Two Sides of the Self: M/M at Slamdance
M/M is a beautifully shot, modern and stylish film by director Drew Lint, which shows at the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival. Stark and textural, M/M immerses with a quiet and insidious aggression framed within the shifting, languid and frenetic corners of Berlin. Protagonist Matthew (Antoine Lahaie) is wide-eyed and internally fixated, as though beset by an interminable daydream. His doughy innocence quickly becomes sinister as he grows bored by his quotidian and semi-closeted life and becomes obsessed with Matthias (Nicolas Maxim Edlicher), an edgy artist who seems a strange alter ego to Matthew. After a motorbike accident leaves Matthias comatose in intensive care, Matthew begins to subsume his existence. Lint discusses the ambient and psychological aspects of the film and the ways the main characters gradually enter a progressively destabilized dynamic.
SLUG: How did the story of the film begin for you?
Lint: The story of the film comes from my experiences living as a Canadian expat in Berlin. My first months there were an incredibly exciting time but also a lonely time. I also realized I had the unique opportunity to rebrand myself, if I so chose. As a newcomer to a strange city, you’re simultaneously challenged to make yourself fit in and afforded the luxury of creating a personality that would allow you to do so. M/M comes from my impressions of Berlin as an outsider. I still live there and would still consider myself an outsider to a degree. The entire expat community [comprises] outsiders. We will never really be considered German, which is OK with me. Berlin has historically been a place where outsiders congregate anyway, regardless of nationality. That’s what makes it such a great place to live, that international community.
SLUG: What dichotomies of personality do Matthew and Matthias represent? Are they distinct characters?
Lint: Matthew begins the film as a lonely but relatable subject, a proxy for the viewer. He’s our window into Berlin, its nightlife scene and expat community. Somewhat introverted and certainly introspective, Matthew seems thoughtful. Our introduction to Matthias is quite the opposite. He is godlike, an ideal object that could seemingly never be possessed. As the events of the film unfold, Matthew pushes further and further away from reality and into a place of personal fantasy. He begins to embody Matthias, becoming assertive and confident. At this point, Matthias swings around to become the subject the viewer identifies with, assuming a more passive and introspective position. But Matthias also begins to push into a fantasy world, and their characters become intertwined, existing in an artificial reality, authored by them. They metaphorically become two halves of a whole by the end of the film, but as they shift back and forth from one reality to another, their relationship is left unstable and is so charged with masculine aggression that they are a dysfunctional whole.
The question of whether they are distinct characters is an interesting one. I wrote them both, so I see elements of myself in both of them. They do represent different parts of a more fleshed-out character, but I see this as being metaphorical. I think of them being two different people, but maybe they can exist as two separate people without being distinct characters. They need each other to exist, since they only exist within the framework of this film. I guess you could say they’re codependent characters.
SLUG: The film feels deeply dissociative. What can you tell us about that?
Lint: Yeah, that’s an interesting way of thinking about it. Matthew copes with the pressure he feels to adhere to societal norms by dissociating from reality. He feels pressure to fit into the place society has allotted to him: to be masculine, physical, athletic, social. He feels compelled to make his identity fit those requirements in his search for community. M/M is very much a film about receding into an interior space, inventing a reality that suits one’s needs. Because the film is so pointedly structured around desire and possession, fantasy is also a recurring element. I’m interested in the representation of fantasy onscreen. There are moments in the film that are obviously meant to be dreamt, but other moments that are more difficult to label as dream or reality. Eventually, the question of what is reality becomes unimportant. For me, all of the events that transpire within the story of the film add up cumulatively to bring about the end. It’s not so important to define exactly which moment is “real” in a tangible, physical sense, since these events are all being experienced by the characters in an authentic way, regardless of their status as dream or reality. In a way, both Matthew and Matthias make a commitment to dissociate from “reality” into an alternate reality, where they can play out their domination fantasies and prove themselves as “real men.”
SLUG: Tell us about the use of fabrication and rendering of reality and how that plays into the transforming and inhabitation of Matthias.
