Preview: 195 Lewis and Body Electric at VQFF

The Vancouver Queer Film Festival is running from August 10 to 20, and we're so excited! We'll be posting reviews for a handful of noteworthy flicks until the festival start date, so our readers know which titles to look out for. More details regarding the VQFF program can be found on their website. Yay!

Still from Chanelle Aponte Pearson's 195 Lewis

Still from Chanelle Aponte Pearson's 195 Lewis

As the landscape of contemporary media continues to diversify and evolve both in form and content, the world of online streaming services is fast becoming the place to search out stories that one might otherwise not encounter on the big screens. Enter 195 Lewis, a new web-based series soon to be launched by up-and-coming Brooklyn-based director Chanelle Aponte Pearson and showing at this year’s VQFF. Remember The L Word? And how good it was—regardless of your sexual identity—to watch smart women just doing their thing and not spending all their time talking about men? OK, maybe I’m dating myself here. Anyway, 195 Lewis is a show about lesbians—Black, polyamorous lesbians, to be precise. And it is great.

Divided into five episodes (the last three of season one to follow in the fall of this year), the series plays more like a full-length feature as it seamlessly follows the story of four queer Black women navigating the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and creative practice that so inform their lives in their neighbourhood of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. The first episode opens at a fundraising party hosted by Yuri, a charming and charismatic twenty-something painter, and her partner, Camille. It soon becomes clear, as the camera lazily zooms around the bumping, packed room, that they are part of a milieu of other hip, queer women of colour that feel free to express their sexuality and artistry without inhibition. It also becomes clear that Camille and Yuri have recently decided to become polyamorous, and that, between casual flirtations and more serious side-affairs, the power dynamic may be on its way to a serious imbalance. 

In the first episode we also meet the two other characters who feature prominently in 195 Lewis: Kris, Yuri’s old friend from college who shows up at the fundraiser unannounced, apparently having packed up all her things and left Dallas for the Big Apple, hoping to crash with Yuri; and Anne, Camille’s younger sister—still in college and a promiscuous and unstoppable force. The former is a bit on the naïve side and significantly out of her depth in the new fish pool she has found herself in; the latter is all game and Mary-Jane.

What ensues is comedic and also smooth, sexy and smart in a very hip millennial Brooklyn way (except much less Girls and much more Insecure). Between a “Femmes of Colour Brunch” and a newbie-breakdown of the “five types of Brooklyn lesbian” (with a devoted nod to The L Word’s Bette)—all awash in deeply saturated hues and peppered with cutting dialogue and a fresh, original soundtrack—Aponte Pearson succeeds in immersing us completely in the world of these women. But make no mistake: though 195 Lewis may be attractive to a broader audience, this series was made by and for queer women of colour (ninety percent of the crew are also Black women). Aponte Pearson summarized her intent in a recent IndieWire interview: “There are so many images of the opposite of us—Black people that are underserved, marginalized, having issues. All that stuff is real, but I think there is a big vacuum around the beauty of our lives […] There’s so little of it in cinema.” Well, you heard it here first: there’s no doubt about it—195 Lewis is Black and beautiful and so many other good things. See it for yourself.

Still from Marcelo Caetano's Body Electric (Corpo Eletrico)

Still from Marcelo Caetano's Body Electric (Corpo Eletrico)

In Walt Whitman’s poem “I Sing The Body Electric”, the opening lines read: I sing the body electric/the armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them. Brazilian director Marcelo Caetano was clearly inspired by the American poet’s humanist and earthy philosophy in the creation of his first feature film, Body Electric (Corpo Eletrico). Elias is a handsome young Brazilian man who works as a designer’s assistant at a garment factory by day and pursues casual sexual encounters by night. He is charming, easy-going, free-spirited and open-minded—a clear hedonist yet un-exaggerated, neither in personality nor practice. At the opening of the film we meet him musing on his recent dreams of the sea to an undisclosed lover; later, we discover that he has recently ended his relationship with an older, well-off artist with whom he continues to maintain a friendship and sleep with on occasion. 

Caetano’s film is not focused on character development—or plot, for that matter. Body Electric is decidedly a mood piece, exploring the fluid connections between a group of people who give themselves over to the small pleasures available to them in life—music, drinking, sex, laughter. When an attractive young man from Guinea, named Fernando, begins working in the assembly line at the factory, Elias becomes more attuned to the lives of the workers on the floor below him—a true panoply of faces displaying Brazil’s diversity—beginning to spend more time with them on nights out and festive celebrations at the factory. These scenes are where Body Electric shines—languidly and naturalistically displaying the low-key buzz of energy that speaks of warm nights in tropical countries.

Caetano’s film has clear echoes of Gabriel Mascaro’s 2015 Neon Bull (a film on which he worked as assistant director), and yet it differs from Mascaro’s film significantly in its rejection of a more nuanced exploration of gender norms in favour of unambiguous celebration of sexuality and diversity. When the platonic relationship between Elias and Fernando doesn’t develop into anything more and Elias begins a relationship with a flamboyant factory employee, Wellington, he is introduced to a group of fun-loving drag queens; their nights out together encourage him to further embrace his sexuality and hedonism. Wellington describes them to him as a “family”, and it soon becomes clear that Elias has found his own family in his wonderful hodgepodge mix of new friends. While Caetano’s film may not sit so well with viewers accustomed to more conventional narrative, and while it does lag some in parts, Whitman perhaps put it best:

I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,

To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment, what is this then?
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.

 

195 Lewis will be screening on Saturday, August 19 at the York Theatre. Body Electric will be screening on Tuesday, August 15 and Wednesday, August 16 at International Village Cinemas. Tickets can be found here and here.