The Wild Boys is the kind of film that defies words. It’s relatively easy to synopsise, I suppose: a group of five adolescent reprobates are assigned to the care of ‘the Captain’ (Sam Louwyck) after assaulting their teacher. When their oceanic voyage becomes jettisoned on a verdant, uncharted island, the story shifts modes from A Clockwork Orange to Lord of the Flies …with a few more twists in store. This succinct summary suggests a relatively straightforward story, though, and captures none of the film’s alluring, oneiric aesthetics. The Wild Boys draws on diverse influences like Lucille Hadžihalilović, Bruce LaBruce and F. W. Murnau’s Tabu. Despite these influences – and many others – the film feels unique.
Perhaps I could try to unpack the film’s politics. The five teen boys are played by adult female actors, a conceit that proves to be more than that in the film’s gender-bending third act. One can read The Wild Boys as a surrealistic realisation of ‘the future is female’, or a woman-centric diagnosis of the flaws at the heart of diseased masculinity. I’m not convinced that this is the sort of film that can be flattened out into such, frankly, reductive readings however, as persuasive as they are. It’s not just the complicating fact that the writer/director, Bertrand Mandico – helming his first feature film – is male. Nor is it that reading the film is such a director matter leads down a path with some potentially transphobic implications, though that is part of my resistance.
No, my difficulty boiling The Wild Boys down to a single story or interpretation is that it’s a steadfastly experiential film. Mandico’s movie was introduced at BIFF with a quote from critic Jonathan Romney describing it as “snow-globe cinema, creating its own sealed world and inviting you to enter it or just admire it from outside.” As much as The Wild Boys defies words, those are good ones, suggesting how it casts a spell and – if you let it – carries you away in its seductive rhythms. Here are some more words, from the film itself: “The most beautiful of hallucinations. Salty and sweet, hard yet yielding.”
Those words are unmistakably erotic. Indeed, ‘erotic’ is surely the best word to describe The Wild Boys. In film, eroticism is typically associated with sexiness: flattering lighting and artful nudity and flirtatious tension. Here, there’s a cruder hormonal kind of eroticism: fecund, sickly, even grotesque. “Ripeness is all,” utters a character prophetically, and the film oozes with ripeness. Even before we reach the island and its worldly yet unearthly pleasures, the film evokes the sense of a tree overrun with overripe fruit and pungent flowers on the verge of putrescence. This is orgiastic, stomach-turning kind of eroticism, characterising male sexuality as polluted and potent all at once. (The existence of TREVOR, a jewel-encrusted skull that seems to represent the boys’ most violent, misogynistic impulses, underlines the ‘polluted’ aspect.)
Then we arrive on the island. In almost any other film, an extended scene of these teen boys gulping down sticky white liquid from phallic flowers or copulating with mossy plants would be bafflingly outré. Here, it feels like a natural culmination – a climax, if you will – of the film’s escalating erotic atmosphere. The queer subtext soon erupts into hallucinatory scenes; the boys make out with one another, then deny the experience, then find their very masculinity falling away. Literally, with prosthetic penises discarded into the surf. Rather than feeling contrived or ridiculous, this all feels organic, even natural. And perhaps that’s the word for The Wild Boys; for a film so draped in artificiality, so vibrantly queer, so unapologetically erotic …it feels, above all, natural.