The fine line between straight boys “being boys” and homoeroticism is on display in Marco Berger’s latest feature, Horseplay (Los agitadores), that leans into the liminal spaces of male sexuality and “manhood”.
A group of twenty-something young Argentinian men are vacationing together in a luxury villa. Freed from the constraints of parents and family, the house becomes a breeding ground of friendship, performative masculinity and insecurities. As one of them tries to calm down his girlfriend, after she was sent a photo of the boys in a questionable state, he attempts to reassure her by saying, “You know it’s just horseplay.”
The film opens with shots of the boys passed out from a night of partying. Two of them lie next to each other naked in bed with the door wide open. This could be a postcoital scene from any gay drama. It’s only as the others start to mock and tease each other that it becomes clear they are uncomfortable with the idea of attraction between men. Their go-to joke is to stage a “homo-photo” with them pretending to be caught in queer sexual positions and then to play-act their own outrage. Of course, in a group this large, there’s bound to be someone who doesn’t conform to the sexually “straight” and narrow.
There’s a lot being said these days about the “crisis of masculinity”, from environments of toxic behaviour to a “lack of role models” for young men. Here, Berger takes an observational view, using these characters to present snapshots of their attitudes without instant judgement. The key topic of Horseplay is their view of homosexuality.
Their friend, Poli (Franco de la Puente), is visibly uncomfortable with some of the hi-jinx. Privately other’s protest, “if he’s gay he should just tell us”, framing Poli’s silence as a betrayal of the group. None consider Poli’s reticence to be the result of the homophobic culture they have created and sustain.
Berger vividly captures the sense of familiarity and mateship that bonds this group. They are completely comfortable being naked in front of each other and there is no sense of self-censorship going on. Marco Berger, and his cinematographer Nahuel Berger, joyfully capture the camaraderie and sensuality of this homogenous group of men at play; a sea of tanned, toned bodies merging, rather than individuals emerging. This is most noticeable when there are women in the house. The juxtaposition between the dullness of the majority of the men and the intellectual and emotional maturity of the women is stark. As they are slowly moving into their manhood, for some the ennui is palpable and their fragility starts to show.
Berger is asking us to examine where the lines are drawn. Where does their behaviour fall on a scale of innocent playfulness to toxicity? Where are they on sexuality spectrum? Are these good people, or bad? Not too dissimilar to his earlier film Taekwondo, Berger takes a queer lens to reframe behaviour.
A slow burn, Horseplay avoids easy conclusions. Although some will likely find the leisurely pacing frustrating, in fact, the film only begins to falter when Berger inserts drama into the final scenes. Those looking for a thoughtful gay film, filled with an excess of handsome, underdressed, tanned men, that will keep you stimulated intellectually too, will find plenty to enjoy here.
By Chad Armstrong