Belgian gay coming-of-age tale
Director Bavo Defurne on making 'North Sea Texas'
by David Lamble
Perhaps no one knows more about the pure exhilaration of a first kiss with a gorgeous, dark-haired lad with the softest lips than a lonely, lovesick gay boy growing up along a desolate stretch of beach. My favorite snapshot of Harvey Milk dates back to a summer day in 1956. The lanky, former Navy Seal is cuddling with a dreamy kid named Joe on the beach at Jacob Riis Park in Far Rockaway, Queens. This scene didn't make it into either Milk movie, although it's the only moment from the hero's life that would have really helped this lonely, then-12-year-old gay boy.
All these years later, someone has finally made my gay-boy beach movie, shooting it, curiously enough, along Belgium's North Sea coast. North Sea Texas opens on the face of an 8-year-old blonde urchin who's been taken for his birthday to what Belgians refer to as a "fun fair." The boy, Pim, is watching a group of grown-ups a few feet away when suddenly he runs over to a tall, dark stranger, and leaps into his arms. The man is neither his daddy nor his brother, nor his future lover. Zoltan, a tattooed gypsy, is the kind of slightly older, godlike creature who can inspire a happy swoon in an eight-year-old just discovering the magnetic pull of his own sex.
In the next frame Pim has invaded his mom's bedroom and uncovered the treasures of her adolescence: a fake gold crown and the red sash of a beauty-contest queen. The boy throws open the window and, bowing to an unseen admiring throng outside, declares that he is their queen. He's caught in his reverie by his now-plump, middle-aged mom, who smiles with embarrassment. "Pim, come downstairs, boy. Mama is not angry."
The Belgium "New Wave" continues to lap onto our screens. Writer/director Bavo Defurne reworks the classic coming-of-age tale to reveal the cruel fate of a young boy, tucked away in an isolated seacoast community in the early 1970s, who finds his true love at 15, only to have it rudely ripped away by the fickle fate of his chum's belief that he's outgrown their backyard wrestling. Pim (Ben Van den Heuvel, as the younger boy, morphs into the gorgeous teen Jelle Florizoone), a sheltered and parentally neglected lad, spends much of his spare time caught up in cross-dressing reveries involving his often absent mom's wardrobe and jewelry.
Defurne places his story in a sumptuously photographed setting that resembles some seaside Oz. Particularly striking is the Texas roadhouse bar from which the film derives its geographically paradoxical title. Faithful followers of Frameline's world-class queer-boy shorts programs will recognize the singular style of Dutch-speaking Belgian filmmaker Defurne, whose largely dialogue-free dreamscapes – Saint, Sailor, Campfire – have fueled a desire to see what he could do with a full-length feature canvas. A crisis which completely up-ended nonprofit film funding in Belgium delayed this debut. It's been a dozen years since we saw his rough summer-love short Campfire. My conversation with Bavo Defurne covered everything from Belgian parents fearful of letting their sons try out to be Pim, to the Billy Elliot syndrome, to his own giddy pleasure at having North Sea Texas debut in a dozen film markets.
David Lamble: What was the title, in English, of the youth novel North Sea Texas is based on?
Bavo Defurne: Translated from Dutch, This is Everlasting. It means the feeling Pim has when he's riding on the motorcycle with Gino. He has him in his arms, and thinks it's a very beautiful moment, and hopes that it is everlasting.
It's almost his 15th birthday, and he thinks he's found love everlasting. That's a wonderful idea.
When I read the book [by Andre Sollie], I discovered that you can actually tell a story about gay boys and it would be about something beautiful, not about something depressing.
Gino feels he's outgrown Pim, that Pim was like a way-station so he could go with girls.
I'm not sure if he really feels like that, but for him it's a way to say, "I've had these experiences with a boy, but now that I have my motorcycle, now that I'm allowed to ride it and go to other cities, I can be a real man and go with girls."
Pim's a dreamer, but he never doubts himself. He believes that the love he has is true love, he's in love with a boy and it's totally OK. Sometimes I see journalists writing: it's a-coming-of-age film, so it must be a coming out film. Pim doesn't come out to anyone.
Why does Pim take those sponge baths? Later, when Zoltan shows up, we discover there is a shower.
He never uses that shower, I think he's repelled by it. It's like his little intimate moment where he's totally alone and his mother's not there. He's alone with his dog in the house, and he washes. It's a ritual of like, "Finally! I'm with my own thoughts and emotions."
You had a hard time finding boys to play Pim, because of the sex scenes?
We worked on that very hard, to really make the sex scenes believable. It's a film about love, so the love scene is really key to telling the story. You see that they're telling things with their bodies, they're discovering their bodies. The challenge for me was to tell that story about young people discovering sexuality, tell everything, not censor yourself, but in the same time be totally respectful for the actor, because Jelle was 14 when he played the role.
I thank Stephen Daldry for making Billy Elliot, because maybe if that film hadn't been there, my actor Jelle wouldn't have gone to ballet school. His dad didn't want him to do ballet but his mom supported it, so they had that thing when he was 6 or 8. So when he was 14, he and his mom were totally proud that he was selected for a movie about a boy falling in love with another boy. They were proud instead of ashamed or anxious.
You have this wonderful stylized photography and production values in the film, it looks like something out of a dream by Pierre et Gilles, it's like an homage to them.
It's like an homage to an homage to an homage, because Pierre et Gilles, like me, are like a sponge: they absorb influences from paintings, movies, popular culture, advertising and old paintings. I want to make a movie about what you see when you close your eyes, not what you see when you look through the window. I'm more interested in what is in people's minds and dreams.
You grew up in a small coastal town?
Well, I am from a little coastal town, but I had kind of a happy youth. I'm not Pim!