I first became aware of A Moment in the Reeds a few weeks ago, when I saw the poster scroll past on a website that lists new releases. The poster looked familiar — two men stand intimately close to one another, at odd angles, against a vibrantly azure sky, the film’s title scrawled across the expanse of blue in a font that could be an artist’s handwriting. It’s quite clear what recent film’s marketing it was referencing. Sure, I sent the poster around to a few of my Call Me By Your Name-loving friends, joking about this film none of us had ever heard of that was evidently trying to ride CMBYN’s coattails, but the knockoff poster had done its job: it caught my eye. So, this week, when I saw the film (with a much better, more original cover) show up on iTunes’ list of 99¢ movie rentals, I decided to check it out.
The comparisons to Call Me By Your Name are both sort of apt, and also unfair to both movies. There are certainly superficial similarities – both are gay romances set during idyllic summers in Europe. But A Moment in the Reeds is stunning in its own right, a trailblazing film for Finland — it’s one of the first movies made in the country to feature a gay romantic storyline — that nevertheless feels intensely personal and intimate. Whereas Call Me By Your Name is about the heady rush of a first will-they won’t-they summer fling, about the lessons we learn when we first find a meaningful connection that isn’t meant to last, A Moment in the Reeds is content with zeroing in on those first few days of attraction and lust, of the quiet power of hushed conversations about shared traumas and the slow, probing way two men explore the beginnings of what might be a life-changing relationship, or might just last for a few days. In that way, it’s almost closer to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend than it is to Call Me By Your Name, interested simply in observing and capturing small moments of intimacy rather than crafting a grand, sweeping love story out of them, as CMBYN does. (To be clear, I think CMYBN is an absolute masterpiece. It’s just… interested in different things. Or, it’s interested in the same things differently).
A Moment in the Reeds is the story of Leevi (Janne Puustinen), a gay Finnish man who left Finland at his first opportunity and has spent the past five years studying poetry in Paris, to the chagrin of his more traditionally-masculine father. When Leevi returns to his native land to do research in Helsinki for his thesis, which is on gender performativity in the poetry of Rimbaud and Sarkia, he spends some time at his father’s cabin in the gorgeous Finnish countryside, assisting him with fixing up the cabin so it can be sold off. Leevi’s father has hired Tareq, a Syrian refugee and immigrant, to help with the renovation. When Leevi’s father is unexpectedly called away on business, Leevi and Tareq find themselves irresistibly attracted to one another as they share tasks around the house and share Leevi’s bed at night.
Their initial connection is sparked by the fact that, although Tareq speaks no Finnish, both of them speak English, which Leevi’s father does not; sharing a language allows them to talk about and around the overbearing, conservative man who lurks at the edges of the film. Leevi acts as translator between the other two characters, and we as the audience get to see how his allegiance shifts; sometimes he translates exactly, but sometimes he alters words or meaning to protect Tareq from his father’s racism and homophobia. The fact that neither Leevi nor Tareq is speaking his first language also adds an emotional layer to the film; whereas an actor’s performance can sometimes be stunted by performing dialogue in a tongue they are not necessarily native to, here this performance is part of the story, as both men are literally searching for the words to express how they are feeling for each other. Their conversations are halting, awkward, occasionally feeling around the words in their mouths as they feel each other out.
There’s a queerly visual language of glances and stares at play here, too. Importantly, unlike some other recent LGBT+ films that have an eye on mainstream audiences — I’m looking at you, Boy Erased — A Moment in the Reeds takes a casual, scopohilic pleasure in depicting how gay men look at each other. Before both men realize that their attraction is reciprocated, they spend much of the first act catching furtive glimpses of each other through the woods, each taking a moment to look each other up and down when they think the other is looking away. It’s a dance of the eyes, the characters seducing one another almost without realizing it in how they look at each other, and are looked at. It’s a dance queer audiences know well.
