Jean-Claude Schlim’s House of Boys (2009) is centred around a gay cabaret club of the same name, home to a colourful array of camp characters who sing for their supper on a nightly basis. Frank (Layke Anderson) stumbles across his personal hedonistic haven after escaping his oppressive home life and running away to Amsterdam with similarly young school friends, only to find himself suddenly stranded and homeless.
Madame (Udo Kier) recognises the potential in his new arrival and shows him to his room and subsequently to his future lover, Jake (Benn Northover). With the exception of resident ‘Mummy’ Emma, played by Eleanor David, Jake is the only straight worker at the ‘House of Boys’, and is instantly the object of Frank’s desire.
Jake insists his sexual exploits with his clients are purely business, but after his savings are stolen by his girlfriend, he seeks solace in Frank’s arms and the two begin a tender love affair. Unfortunately, it is around this time that Frank first hears whisperings of a disease plaguing the gay community, and his world of fun and frivolousness is turned upside-down in the blink of a glitter-lined eye.
Although being involved in film and TV production for decades, Jean-Claude Schlim had not directed a project since 1989, and unfortunately stands to prove that it isn’t like riding a bike. Fundamental problems in House of Boys’ premise, screenplay and performances can’t be glossed over with quality production and colourful dance routines, and although his intention to re-ignite people’s interest in the ever-prominent issue of AIDS is honourable, he goes about it in completely the wrong way.
My main gripe with House of Boys is the disjointed writing. A collaborative effort by Schlim and Christian Thiry, they try to weave hard-hitting life issues into a world portrayed as camp and care-free, and the result is such a halting clash in the film’s tone that you’re suddenly watching a totally different movie. I’m not sure if this shock to the system is meant to be indicative of the manner in which AIDS takes such a sudden and devastating hold of its victims, but all memories of the gay world held so dearly by Schlim are lost to the raw ravages of such a terrible illness. Even if you enjoyed the first half, you certainly wouldn’t want to watch House of Boys again after the second.
It’s clear that Schlim has a personal connection to this particular era and wanted to capture the essence of what it was to be a part of it, which prompts me to question how he managed to create such frustratingly one-dimensional characters.
Although Kier is simultaneously amusing and frosty as Madame, and Stephen Fry performs with the utmost ease in his small role as a pioneering doctor, the ‘boys’ in particular are textbook gay clichés cobbled together with no thought as to who they are and what makes them tick. The character of snappy queen Angelo in particular (played by Steven Webb, a face recognisable to The Inbetweeners fans) will have your toes curling – it’s aggravating to see such lack of progress in tackling stereotypes.
The highs of House of Boys are in the dance routines and the soundtrack. Whilst the music choices aren’t particularly original, they’re certainly relevant to the era and the tone, are lots of fun and serve as a suitable backdrop for the film’s on-stage antics. The relationship between Frank and Jake is tender at times and once their love is established it can be quite moving, but therein lies another problem – they go from lust to love with absolutely no development or explanation, and the relationship only seems to flourish in the face of adversity.
Ultimately, House of Boys’ production quality, when compared to the writing and direction, illustrates that perhaps Schlim should stick to what he does best.