Short Film Review: Les Attendants (2021)

“What’s your name?” an old man asks his cruising partner. They are both undressed. He packs up his mat; the same mat where they lay entangled minutes before; with the same wrinkled hands that, not untenderly, brushed off shale off his partner’s back. “Albert,” his partner, just as old as him, replies. “Bernard. Charles. Émile.” The list goes on. “A. B. C. Whoever.” 

Unutterable identity. Truong Minh Quý’s newest film, Les Attendants (or The Men Who Wait) is about two, old, gay men who cruise at a forested slag heap – an artifically raised hill of waste resulting from the extraction of raw materials – waiting for sex. Present in the forest as well is a Malian immigrant – watching, waiting for something.

The terrain is blackness, grit – the waste of coal miners, the byproduct of something else more favoured. And the men roll around in it. The only place that gay men can find intimacy is thus hidden away from the rest of society and amidst the waste of others. The metaphor could not be clearer – the expendability of the queer body in the sociopolitical hierarchy. Just as rock, mud, and shale are displaced from the natural geology and treated as waste, gay men are tossed aside in pursuit of something that the hegemonic discourse prefers: heteronormativity, the family unit, et cetera. 

Yet, it is not just homosexuality that sidelines the men (who are not even given names). It is also that they are visibly aged. There is an element of shock when Quý’s camera captures graphic sex acts, more so than what we are used to beyond pornography – a tongue flicking a nipple, a mouth wrapped around a cock. None of this is particularly exciting – barely a hyperbolic adjective to describe it, but the camera’s unflinching, objective view presents this as a shocking example of sexual deviance. It is doubly sinful, because it is homosexual and between the elderly. 

However, one cannot say that there is no tenderness. The touches are gentle; the view respectful. “Careful, my hip,” one says to the other as they open their bodies up to each other’s touch. It is ironic that such gentleness can be found in such a rough terrain – one that is not necessarily forgiving, with rain and thorns and foliage. It is what we have always known of queer love and intimacy.

At one point, lying next to each other, one of them talks about his father as a coal miner, who would close the curtains whenever he came back. “I think that he too was gay,” he muses. The metaphor of the curtain is heavy-handed here as well: the concealing of identity, away from the light of day. But it also brings up a different group of the disempowered – the exploited coal miners themselves, who earn little for their labour. And not to forget the other main agent in this film – the homeless Malian immigrant, who collects water in huge tanks and navigates the black terrain as well. Undeniably posited as the radicalised, foreign Other, he finds himself in the same level of disempowerment as the two gay men, where xenophobic attitudes prefer him hidden away from the rest of society.

But the image of him carrying the water tanks – a precious resource crucial to survival – problematises the exclusionary body politic. Namely: what is lost when groups of people are marginalised and disenfranchised? Is it material? Or is it something more moral? 

The immigrant closes off the film. His cock is out too, another instance of provoking shock, positing the phallic as a symbol of difference. He whispers in Nambara, “I arrived here alone. My home is far away. I will never return. I am–” before he is unceremoniously cut off by the credits. He, too, is robbed of a claimable identity. The experience of the disempowered is thus a collective one. There’s something to be said about the tenderness that each character displays in the film, compared to the only representation of the hegemonic discourse – the strict, architectural lines of a street in a town, the buildings dominating the individual. 

Once again: what does an exclusionary society lose? 


Les Attendants is a part of the Berlinale Shorts, 2021 Berlinale. You may view the trailer here.

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