Last night I watched John Butler's Handsome Devil (2016) and for the final ten minutes found myself sobbing. This is not a film review so I will keep synopses brief: the film details the burgeoning friendship of two gay guys both new to an Irish boarding school that prioritises its inter-school success at rugby over anything else. Ned, already out, is subject to constant jeers, harassments and the often physical abuse that comes with such environments (schools). Conor, who it transpires was ejected from his previous school for beating the shit out of anyone who discovered his sexuality, arrives feted as a star rugby player. The narrative plays out along the institutionally irreconcilable contradiction of Conor's sexuality versus his sports prowess, notably in the eyes of the homophobic coach. Wisdom and insight arrive in the spryly theatrical form of Andrew Scott's English teacher, who calls out Ned (and by extension the rest of the class) for “speaking in a borrowed language” - essentially the key to the entire film. Conor gets outed publicly by Ned after Conor drunkenly, and under peer pressure, shoves and rebuffs him. Conor flees and cannot be found on the morning of the rugby final. Ned seeks him out and assures him with gentle confidence that he can be both gay and a superior athlete and after the whole team defects in support of Conor while the coach has a homophobic breakdown, Conor goes on to win the final. Even recalling the emotional texture of this finale I'm again close to tears.
Full disclosure: I watched Handsome Devil because I wanted to gain insight into the proficiency of the shockingly beautiful Nicholas Galitzine as an actor, without having to watch Red, White And Royal Blue. I can only watch films on the lives of the upper-middle-class, the royals or the extremely wealthy if said film depicts their entire existences being derailed, smashed, upended or ground through a chain of catastrophe. (See Ruben Ostlund's superb Triangle Of Sadness (2022)). Having been born under Thatcherism, and now living as an economic immigrant in a post-Soviet territory as the Conservatives back “home” enter their fourteenth year of rabid, pathological asset-stripping, mutual self-enrichment and the attempted destruction of both the BBC and the NHS, I'm prudently disinclined to watch shows such as The Crown for entertainment – unless of course they get nuked in season two: I don't know, I haven't seen it. Also, with my ex-boyfriend having been raised by Russian oligarchs (connected to the Tolstoy dynasty) only to be in-and-out of rehabilitation programmes as they repeatedly disowned him when his drug addiction threatened their “brand management”, my sympathies with The Rich are - to quote Oppenheimer - “near zero”. So Handsome Devil it was. Interestingly Galitzine too is descended from a Russian aristocratic dynasty – apparently I have a type.
I didn't attend a boarding school: that delight belonged to my father, who has never since read a book, so traumatised was he by the experience. At ten years old I was however yanked from a progressive north London primary school, dumped for a year in an inconsequential secondary school, then installed in a tiny Grammar School that embodied all the stuffy pageantry of a boarding school with none of the budget. The headmaster wore Victorian robes and there were Founders' Days, a school coat of arms etc. As the credits rolled on the film they looked like the opening scenes of Taxi Driver through my tear-struck lenses; I began to wonder why I was crying. I'm scarcely the lachrymose sort. I'm not even sure it is a great film: certainly a good one, yes – but what it succeeds at most potently is achieving an emotional tenor that will resonate with anyone who spent the most impressionable, hyper-sensitive years of their formative life in a provincial, loftily-aspirant school as non-scene homosexual. I realised I'd blocked out vast swathes of these years and that to this day I still carry rage, trauma and distrust with me a like a Cerberus of complexes. My teenage years – one can barely call it an adolescence as that boasts the implication that one did adolescent things such as having sex or indeed having friends – occurred in the nineties, when there was still no effective medicine to manage and regulate the HIV virus; the internet was dial-up only and there were no smartphones. Section 28 – Thatcher's disgusting policy prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality” was still in force, plus, lest we forget - it wasn't until 2000 that consenting gay teenagers could legally have sex anyway. It was the tail-end of the cottaging era and the only depicted queers on television were Lily Savage and her ilk – for all of whom we remain grateful of course, but they didn't articulate the specific knots in my soul or the aesthetic of self I felt broiling in its pit of contradictions. Perhaps I was always too serious. So I remained silent, observant and occasionally destructive.
I was regularly beaten up purely on suspicion of being gay, simply because I hated sports and wrote poetry. The idea of being “out” in this war zone never occurred to me. Being or feeling unable to express my passions freely that energy exploded from other fissures into pranks and minor criminality – my composition Idiot Song (2010) is a documentary retelling of the period where myself and two other kids would convene on our lunch break to drink gin stolen from another boy's paper round. It was home-made and had the texture of frogspawn or thin porridge and it was wholly disgusting; we diluted the taste by smoking ten Marlborough Reds and then returning to class drunk out of our gourds, verbally in denial of everything our behaviour, aroma and whirling forms betrayed. Another time I taught myself how to use the flatbed scanner and scanned in the school letterhead and the headmistress' signature to then forge a school letter accusing a pupil of having brought a nuclear warhead onto the school grounds. Later, the letter accused the headmistress of having stolen school funds to finance her personal supercomputer. Under the guise of helpfulness I slid hundreds of copies of these into the school registers which were then distributed and read on Wednesday mornings. They never found out this was my doing, unlike the smoking and drinking which landed me in ten-days suspension – the maximum penalty available before expulsion. Curiously my two accomplices, less academically accomplished than I, were swiftly dispatched. I was evidently retained as an asset to the school's academic standing. To have recognized brazen institutional hypocrisy at fourteen, in a system to which you are beholden for another four years and that is supposed to be moulding you into a diversely competent and socially developed human, became one of many strands in a tapestry that would culminate in a nervous breakdown at sixteen.
