Tomorrow is our first summer reading group meeting on the intersections of dis/ability and queerness. The text for tomorrow’s session is the film Devotee. The film is about a 43 year old man named Herve who was born without arms or legs who is looking for love. After an unsuccesful and somewhat humiliating moment with a sex worker, Herve thinks he has found the perfect man, played by Guillaume Quashie-Vauclin, in an online chat room for devotees, people who are attracted to various kinds of physical difference. Unfortunately, Herve discovers that like so many devotees he has met before, Guillaume’s character is only interested in his own gratification. Despite the resulting painful breakdown of their friendship, and abrupt end of their sexual one, the film does not end on a desolate note. Instead, at movie’s end, Herve finds himself deep in conversation with a man with his own physical issue about the meaning of difference, the role of humor and pain, and the potential to find love in a world that finds fault in any number of differences. The film ends with the promise that Herve may finally have found what he was looking for.
Despite the film’s official description that Herve is hoping to meet overly attractive men, I think he is no more interested in ideal bodies than any other gay man, which is to say he lives in the same culture and therefore has the same desires however idealized they maybe. I also think the official description of the film over emphasized Herve’s differently-abled status and ignored his age, weight, and demeanor as additional factors that make it harder for him to find a partner in a “perfect body,” youth obsessed culture. The poster itself depends on this same culture by putting Guillaume, not Herve, front and center, as well as in the background photo on the wall. Note, while Guillaume is naked and alluring, Herve is little more than 1/2 a head on Guillaume’s shoulder.
The promo for the film creates this same erasure of the main character Herve. When he is pictured, the shots are tighter than they are in the film in order to erase his physical dis/ability:
The marketing problem seems at odds with the point of the film which is to center Herve as fully realized and completely deserving of love and passion like anyone else.
Thus, in the film itself, Herve is a fully realized character in his own right. He talks openly and honestly about his dis/ability and his life. When Guillaume’s character finally arrives at his home, Herve is quick to correct Guillaume’s selfishness in the bedroom and point out how that selfishness stems from ablism. He let’s Guillaume know what works for him and what he needs from a partner with a directness and honesty that I wish all of us could pull off. And when his forthright discussion of why Guillaume must take him seriously as an equal participant in the bedroom leads Guilluame first to angry denial, then horrified sorrow at his own selfishness, and finally to break it off b/c he isn’t willing to accept Herve as a subject in his own right, Herve confronts him and then let’s him go.
The film also contains an interesting discussion about visible dis/ability and non-visible dis/ability and what they mean for one’s access to equality in our society. Herve assumes that being able to “hide” one’s abilities is easier than having them written on the always visible body. His conversation partner argues that visible or not discrimination occurs from the moment one is marked as different. And he further points out that once you are aware of the way people will react you live with the same fear of rejection and sense of loss as anyone else stigmatized by ablism. It is an important conversation that does not resolve itself nor take sides. And like those moments when Herve is talking about who he is, his family, or his desires from a partner, I wished that this scene had lasted longer.
Unfortunately, Devotee often struggles with the gaze of the filmmaker to make its point about Herve’s agency. The film begins with a long slow shot running the length of Herve’s body. The camera lingers on the edges of his limbs and the position of his right arm in the morning. In fact a considerable amount of time is taken up watching Herve manipulate his body that would have been better spent on the poignant story. Thus the gaze serves to otherize Herve in many ways and to exoticize him for the curious and the devotee alike.
Devotee also mobilizes the spectre of race in really trite ways. Guillaume is black and beautiful. While nothing is made of his race in the movie, his blackness stands out as the counterpoint to his own ablism. In fact, both of the men Herve sleeps with are men of color and both react negatively to him. The sex worker he hooks up with in the beginning of the film takes a double take at his body, and even goes in the bathroom to puke, but ultimately wants to be paid. Guillaume takes better care of Herve’s feelings, but ultimately only wants to satisfy his own desires and curiousities regardless of Herve’s needs. It is only when Herve meets the white neighbor of his Parisian friend, that he makes an emotional connection and a potentially gratifying sexual one. Tho the issue of race is unspoken then, the laying out of difference on the screen clearly argues that qoc are more ablist and implies, including a line from Herve about thinking Guillaume would be “different,” they should know better given the racism they experience. It’s a comparison I wish the queer community would move beyond so that we can address both homophobia and intersectionality in fruitful rather than divisive ways.
The film is also extremely low budget with little to know character development and extended storyline. As I said, time wasted on a sort of ablist voyeurism could have been spent telling us a more in depth story about Herve and his relationships. Given how well the moments where this development does happen were handled, it could only have made this a better movie.
I am looking forward to our discussion tomorrow about the film. If any of you all have watched it, please weigh in, I’d love to hear from you.