I Dreamt Under The Water
J'ai reve sous l'eau

TLA Releasing


Hormoz, Philippe Arrizabalaga

Hubert Benhamdine, Caroline Ducey, Christine Boisson, Hicham Nazzal, Franck Victor, Helene Michel, Eva Ionesco

Unrated, 103 minutes

Hustler French
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, September, 2008


I've seen more than my usual share of queer films about hustlers this past year. A Four Letter Word had one, as did Bulldog in the Whitehouse and Boy Culture. I recently revisited Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, and had my first look at his earlier Mala Noche, for an online essay that is in the works. This common theme is explored in films from Hustler White to Johns to Mysterious Skin. We are, of course, referring to the world's oldest profession and it goes without saying that it is one of the world's oldest movie plots as well. The offspring of Midnight Cowboy are plentiful and a new spin on the subject is sometimes necessary in order to stand out from the herd.
While I'm not sure if I approve of the left turn at Albuquerque that I Dreamt Under The Water takes at the film's midpoint, French photographer- turned-director (and Iranian expatriate) Hormoz takes his rent boy protagonist on a dizzying journey through the lower depths of Paris. This is an uneven, yet still highly provocative, study of a self-destructive young man who is unable to deal with the loss of the man he once loved and turns to hustling to dull the pain.

Antonin (Hubert Benhamdine) is a guitarist in his best friend Alex's band. Alex (Franck Victor), the object of his unrequited love is, regrettably, straight. Antonin's eyes are the windows to his soul; the longing in them is apparent as he gazes whenever he can at his beloved. Alex is also a heroin addict and Antonin often stays with him when he shoots up. On one of these occasions, they lay in bed together and Antonin steals an opportunity to kiss the back of his unconscious friend's neck. Later, at a party, Antonin watches with sadness as Alex walks away with one of the girls. Then the sky falls and he is cradling Alex in his arms as he dies from an overdose. His anguish fills the screen in a tightly cropped close-up of the two men that recalls those primal screams so prevalent in the films of Ingmar Bergman.

Antonin falls apart and his breakdown is conveyed visually. Picture the back of his head silhouetted against a television screen, his hand stroking the videotaped image of his lost love. He cries; he lays in a fetal position; he walks the streets in a daze. Earlier in the film, he stood with Alex in a cruising park and they watched three men who were kissing by an overpass. Now he's back in the same park picking up, and doing poppers with, a stranger. A third joins them. Anonymous sex seems to be the ticket and Antonin is comfortably numb. When he says "no" to a rough looking man, he's offered payment for services rendered and a hustler is born.
As in countless films before this one, Antonin is seen servicing various clients. For a change, most of them are not grotesque cartoons. A very likable john named Baptiste (Hicham Nazzal) shows affection for the lad and, when we see them together a second time, we assume we know where the rest of the story is going. But then the film jumps the shark when Antonin meets, and falls in love with, a young woman named Juliette (Caroline Ducey) and suddenly his life has meaning again. The look of the film, which until now was composed mostly of red-hued night scenes, shifts its palette to shades of blue to mirror the new tranquillity in his life.His newly found peace, however, will be fleeting.
For its first half, I Dreamt Under The Water commanded my attention but it lost me when the hetero romance began. I could not recall any clue in the first act to hint that Antonin was anything other than gay; the looks that he gave Alex were not the ones of a straight best pal. I felt that it would have been more believable if Juliette's character was a man instead and, to be honest, I was disappointed that she wasn't. I should be more tolerant however; otherwise I'm no different than the mainstream audience who has difficulty buying the idea of a straight man doing it with another guy. Perhaps having Antonin fall in love with a woman was the director's way of being radical by subverting the expectations of a gay film. To the his credit, there is nothing to suggest that Antonin has just been "cured" of being gay.
This is not a conventional film, by any means, and there are images in this film that will stay with me forever. Regrettably, a good many of them are too dark. Much of I Dreamt Under The Water looks like it was filmed under water. The red hue to all the dark interiors and night scenes looks, at times, like infra-red photography and that is not always a good thing. Marvelous tracking shots trade places with shots in which you want to yell at the director to please hold the camera still. At other times, Hormoz's imagery is quite clever, like when Antonin is kissing a trick in the park and the camera pans down to their shoes and holds the shot for a beat until a third set of shoes enter the frame. There are a number of expertly executed long takes throughout the movie as well. As is common in European cinema, the depiction of sex is far more daring than what is seen in most American films.
Benhamdine, as Antonin, resembles a wide-eyed and stubble-bearded Harry Potter and this adds to his innocence when he first begins to turn tricks. I mentioned his eyes before; they convey more than words ever can. Despite my problems with the mid-film plot shift, I Dreamt I Was Under The Water has much to offer and is beautifully acted by all. The fine cast helps to make up for the artsy, but often murky, photography that sometimes threatens to swallow the film.