Curiously, the character with whom I most identified in Handsome Devil was not Ned – the traditionally artsy one. After all – he was already out. And while the very thought of competitive sports makes my soul wither, haunting me with thoughts of brutally chilly winters in ghastly neoprene, standing in a hockey goal wishing I inhabited any other body but mine, both desiring and fearing the athletic boys for whom this nonsense was a religion, it is with Conor that my traumas resonate. When I saw the available menu of gay culture – Julian Clary, Lily, Erasure, etc (again they're a vital part of the overall fabric – it just wasn't for me), I began to query my sexual self-identification – yet another thread of doubt plaiting itself dumbly onto every other strand of self-interrogation that was to soon fly off the spool.
My catharsis, my refuge, was not rugby, but brutally heavy music. And even then: non-traditional metal; thrillingly perverse and exploding with ideas, it was the progressive fusion metal of Faith No More and Sepultura's Roots: music whose intensity I could share with nobody – I later became aware that this is because few at that school were simply as intense as I - and then later of course wondered would I be as intense as I am were I not founded on tablets of fury, rage, repressed teenage passions and muted desires? I was listening to music that essentially “belonged” to straight people, albeit the straight people at my school listened wholly to chart music, presumably from a lack of curiosity otherwise. Us queers, in our lonely decade, have time for curiosity. I discovered Faith No More's Angel Dust when I was fourteen, and what better, after having been stuffed in a sack and kicked by fellow pupils on a lunch break, to go home and flood your synapses with the savage and hateful delirium of Malpractice or Be Aggressive. This latter song is especially pertinent, being sung from the perspective of a submissive recipient of aggressive oral sex. I then learned that Faith No More's keyboardist, Roddy Bottum, had recently come out as gay: a frankly momentous feat for a rock musician in the early nineties. I had the fortune to meet Roddy eight years ago and thanked him from my pale, fourteen-year-old self for holding aloft a flare of guidance and possibility. Then I discovered Tori Amos, via her virtuosically unhinged hit Cornflake Girl and the album that houses it, wherein she duets with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, whose The Downward Spiral I was by that point terrorizing my parents with. I was never interested in Van Halen, Deep Purple, riffs or any of the hair metal canon – only the savage visionaries who painted their angst in swathes of colour and ingenious forms into a kind of quasi-psychedelic metal that hinted at idiosyncratic freedoms over the brink. Tori, too, embodied this especially on her first four albums, and I still consider her more metal than metal in terms of sheer uncompromising attitude and febrile intensity of musicianship. When my one-legged Dickensian piano tutor realised that my pianism was destined for a rock or non-classical context he said “what, like Sir Elton John?”. I scoffed “Noooooo like Tori Amos.” “Who is he?” was the retort. Ah the provinces.
When Ned tells Conor that he can be whoever he wants to be, whatever the apparent contradictions, I'm minded of Faith No More, Tori Amos, Nine Inch Nails telling me indirectly that I could do the same. All of my true friends during this decade were cultural artefacts rather than people. Later, after the nervous breakdown at sixteen, when I found the works of US author Dennis Cooper who's “anti-assimilationist queer stance” opened doors into farther-out realms (Pasolini, Genet, Guyotat, DeSade, Artaud) I again felt my firmament of self solidify a little, and via Dennis work and the community munificence of the blog that he maintains near daily, I now enjoy the privilege of collaborative friendships with a global cabal of freakish queers who I think too might be nudged to tears by the denouement of this sweetly hollowing, beautiful little film. And I think they, too, would also think Nicholas Galitzine shockingly hot. It's rather nice to have friends now that aren't books or bands or films, but with whom I can excitedly and eloquently discuss all three.
A closing note on Handsome Devil – it might be the only queer coming-of-age drama I've seen that doesn't shoehorn the two gay leads into a doomed romantic relationship: this is boundlessly refreshing. If I did see any queer films as a teenager the couple were always doomed, whether by AIDS, abusive families, forced sex work or simply one or both parties being too traumatised to commit. In any case not a very encouraging model to a burgeoning homosexual who wants and thinks he deserves love like everyone else. So to see Conor and Ned simply navigate the improving of each other's lives as friends who share a sexual orientation is a bold and long overdue representation. And to Faith No More's Mike Patton – I'd like to assure you that I'm doing somewhat better now – my menstruating heart, it IS bleeding enough for two.
Like somebody painted the sky with rain, I break like a wave on the school gates, And is it such a sin to drink stolen gin found on a paper round?
My uniform fits like a glove fits a foot And I want to be part of the world, But when the world says 'I want you to be lonely'
This blazer and tie Do not mean that I am the same as the idiot Next to me -
I'm a whole other flame And a whole other idiot And I sure as hell didn't expect to be Wholly respectfully part of the world.
So when the world says 'I want you to be lonely' I say to universality 'How very gallantly you've tossed me aside'.
So when the world says, And when the world stops And when the world looks
Like somebody painted the sky with rain, I break like a wave on the school gates And is it such a sin to drink stolen gin found on a paper round?