Beauty can only take you so far in Steve McLean’s artsy drama, Postcards From London. Intense, seductive and organically strung together, the motion picture discusses all about art and opportunity in a postmodern era filled with kitsch and the superfluous mores of a self-aggrandizing society. Constructing a thrilling hyper-reality, McLean’s film is undoubtedly one of the wittiest, most eccentric addition to this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival and certainly worth a double-watch.
Cultural value is not the strong suit of the little barren town where Jim (Harris Dickinson) is from. The man wants to be able to flaunt his love for the arts and find like-minded people to debate with, but is by no means in the right place for that. Like all other well-educated individuals before him, Jim decides to venture to London and to relocate in Soho. Unfortunately, fate is not on his side and the handsome young man is soon mugged and left without any possessions. Following the suggestion of his temporary roommate, he joins The Raconteurs, an unconventional clique of male escorts who are extremely knowledgeable in literature, art and education. Jim quickly manages to turn his luck around and becomes an impeccable muse and the main star amongst Soho artists. This passion for creativity, however, begins to torment him as the young hustler suffers from a rare and strange condition known as Stendhal Syndrome. The psychosomatic disease makes Jim hypersensitive to art, as he struggles to not lose himself and become easily hurt or affected by its beauty.
A pastiche of scholarly culture and performance, Postcards From London firmly and boldly establishes its roots from the very beginning – it is a bright, humorous film revolving around knowledge of the arts. Albeit highly intellectual, witty and stimulating, the script’s core message is more or less obscured by the context of male escorting. The brilliant puns and thought-provoking dialogue occasionally seem lost and become a mere nuisance to the plot line. The breathtaking cinematography is also oftentimes so impressive that it overshadows the cultural dimension of the film. Nonetheless, this playful and simultaneously fervent combination of artistic, highbrow elements consistently keeps the viewer glued to the screen in an attempt to understand every single reference or wisecrack and to absorb every last bit of banter out of the script.
With a mystical look straight out of film noir cinematography, the motion picture is utterly mesmerizing, but also at times difficult to follow. Featuring a riveting and candid performance by Harris Dickinson, McLean’s motion picture is rife with playful innuendos and pop culture elements, but it is also self-referent. History becomes interlaced with personal accounts, art is enmeshed with sex and cultural depth is oftentimes mixed with average Joe small talk. Jim’s downfall is his incapacity to remove himself from this alter-universe. He cannot retain an individual identity outside of the pieces of art he embodies and as such, he ends up routinely sacrificing his wellbeing in order to create unique, outstanding art. The question becomes if it is even possible to conceive anything meaningful without considerable blood, sweat and tears.
Hustling the streets, overindulging in lascivious sexual activity and prostitution are all widespread, recurrent themes in LGBT cinema. However, Postcards From London turns this trope on its head and strips it of its gravity. Whereas most movies centered on this subject tackle dark topics like abuse, trauma, abandonment and suicide, McLean’s drama is quirky, lighthearted and refreshing. Any serious message is either said tongue-in-cheek or much more powerfully depicted through the film’s ingenious cinematography and refined performances. There is little to no attention given to the harsh reality of street life or the grim aspects of being a sex worker. Instead, the emphasis is placed on the juxtaposition between drama and life, as well as between art and eroticism. Prostitution is in a way glamorized as one of the highest forms of creativity, whereas being a hustler translates to being an exquisite muse, who is as aesthetically-pleasing as the Greek gods themselves.