to suppress once he leaves the safe space of a darkened theater and its anonymous denizens. Much like Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang's most recent film, the as-yet-unreleased Good Bye, Dragon Inn–which is also set mainly in a lonely theater haunted by gay cruisers–Porn Theatre works best as a quiet, almost anthropological study of human desire. But once it steps out into the light, the spell is broken. Casting himself as a suave, 50-year-old former hustler who values the theater as a comfortable place to jerk off and sleep, French actor-director Jacques Nolot occasionally steps out to chat with ticket-seller Vittoria Scognamiglio and projectionist Sébastien Viala. The trio shares some vague, irresolvable romantic feelings, but Nolot and Scognamiglio mostly just deliver long, rambling monologues about their sordid pasts, with the much younger Viala indulging them as a sounding board. Much of the conversation deals with their zigzag along the sexual continuum, which makes it especially irritating knowing that their philosophies are being demonstrated in the theater below. But when Porn Theatre stays in the darkness, its minute observations about grindhouse culture are hypnotic in their accumulating detail, from the lighters that patrons use to scan empty seats to the embarrassed ritual of closing zippers and fastening belt buckles when the house lights suddenly come on. The voyeurism of these scenes seems all the more intense because Nolot breaks a tacit code: Whatever goes on in the dark, stays in the dark.

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