The run of gay-themed films involving dancers as major characters (such as Test and Five Dances) continues with the Mexican drama I Am Happiness On Earth. The film comes from director Julian Hernandez, who found acclaim with earlier queer cinema arthouse faces such as Broken Sky (2006) and Raging Sun Raging Sky (2009). His new movie doesn’t veer off too far thematically from his earlier work, but once more offers an intense, erotically charged look at love and sex.
The movie takes us into the life of filmmaker Emiliano, who is capturing the bodies and expressions of some dancers. However his interest in the project seems less in the female dancer at the centre of the film and more in the sexy, young male dancers he can’t help looking at.
Emiliano begins a charged relationship with Octavio, which initially seems to be a good match for both. However the taciturn Emiliano is constantly looking for the next experience – whether through sex or mind-altering substances – and seems afraid that familiarity will inevitably become monotony, and so he encourages Octavio to allow him to bring rent boys into their bedroom, while also having other sexual experiences on the side.
The film initially follows the fallout of this from Octavio’s side, before jumping back slightly and showing us Emiliano’s life, and how his constant sense of dissatisfaction is affected both by his relationship with Octavio and his dalliance with a rent boy who he initially tries to impress with his directing credentials but the young man refuses to merely be the willing acolyte the director may want.
Despite its title, I Am Happiness On Earth isn’t exactly a jolly film. It’s the type of movie that sometimes difficult and a little frustrating. Even it seems to realise it could be accused of pretentiousness, as it includes a scene where Emiliano defends the arthouse films he makes and essentially blames the audience if they’re not prepared to accept them. There are undoubtedly moments when the film is far too pleased with itself – and this isn’t the audience’s problems, it’s that the director’s self-justification threatens to tip into self-importance.
That said, ‘verbosity’ is not the word you might first think of while watching the movie, as there isn’t a huge amount of dialogue – it’s just that the film has more issues when it is literally speaking than when it isn’t. Instead it’s more interested in thought, feeling and the effect of small actions, where the aesthetic is more important that what the people are saying. Luckily, while Hernandez does often seem a little too self-regarding (particularly as Emiliano often seems like a cipher that’s supposed to allow the director complete introspection, but is too often used to deflect criticism), he also has an immense talent for mood and style.
This allows I Am Happiness Of Earth to be incredibly sensual and erotic, with its use of sex and the male body to create something that is sexy and edgy, pulling you in by using the prurient to explore the characters and their situation. It could easily have come across as base and pandering to a gay audience, but it never does, with the movie treating the passion and hurt of sexual desire in the same way as it does the filming of the dancers.
It’s impressively affecting, so that even while pretension flits across the surface there’s a tension, sensuality and struggle that holds you. It’s very good at bringing the viewer into the intimacy and conflicted emotion of interpersonal relationships, even if it’s less certain what to say about them on an intellectual level.
Overall Verdict: I Am Happiness On Earth may not be perfect, but on an emotional and sexual level it’s a lyrical, erotic and highly affecting movie that captures the internal conflict of sexuality even if it does flirt the edges of pretension to get there.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac