When the French Cinémathèque gave carte blanche to filmmaker Yann Gonzalez to curate a handful of screenings in 2016, one of his selections was Equation to an Unknown, a mostly forgotten porno from 1980 teeming with pre-AIDS hedonism and prophetic melancholia. Gonzalez had been introduced to the film on a poor-quality VHS tape and was so struck by its sensibility that he decided to pay for a 16mm print of the film to be struck from an elusive negative he managed to find in a lab.
It’s easy to see why Equation to an Unknown, directed by Francis Savel (under the pseudonym Dietrich de Velsa), spoke to Gonzalez in such visceral ways. It’s exactly the kind of porn that the characters in Gonzalez’s most recent film, the underrated Knife + Heart, which is set in the year that Savel’s film was shot, would have made. Which is to say, a slice of cinema that brings together erotic and artistic drives into one single path toward the sublime.
The closest example to this type of cinematic communion between pornography and poetry is perhaps James Bidgood’s Pierre-et-Gilles-esque extravaganza Pink Narcissus from 1971, or Fassbinder’s slightly less cartoonish Querelle from 1982. Although Savel is, much like Bidgood and Fassbinder, interested in unrestrained queer debauchery, his characters don’t need to inhabit a parallel filmic universe for repressed desire to roam in an unbridled fashion, nor must they resort to the superego-defying subterfuges of dreamscapes.
Savel’s world of queer decadence is thus not wrapped up in fetish gear. Young men’s soccer matches organically become locker-room orgies and motorcycle rides give way to impromptu sexual ecstasy. There’s no need here for clothes to become campy costumes or for objects to become theatrical props. The real world is sexy, fantastic, and theatrical enough with its naturalized rituals and accoutrements, from cleats to hardhats. Every stranger is harmless, well-hung, and disarmingly sure that he will be met with unconditional hospitality.
What’s so unusual about Savel’s film isn’t only the way it rediscovers queer bliss in the unvarnished aura of the everyday, but how devoid of anxiety its world is. Gay sex is depicted as immune to guilt and fear. If strangers catch two lovers having sex, it’s either to watch them as voyeurs or to join in. This isn’t the same logic of cheap sexual voracity that tends to govern traditional porn, but a logic of absolute openness. In the film, sex is a ceaseless flow comprised of an always welcome amalgamation of visitors—that is, sex angels that promptly turn up at door thresholds or just out of the blue to ensure pleasure lasts.
Group sex in Equation to an Unknown never amounts to a spectacle of pragmatic transactions. Pissing and rimming are portrayed as inherently tender, even poetic, activities. Orgies aren’t staged so much as they unfold spontaneously, bathed in delicate lighting and quixotic piano notes, as if each body merged with other bodies magnetically so they could form some sort of multi-tentacled organism. There’s no time for characters to reason or filter their impulses. They simply act in what feels like seamless reciprocity, or a kind of solidarity aimed at collective harmony through boundless sexual satisfaction.
For the most part, the question of identity seems foreign to the film. The sex on screen might be between two men, but are the men gay? Or is this what happens when bromance is allowed to bloom? These are bodies—all white, young, and mostly hairless—procuring pleasure in ways that precisely ignore cultural prescriptions and pre-determining scripts. But such a utopia becomes less defensible when women are finally mentioned for the first time, though they’re never seen, at which point the price of uninhibited pleasure between men begins to surface.
Toward the very end of Equation to an Unknown, a young man acknowledges the great size of the penis which he’s about to swallow by telling its owner, “Never a dull moment for girls with you.” In another scene, a man tells his transient lover, “I wish I could love only you,” evoking womanly figures awaiting the men in some less pleasant elsewhere. These are significant bits of dialogue in a film largely devoid of speech and completely devoid of femininity. They suggest that, ultimately, even the most convincing fantasies of erotic hospitality and freedom remain just that: fantasies, propped by very tangible ideas around the effacement of the feminine as precondition for the flourishing of the masculine. Could it all just flow, so tenderly and organically, if women were allowed in the picture as actual bodies?