VQFF Review: Hors les murs / Beyond the walls

Written and directed by David Lambert, this French film is a harsh meditation on power, choice and freedom. Not a happy movie by any means, it offers fascinating character development, an engrossing story, and a lot of food for thought.

Written and directed by David Lambert, this French film is a harsh meditation on power, choice and freedom. Not a happy movie by any means, it offers fascinating character development, an engrossing story, and a lot of food for thought.

At first it looked like your basic coming out story from a bygone decade: boy has girl, but boy also likes boys, boy hooks up with boy, girl kicks out boy, boy moves in with boy, the end. But no, in fact that was just where things got interesting. The movie begins with needy, whiny Paulo getting blind drunk in a bar and taken home by cool, sexy Albanian bartender Ilir. Nothing much happens right away, but Paulo is instantly attracted, and not being the sharpest tool in the shed doesn’t cover it up very well from his girlfriend. Having nobody else to turn to, he ends up at Ilir’s doorstep. Ilir, who’d just been looking for a bit of fun, reluctantly takes Paulo in.

And they stay together. At first I wasn’t sure why, because Paulo is needy and touchy-feely like an abandoned puppy, and in so many words asks Ilir to take care of him; I honestly found him incredibly annoying, and figured he must be a monster in the sack for anyone to put up with him for more than five minutes.

After some time, Ilir gets caught smuggling drugs, and is sent to prison. Paulo stays completely loyal, writing regularly and visiting him every week even after he moves in with a sex shop owner who had hit on him earlier, giving him money, even smuggling in drugs (not very successfully). Eventually Ilir asks Paulo to not visit him anymore: half an hour a week is too painful, and it’s “weakening” him at a time he needs to be strong and tough just to survive. Paulo initially refuses but Ilir forces the issue, pretends Paulo assaulted him which presumably bans him from visiting forever.

When Ilir is finally let out of prison, he goes to visit Paulo and finds him very much changed from the needy kid he used to know. A nice haircut, smart glasses, fancier clothes, a lot of money to throw around. Working at the sex shop now, still living with the owner, it looks like he’s moved on and up in the world. He’s also mostly over Ilir; though some of the old feelings are there, but when they spend the night in a fancy hotel room, there’s only drinking and talking, not sex. One last smiling selfie, and the two part ways. Perhaps forever, certainly for a while.

What’s interesting about the end is that Ilir and Paulo’s positions seem to be reversed. The poor, needy boy that followed his dick from relationship to relationship is now stable and in-control man, able to say “no”. Or is he? How free is Paulo if he’s depending on his daddy for room, board and affection? Is his life now much different than when he pathetically showed up at Ilir’s door?

As for Ilir, yes, his life was pretty good before, and went seriously downhill while he was in prison. But now? I think he’ll be okay. He doesn’t need to latch on to a lover to be complete. The very last scene, of him in a club watching his old band playing with a replacement bass player was interesting. He didn’t seem upset, but serene. His friends have moved on, and maybe he’ll be able to reconnect, but in the meantime it looks like he’s just wishing them well.

Some of the movie’s symbolism is a bit puzzling. Let’s start with the most obvious: “Ilir” is Albanian for “freedom”. Is this meaningful? As I said, Ilir did seem to be the free one, but that got reversed when he ended up in jail. And then reversed again when he got out?

Paulo’s symbolism also raises questions. It turns out he’s a BDSM sub; when Ilir went on what should have been a weekend trip out of town to smuggle hash, they bought a chastity cage for Paulo’s cock, and Ilir kept the key. Paulo only got free after going back to the sex shop and explaining his situation to the owner. So what should we read into that? Was Paulo trapped by Ilir, and freed by the shop owner? When he got into more hardcore BDSM with him, did he become less free? Are his romantic neediness and sub-ness related, or is the one just a symbol of the other? If you choose to enter an unequal relationship, do you become more or less free? Or am I just projecting my squeamishness about BDSM relationships?

A lot of questions, and I’m not even sure if they’re the right ones. But I think one question is pretty clear: at the end of the film, are Ilir and Paulo happy? And the answer is no. Their final smiles for the camera were nothing more than skin deep. A better question: will they be happy in the future? For Ilir, I’d say yes, because I get the impression that he’s learned from his experience and will find his way. For Paulo, I’m not so sure. He’s more self-confident, sure, and superficially successful, but that will probably change the second his romantic situation changes.

Still, I think I’ll end there. This was a difficult movie to sit through, because it’s painful to watch characters go through stupid and / or self-destructive behaviour. But it made me think: about what my own life choices might look like from the outside, what freedom means, and what happiness feels like. I didn’t exactly enjoy the experience, but I think I’m a little wiser for it.