Queer cinema has often depicted the transient nature of the relationships between gay men, fleeting moments of connection that spark for a brief period and then fade into memory. It's a perfect narrative device for filmmaking, often focusing on a closed space over a closed period of time, like Andrew Heigh's extraordinary 'Weekend' or Francis Lee's magnificent 'God's Own Country'. However, that unity of time and space means we're only seeing the reality of that moment. In his exquisite debut feature 'End of the Century', Argentinian writer and director Lucio Castro considers what happens beyond that moment, and how a brief spark can echo across decades.
Ocho (Juan Barberini) is travelling through Barcelona after breaking up with his partner of 20 years. As he wanders the streets, another man wearing a black KISS t-shirt keeps entering his orbit. Spotting the man from the balcony of his Airbnb, he invites the man up for a drink. His name is Javi (Ramon Pujol), and there's an instant sexual spark between them, though something feels a bit... off. Even after sex, they still want to hang out together, and Ocho has the strange feeling he has met Javi before. It turns out that he has.
All romantic relationships are complicated, but there's something very distinct about romantic interactions between gay men. I've always had a theory that when two gay men meet one another for the first time, the first thing that goes through either of their minds is, "Do I want to sleep with him?" They are the collision between the desire for emotional intimacy and the satisfaction of lust, and for the most part the two do not go hand-in-hand, the latter more often than not winning out. It's on the occasions where the two find a balance that magic happens, but the transient emotional nature of gay men and relationships does not guarantee that this magic will lead where - according to heteronormative romantic narratives - it is supposed to. And it makes sense that this should be the case - being a gay man can be a very lonely existence, and almost entirely out of protection, both from the inherited trauma of centuries of oppression and the personal trauma that all gay men possess. Your instinct is to keep yourself at arm's length from anyone that may demand access to your heart, lest they get their hands on it and crush it. Those special connections leave ghosts; faint imprints on your heart like delicate tattoos. Even a random hook-up can stay with you, because there was something different about it, a possibility of magic, and you spend the rest of your life wondering just what would have happened had that magic been allowed to grow.
These ghosts are at the heart of 'End of the Century'. Ocho may not remember where he has met Javi before, but you can see in his body that he is being pulled to him somehow, that there's a memory of touch and taste and smell that has been awoken from the deep recesses of his memory. You can see it in Javi's deeply romantic eyes, the hope of being seen and remembered. This quality makes the first act of the film an unusually unnerving one, knowing that something doesn't feel right, that Castro is denying us something and we need to find out what it might be. And then he delivers the first genuine surprise - the revelation that these two men have met before, and it's here 'End of the Century' begins to reveal itself. Time is often the antagonist in queer dramas (the end of the weekend in 'Weekend', the finishing of the portrait in 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire', the winding down of the summer in 'Call Me By Your Name') - but here, it isn't that time has run out but that time surrounds these moments with all its existential enormity. This is a film about the passage of time - not just in markers such as dates and age, but in the lived lives that fill it: births and deaths and marriages and break-ups, the things that happen and the things that change and the things you wish you'd had.
Lucio Castro is not at all interested in making things easy for us. The pieces of these two lives are a puzzle for us to put together. When the film shifts into a new time and a new place, it isn't even entirely clear where we are in their story, or even if they're still the same men we met at the beginning of the film. Every time that you think you've found a fault in the complex storytelling, you quickly realise it to be the opposite, and when memory clicks into place, the building melancholy of 'End of the Century' blossoms. Castro understands that inherent loneliness within gay men and executes that within the language of the film itself - sparse dialogue, single figures positioned within a wide shot of a large environment. Intimacy, even just the closeness of two bodies, is a precious thing, and the moments where Ocho and Javi come together are electrifying - even for them, even when they don't realise it. There's such a palpable attraction and sexual energy between Juan Barberini and Ramon Pujol, two impossibly beautiful men whose beauty comes from a deep sadness they're too afraid to access. Barberini balances Ocho's sexual confidence with an intense loneliness and longing that barely sits below the surface, and Pujol's delicacy and directness as Javi hold the frustration of a pairing he knows should work and cannot forgive for not. These aren't bombastic performances, and this isn't a romance for the ages. It doesn't need to be; it is played with quiet specificity, and an equal exchange of desire and emotional protection - but because of this, it's a relationship that sits with you long after the film is over. Every element of the film serves the potency and power of that connection, from Bernat Mestres' wandering, breathtaking cinematography to Castro's careful editing and direction. Even the costumes are perfect; rarely have shirts and jeans been so sensual and so heartbreaking.
It's a relationship that sits with you long after the film is over.
And then, once again, just when you think you've got a handle on what 'End of the Century' has to say, Castro pulls off one more narrative magic trick, and a wonderful film elevates to a great one. Longing is so much at the heart of this film, but not just longing for the touch of another. It's a longing for something bigger than yourself, something even bigger than you and another - a longing to touch existence and leave a mark together, to carve a life as a statement that you were here, together, and it was special and wonderful and precious. This is perhaps a gross generalisation, but I sometimes wonder whether as gay men we all really do fear a life alone, to travel through our decades on this earth without someone at our side to get us through it, and yet how the pull of personal and sexual freedom also calls, to swim in the world and gorge on all its possibilities. Perhaps another contradiction at the heart of 'End of the Century' is that for gay men, nothing ever feels enough, that the strange freedoms that came to us in being cast out of the heteronormative world are something we're terrified of losing. And yet, the heart yearns and the body needs and the soul dreams.
There's something so rare and precious about 'End of the Century'. Though barely an hour and a half long, it somehow dares to ask enormous questions about love and longing and desire that very few queer films on the relationships of gay men have asked before. At its heart, the film is a ghost story - as all great memory plays are - and you feel the presence of these ghosts in every exquisite frame. Lucio Castro has given us a real gift with his debut film, anchored by two quietly breathtaking performances. The more I think about 'End of the Century', the more potent its memory becomes. It makes me think about those fleeting connections from the past, the lingering riddle of what might have been, the ghosts of moments and experiences that never happened and could have happened. Love doesn't always have to be the universe erupting. Sometimes it can just be a star fading away, one of the countless billions of stars in the night sky. But we still look up and see the memory of it, and can marvel at how small and precious and beautiful it is. And even though it might just be one of countless billions, it doesn't make its fading away any less special. It can still be miraculous.