Boy Erased shows Lucas Hedges looking at his friend in basketball shorts, but doesn’t think to show the audience what he’s looking at out of frame. Why would we — the straight we in the audience that the film presumes — want to see that? (Especially since the movie goes on to suggest that this furtive act of looking, noticed by the predatory friend, invites his character’s rape later that night). And in Call Me By Your Name, except for the obvious shots where the act of looking is explicit — like when Oliver watches Elio play piano — the queerness of the scopophilic pleasures in that film happens almost by accident. I’m thinking of the inset shot where we see Elio looking at Oliver down the dinner table that first day, and we get a brief, screen-filling close-up of Armie Hammer’s open shirt and chest hair. The first time I saw it, in its startling quickness and expansive intimacy, I gasped. It wasn’t until my second viewing that I realized I’m supposed to think Elio is noticing Oliver’s Star of David necklace, not taking an all-too-familiar-feeling opportune moment to glance at Armie’s body being revealed.
Here, though, we are expected to just understand what’s happening when Tareq and Leevi look at one another. The looking happens mostly in wide shot rather than in shot-reverse-shot or closeups. We don’t need a close-up of Leevi’s hands to know what Tareq is admiring when he looks that way. We don’t need the camera to rake itself down Leevi’s body when Tareq glances at him while they talk. The film has a casual, second-nature expectation that the audience will follow the characters’ eyelines, will naturally understand the significance of those glances, and will understand how they feel about what they’re seeing. It’s refreshing.
And then their eyes finally meet, and each man sees that he’s been seen by the other in the same way that he’s been looking, and before they know it, they’re kissing, fumbling through the doorway to Leevi’s bedroom, falling on the bed and undressing and… let’s just say, this is not a film that is content to pan to the window while its characters get down to business. (Ahem, again, Call Me By Your Name). Unlike most, this is a gay romance film that isn’t afraid of gay sex. It’s the most explicit gay sex scene I think I’ve ever seen in a film, and yet it’s never gratuitous, instead aiming for tender, sweet, intimate, and, yes, sexy. It’s erotic, not pornographic. And it’s not afraid of turning off straight audiences. Straight audiences aren’t even a consideration. Ok with men kissing and being in love, but not men being naked in bed together? Then this isn’t the movie for you, it says. Gay audiences have watched this kind of straight sex scene in movies for, well, as long as there have been movies. A Moment in the Reeds evens the score, even if just a little bit.
The queer experience as depicted in media is so often defined by the trauma of the closet and the AIDS epidemic. Coming out narratives dominate, as do stories of loss and hopelessness. In recent years, as Western attitudes around homosexuality have relaxed somewhat, gay stories on film have started to grapple with the fact that while coming out may be more socially acceptable overall, it’s still an intensely personal experience. It’s still one that carries an infinite number of small traumas that compound over time and can turn one against one’s home. In 2018 teen-oriented films like Love, Simon and Alex Strangelove, and even in Call Me By Your Name, the characters know they’re loved by their families, but they still struggle with questions of identity and love and self-love. Those struggles are still valid, despite changing societal expectations.
I appreciated that A Moment in the Reeds gets at something similar, as the two leads learn about each other and their respective struggles and seek common ground through their common tongue. Tareq easily has a trump card – he comes from Syria, where being openly gay is incredibly dangerous. But he fled not just homophobia in Syria but war, braving dangerous nights on the street and surviving hunger to make his way across Europe to Finland… a country Leevi abandoned. But neither he nor the film ever play that trump card. Instead of his story being used as a cudgel, a narrative device to teach Leevi some perspective about how his own problems don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, Tareq learns from him as much as he learns from Tareq. They are compassionate with each other. Never once does Tareq think that Leevi’s resentment toward his father pales in comparison to his own difficult family life; he just… understands, in the way queer people often do when talking to each about their families. When Leevi rashly says he wants to move back to Finland so they can be together, Tareq gently reminds him that he doesn’t belong there anymore, just as Tareq no longer belongs in Syria. Though their lives seem different, both the film and the characters are coming from a place of deep empathy and understanding. It’s lovely.
Take, for example, the scene where they share their dating history with one another. Despite the language barrier, despite the fact that one comes from a city in war-torn Syria and one comes from a claustrophobic, homophobic cabin in the Finnish woods, they can share a knowing laugh about the struggles of finding a connection on dating apps. A Moment in the Reeds knows that some experiences are just universal.