Marco Berger returns to the BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival with Absent; a bleak brooding tale about the complexities of desire. The brief synopsis may lead you to believe this will be a queer reworking of the age-old tale of a student/teacher relationship whereby a seemingly responsible adult takes advantage of the desires of an underage teen. Not so. Here it is the teenager, dangerously infatuated with his swim coach, that holds all the power and cleverly manipulates the older man into crossing several boundaries.
For the first two acts we focus almost entirely on the student, Martin, and the teacher Sebastian as they venture into morally ambiguous territory when they spend the night together at Sebastian’s home. Of course there is no actual sex act, instead a smoldering tension lingers in the air throughout and though Martin may not outwardly seduce his coach he certainly plants the idea into his mind.
Several weeks then pass where Martin avoids class seemingly ashamed of his desires, reluctant to have to face the man again. He tries to pre-occupy himself with a lady-friend whom he clearly has no real feelings for, whilst we learn more about the relationship Sebastian has with his girlfriend. Is he as straight as he likes to think he is? Or was there something in that night with Martin that made him question his desires?
The final act is an exploration of Sebastian’s turmoil; the guilt he feels about his perceived wrongdoings and trying to come to terms with his feelings towards his young student. The level of distress he experiences over the relationship does initially seem disproportionate but as the film builds up to its climatic ending we begin to understand why and how Martin as made such an impact on him.
The fact that these two are brought together through swimming is no mere coincidence as there is a pervading metaphor of tumultuous ripples and waves beneath a decidedly tranquil surface, particularly in the later act where Sebastian struggles to deal with his guilt and ultimately grief.
Continuing on the aquatic theme, the sound department did a good job of having you believe you’d had your head submerged underwater for those moments when the film edges into thriller territory; a tonal change that lingers on darkness. The accompanying sound mutes out all else and is similar to the sensation of having an earful of water.
It is interesting to see how the gear shifts when we are faced head on with the desires of the two protagonists, we move into obscure out of focus close-ups, dwell on darkness and shadows and experience a sense of an unease. It is almost as though Berger is trying to unite desire with danger, in this case it is certainly true that for either man to act on their urges would be morally if not criminally wrong, here desires are something to repress, to escape from and ultimately to avoid. Though it might easily tick some of the coming-of-age boxes this film seems more comfortable dressing itself up as a thriller, and it is those moments that work most convincingly.
Elements of the story seem flawed, you are forced to wonder how convincing it is that a teacher would be so willing to go out of his way to help a student in a convoluted series of events that eventually lead to Martin having no choice but to spend the night with him. The other characters in the film are giving very little attention, which perhaps can be forgiven given the nature of the story, but leads to them being two-dimensional and unbelievable, especially Martins female friend Analia.
Berger does however know how to handle his audience, turning seemingly bland car journeys into scenes of great intrigue and tension and creating two protagonists that genuinely keep you guessing throughout. Absent is a well crafted, if slightly flawed film with some lasting imagery and intriguing ideas that will no doubt open the floodgates of debate when it opens at the festival.
Absent is a gala screening at the LLGFF on the 28th and 29th of March. The 28th screening is sold out but the 29th is still avaliable by time of publishing.