Lint: I wanted to create a visual metaphor that was interwoven into the film’s plot, which is where the conceit that an artist was using Matthias as a model for his sculpture work came from. As Matthew pursues his desire to embody Matthias, these physical replicas of Matthias are also being created simultaneously. The viewer is privy to this fabrication process; we see images of Matthias generated by a computer, being altered with editing software. This happens concurrently to Matthias lying in a hospital in a coma, which is even a bit funny in a darkly comic way. Whether these are dreams or hallucinations we’re experiencing through Matthias or we’re looking at the screen of an animator’s computer, the visuals of him frozen on the screen push the narrative forward, illustrating the process of possession that’s unfolding.
SLUG: What, if anything, is being said about relationships that begin in cyberspace?
Lint: I don’t really think the film is making a comment on relationships that begin in cyberspace, per se. I think it’s so commonplace now for people to meet through dating and hookup apps, especially in the gay world, that the inclusion of Matthew and Matthias’ first interaction with their phones is more a reflection of the times than anything. I do think this mediation via screens adds to the dissociative journey both characters embark on in the film, though. The “online” world is malleable and ready to be personalized through various apps and platforms. It makes it easy to enter a world of your own making, even if only for a brief reprieve from reality. Also, looking and being looked at are important elements in the film, which happen even in cyberspace. Matthew and Matthias are constantly looking at each other, whether in a real-life situation, or through the screen of their phone or laptop, or even in their dreams. We tried to communicate that through the shooting style of the film as well—a lot of close-ups, with characters often seen from behind over their shoulder. So, I think the film has more to say about the way we look at each other in cyberspace than the way we start relationships there. It’s often a one-way gaze when it occurs through that mediated surface of the screen, making the desire grow deeper and more desperate. I think that’s a symptom of our times, actually—a deep longing for something we don’t have, maybe even something we can’t pinpoint. We just know we want it. There’s so much out there on display but often still out of reach when we only see it on a screen.
SLUG: What does the film say about transgression of boundaries and lack of privacy?
Lint: I think the interesting thing this film has to say about transgression of boundaries is the idea of entitlement. Both characters are pushing limits here in terms of privacy. Of course, the initial sequence where this territory is first touched on is when Matthew follows Matthias home from the pool. This is an obvious transgression. I think any viewer will feel that. It’s a major leap and once that’s been made I think it paves the way for others to follow. Matthew feels entitled to let his desire rule him, the consequences of which don’t seem to matter. Matthew is fixated on Matthias, but he doesn’t feel empathy for him. He pushes limits to such an extent that it becomes dangerous for him, but he does this because he feels entitled to do so.
SLUG: What does the film say about consent?
Lint: Consent is an interesting topic of discussion with regard to this film. Both Matthew and Matthias push limits in terms of boundaries throughout the film. I would say that consent is most often given during the physical exchanges, albeit implicitly, between the two characters. However, I think there are multiple situations when boundaries are overstepped and situations escalate beyond what the characters are comfortable with. The climax is probably the most obvious example of this process, but you can also see it in the uncomfortably aggressive sex scene that occurs toward the end of the film (which is actually the first time the characters physically touch). An interaction begins, apparently in accordance with the wishes of both players, eventually escalating past that initial implicit contract. But even as boundaries are crossed and one player begins to feel uncomfortable, instead of expressing that in a clear, verbal (responsible) way, he tries to push it further, becoming more physically aggressive. To show male weakness is to give in to femininity, which, in this battle for power, would be a fatal blow. You’ll notice I used the term player, which is intentional. Matthew and Matthias are playing a game here, trying to bait each other into betting more and more on the ultimate struggle. First, they dip a toe in, then a foot, then before long, they’re entirely submerged in this game of chicken. They begin to behave like animals, giving little regard to consent.
However, Matthew’s inhabitation of Matthias is done completely without consent, which I think is quite a scary prospect. This malignant possession is deeply troubling for Matthias, who is ostensibly experiencing some supernatural telepathic nightmares about Matthew’s unwanted occupation while in his coma. [Though] this might thrill Matthias to a certain degree, there is also something deeply upsetting and unnerving about it. When he finds Matthew in his house upon returning from the hospital, he is intrigued and terrified to learn that his impressions were accurate. He feels like his only real option is to engage and fight.
SLUG: What’s being said about power?
