Hawaii: Thessaloniki Review

A house-sitter wants to get into the pants of the handsome handyman but that's easier said than done in this compelling drama.

The third feature of Argentinian director Marco Berger, a two-hander starring Manuel Vignau and Mateo Chiarino, is a solid home run.

The agony of unspoken same-sex desire is impressively prolonged to feature length in Hawaii, the third and by far most mature feature of Argentinian director Marco Berger.

Though it’s a two-hander set primarily in one location for over 90 percent of its running time -- much like Berger’s debut, the low-budget, fluid sexuality-themed talkathon Plan B -- the 36-year-old filmmaker here displays a newfound finesse and confidence as a writer-director. The seemingly off-the-cuff conversations between a house-sitting hipster novelist and the handsome drifter he hires to do odd jobs around the house benefit from a razor-sharp sense of direction and purpose, illuminating character and queer yearning as well as class and other socio-political issues. The increasingly erotically charged atmosphere, which never seems to translate into any action, practically becomes an inverted coitus interruptus, where the actual doing of the deed would interrupt the joy and innocence of the games of almost-foreplay, which is prolonged to almost unbearable length.

Beyond the attention of the LGTB niche circuit of festivals and distribution, which is virtually guaranteed after Berger's Plan B and its follow-up, the Berlinale Teddy award winner, Absent, this is also a good fit for indie-loving festivals such as Thessaloniki, where Hawaii recently played as part of its focus on contemporary cinema from Argentina.

Hawaii most closely resembles Berger’s 2012 short El Primo from the anthology Sexual Tension: Volatile. In both films, two young men are thrown together over the summer in someone else’s house -- cue little clothing and lots of pool-time -- and the desire of one to make a move on the other is suspended by reticence and apprehension from the interested party; the unclear sexual orientation of the object of desire and, most importantly, the realization that what's truly erotic is not any physical act of but the moments before it, when every dream scenario is still possible.

The bearded and bespectacled Eugenio (Manuel Vignau, from Plan B), a scruffily handsome thirtysomething from Argentina's well-off middle class, has moved into the house of his (unseen) uncle so he can look after it for the summer and at the same time work on his novel in peace. When the younger Martin (square-jawed Uruguayan actor Mateo Chiarino) comes knocking on his door to ask him for some summer yard work, the duo realize they used to play together in childhood in the same neighborhood and Martin's hired straight away to do odd jobs around the house.

What Martin doesn't dare tell Eugenio is that he's actually homeless and sleeping in the park, though by the time Eugenio finds out, the two have spent enough time together for Eugenio to suggest Martin sleep in the house's shed. The house-sitter might have an ulterior motive for keeping his worker close: In an early scene, in which Martin takes a shower in Eugenio's house after a sweaty day of work, the latter's impatiently waiting outside the bathroom door with its translucent window, with its suggestive, flesh-colored shapes behind it, suggesting what will become increasingly clear over the course of the film: Eugenio would like nothing more than being manhandled by the help.

Some gay audiences might describe the film as a 100-minute cock-tease while others might find Hawaii's earnest tone laughable or pretentious, or both, but Berger has to be commended for taking a set-up that would normally be associated with the first minute or two of a porno and spinning it into something of feature length, which allows him to explore ideas of the gay male gaze and desire as well as more complex issues, especially of class (Martin's not only much poorer and a little younger than Eugenio but also foreign-sounding, much less experienced and more prone to being exploited, all conflicting feelings that fuel Martin's hesitation as much as his shyness or worry about Martin's unknown sexual proclivities).

As in Absent, there's a lush orchestral score (courtesy of Pedro Irusta, who also produced) that frequently overstates the case, though thankfully it mostly disappears when the dynamics heat up and Berger allows the pregnant silences to tell part of the story. The rest of the craft credits are unpretentious but slick.  

Venue: Thessaloniki Film Festival (Contemporary Argentine Cinema)

Production companies: La Noria Cine

Cast: Manuel Vignau, Mateo Chiarino, Manuel Martinez Sobrado 

Writer-Director: Marco Berger

Producers: Pedro Irusta, Marco Berger

Director of photography: Tomas Perez Silva

Production designers: Pedro Irusta, Marco Berger  

Music: Pedro Irusta

Editor: Marco Berger

Sales: Media Luna Films

No rating, 100 minutes.