If someone were to ask me what kind of movie I am Happiness on Earth is, I would respond that it is a Julian Hernandez film. I suppose that I could say that he makes “art house” or “festival” films, but he also belongs in that category of director where the style and subject become established patterns such that their films are classified off by themselves. No one makes films like them.
If you haven’t seen one of his movies, I don’t know if I would recommend this one, but Happiness does follow what I’ve come to expect from Hernandez. He is very good at creating stories of attractive men pursuing sex with each other – in fact he probably has no equal in that. There is a certain style to these pursuits in his films that evoke a very raw sexuality that barely even rises to the level of Eros. It is more instinctual than Eros, which should involve some passion and pleasure. Men (and in this movie, women, too) in pursuit of sex are like animals in heat. They prowl. Stare. They crawl on all fours. Consume as if they aren’t certain whether what they hunt is prey or a rival beast. Since there is hardly any dialogue in this film or any of his films, the actors must physically convey this animalism as well as any emotional states they might have. It makes sense then, that part of this movie involves an affair with a dancer since modern dancers are trained in the art of physical communication.
I am Happiness on Earth tells two stories with a long interregnum showcasing an explicit sex scene that may be thematically related to the stories, but probably isn’t worth thinking about too much. The first story is about a dancer named Octavio (Alan Ramírez) who falls for a movie director (Hugo Catalán). The second story involves the same director in a relationship with a hustler (Emilio von Sternerfels). These aren’t complicated stories. The director is shooting a film, he notices a dancer, he pursues that dancer, they have sex, the director has a fling with a hustler, the dancer is heartbroken and has sex with two women. I hope I didn’t spoil it for you. In the next tale, the director hires another hustler, the hustler falls for him and tries to give up hustling but doesn’t. The director at the end of the film asks both men to forgive him, although this isn’t a film about redemption. It is hardly about anything at all.
Whatever conflict there might be between the young men who want romance and the director who doesn’t think in those terms doesn’t amount to much. There is no conflict, really. No climax either. Or any sadness that the romance that the men hoped to find doesn’t work out. It couldn’t. Hernandez as a director wouldn’t allow us to hope for that, and Emiliano, the director within the film, is too pathetic to have it otherwise. So wrapped up is this film in the director’s vision of sexuality that we’ll have to look elsewhere to find something that gives joy or pleasure or hope.
Other hallmarks of Hernandez films are present as well. There is very little dialogue – although there is probably more dialogue in this film than his previous films, Broken Sky or Raging Sun, Raging Sky, which were basically silent films. I’ve been curious to see how he’d handle people interacting verbally, but there isn’t enough data presented to judge. If a viewer is hoping to gain additional insight into the characters that way, he or she is going to be disappointed. For example, in one scene Janzen, the hustler, asks Emilliano why he hires hustlers when as a director he probably could sleep with any number of attractive men, which is a good question that goes unanswered. When Emiliano follows up with a question asking Janzen why he returned to stay with him, Janzen can’t answer that question either. So much for layered characterization. In this film, we aren’t supposed to understand the characters; we’re just supposed watch them.
And watch them we must. If there is a technical disappointment with this film it is with the intrusive cinematography. The endless close ups and 360-degree sweeps around bodies and faces is over-indulgent and at some point I had to wonder if I was watching actors or watching Hernandez filming them. His shots are usually good and I can only criticize this aspect because in his previous films, the cinematography has been noteworthy. The acting style in his movies is very physical and since sex and the stories Hernandez weaves around it exists on an emotional level, the actors must use their bodies in ways that in other films directors might use dialogue. It takes quite a bit of physical control to act this way and in previous films, Hernandez has used his technical talent with the camera to capture and frame his actors in ways that help bring out more complex emotions. But in Happiness on Earth, there is too much movement that isn’t necessary. Catalán and Ramirez are probably the best actors he’s ever worked with for the physical tales he tells and it is too bad that he’s opted to make us dizzy rather than letting them move freely. Instead of helping them, I felt like he was drowning them in lighting and close-ups.
Eventually I would like Julián Hernández to make a complete film. He is a very talented director and with each release he makes me think he is limiting himself on purpose instead of building up to something big. In I am Happiness on Earth, I get the sense that he is stuck. Raging Sun, Raging Sky and Broken Sky, were much better films overall and it is not enough to undress attractive men and call it a day. I hope he steps outside the urban gay milieu of Mexico City for his next film and lets us see what he can do. Any category of film may do. Try a police procedural, a barnyard comedy, maybe a horror film, or a film about women talking. A change of pace might bring out other subjects worth exploring. But for now, his choice of subject seems to be smothering him.
** of Five.
IMDB: I am Happiness on Earth