Lint: As the film progresses, Matthew and Matthias engage in a long battle for domination, both seeking power. This process is reflective of the way our culture socializes men. We are taught to dominate each other physically, but also emotionally, in business, in social environments. It translates to sexuality, too. With M/M, I want to highlight the domination that is implicit within gay sexuality. I’m not talking about tops versus bottoms here but more about the toxic masculinity that society impresses upon men, which is funneled into their actions. They feel the need to dominate as a result, showing their power. It’s performative. They display their victory over each other like a badge of honour. Matthew’s and Matthias’ struggle is a metaphor for that power struggle.
SLUG: Who did the fascinating CGI rendering and 3D-printing work?
Lint: My friend Margaret Hewitt works at a 3D-printing company in Berlin called BigRep. They’re actually a manufacturer of 3D printers, but they also have a division that makes prints for various reasons, mostly to experiment with the medium. Margaret was interested in collaborating on the project, so she connected me with Botspot, a company also based in Berlin that builds 3D scanners. They were very generous and offered to scan our actor, Nicolas Maxim Endlicher, so we could use the data to build some CGI renderings and eventually 3D-print him as a life-size Matthias. In the end, our Matthias was about 80 percent of life-size due to the size of the 3D printer, but it still gets the point across. Martin Sulzer is responsible for the CGI renderings. All the images of the renderings “in progress” were made by shooting his monitor as he played around with various angles. He is a friend of mine and an incredibly talented artist and animator, whom we were very lucky to get to work with. Somehow, he managed to animate the rendering to appear to be breathing, which I find endlessly impressive. He makes video work of his own that incorporates CGI renderings and animation, so this collaboration also allowed him to explore that world a bit more and try some new techniques.
SLUG: What were you seeking to convey with the use of linearity, negative space and geometry?
Lint: There are two main things I wanted to convey through the use of those elements. The use of linearity and geometry was meant to reinforce the idea of larger social forces impacting the characters—hard, sharp lines that touch queer bodies, molding their personalities. The negative space of the ominous Berlin skies were meant to communicate that as well: external pressure weighing down on the characters. They are products of the world around them, after all; shaped by society, just as we are. We wanted to encapsulate the visuals of Berlin within the film as well, which means a lot of linear lines, given that most of the city was rebuilt during the postwar period. I worked really closely with Ann Tipper, our director of photography, and Zazu Myers, our production designer, to create a visual style that communicated the themes I wanted to convey, while also reflecting the qualities of Berlin—the heavy greyness of the city in November and alienating feeling of being an individual in a big, unfamiliar city.
The second thing hopefully conveyed by the use of negative space is the openness of virtual space and the willingness of that space to accept desires and allow a place for them to be projected. There are a lot of voids in this film to gaze into, whether they’re digital or not. Those heavy skies may be weighing down on us, but they also allow us to gaze into them, getting lost in our own thoughts.
SLUG: What do Matthias’ tattoos tell us? What does the ouroboros represent?
Lint: Matthias’ tattoos in the film are all tattoos that our actor, Nicolas, already had. I’m happy the “Sodom” and “Gomorrah” figured prominently in the film. Matthias is meant to be confident in his sexuality and fully formed in his queer identity, not living in the closet or which could also be read as contributing to Matthew’s interest in him.
The ouroboros was meant to be a nod to the idea that Matthias’ identity lives on in some capacity via the renderings that preserve his physicality, and also the sado-masochistic literal image of the symbol: a snake biting its own tail. Matthias is about to let himself plunge into a situation which will almost certainly be harmful for him in some capacity.
SLUG: What were the most rewarding and most difficult aspects of making the film?
Lint: We made this film for almost no money. The total budget, in the end, was something like $60,000, so that was definitely the most difficult aspect of making the film. We just had to work with what we had. During production, my mantra became “We are saying yes” to whatever came our way. We adapted to every situation. Thankfully, we had an amazingly talented cast and crew who were willing to commit themselves completely to making the movie. That’s the only way you can make a movie with so little. You need a team that is willing to give it their all and spin negative situations into something you can work with. That continued right through postproduction. We seemed exclusively to find talented and generous individuals who wanted to help us make this thing.
I guess that also became the most rewarding aspect of making the film. Hard work pays off. It’s incredibly gratifying to come out the other side with a finished product you can be proud of, especially after years of battling through the making of a microbudget film.
With a powerful and provocative narrative, fantastic use of sound and imagery, and a depth apparent from the start, M/M is a must-see of the 2018 Slamdance lineup. For more information about the festival and film, go to slamdance.com.