Just One Film: Tim Leyendekker's "Feast"—The Enigma of Desire

Fresh off of its IFFR premiere, Tim Leyendekker's "Feast" remixes the true crime genre and refuses to take sides.
Beatrice Loayza

Just One Film is a series that recommends individual films from festivals around the world—the movies you otherwise might have missed that deserve to be discovered.

In 2007, a scandal broke out in the northern Dutch city of Groningem involving a number of private sex parties arranged via internet chat rooms where some 14 gay men were deliberately infected with HIV. The three accused had drugged their guests with ecstasy and GHB, who in their semiconscious delirium were then administered with cocktails of the perpetrators’ own blood. Perversely chilling in its implications, the “Groningem HIV case,” which resulted in the conviction of the three men, would seem to be easy fodder for the kind of binge-watching sensationalism we associate with the true-crime genre. Yet in Feast, the debut feature film by the Dutch visual artist, filmmaker, and photographer Tim Leyendekker, such easy rubbernecking satisfaction is denied.

Instead, Feast revels in the porous boundary between fact and fiction, promiscuously blending surreal dramatizations and (mock) interviews towards a version of the “truth” that acknowledges its very impossibility. Consider its opening scene: in one long, static shot, a female official takes stock of the objects collected at the scene of the crime. It’s a kind of parodic deconstruction of gay sex parties in the straight-faced style of Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), but here banal household items and personal affects are intermingled with poppers, dildos, and anal beads. This starkly deadpan presentation offers a seemingly objective account—introducing viewers to concrete elements of the story with items ripped from the crime site—yet the effect is alienating. Decontextualized as they are, the objects only invite stereotypification, calling attention to the flimsy grounds upon which our systems of law impart justice. These are also the clues that we as an audience use to make sense of what follows.

The most controversial and, in my book, the most formally invigorating film in competition for the Tiger Prize at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, Feast unfolds as a series of seven vignettes, each shot by a different cinematographer to convey the multiplicity of perspectives through which a single event can be understood. Its elliptical storytelling methods call for active spectatorship; a kind of sleuthing always undermined by the film’s mirage of reality. Many of the objects in the opening, for instance, are replicas of those collected from the real-life crime scene. These were combined with, and consequently made indistinguishable from, Leyendekker’s subjective idea of what could have been there. “There is one link I have with one of the perpetrators,” said Leyendekker in an interview with the Notebook, referring to the coincidental accuracy of one of the CD’s he chose to include in the presentation. “Turns out [he] is a huge fan of Nina Simone.”

Leyendekker remembers the story when it first made Dutch headlines. Not long after details of the crime were made public, he began researching the perpetrators’ backgrounds, and spoke to their friends and associates to come to a deeper understanding of who these people were, and how their crimes spoke to something more complex in human nature than afforded by the designations of good and evil:

“The media was saying these [men] were HIV monsters. And it made me realize that in cases like this we tend not to talk about actual people. When you say someone’s a monster it’s a way of [placing them] far from you. I discovered that these guys had really regular jobs. One was a nurse, the other a bartender, and one worked for an energy company. I found out that the person who we’d call the “mastermind” was actually a very likable guy. An old classmate of his I spoke to was actually in love with him. What happened was of course gruesome and awful, but I wanted to think through the basic idea of why [people] have sex and want to be close to one another [as] the template [for the film]. Maybe we could even speak of love.”

This idea that the perpetrators might have committed their crime out of love is a confrontational one, ascribing as it does a certain poeticism to very real, traumatic consequences. In one scene, Leyendekker interviews a plant virus expert, whose studies on tulips seem to echo the morbidly romantic sentiments expressed by the perpetrators: the eroticism of blood bonds as visceral, permanent expressions of desire; the dark allure of contamination and shared sickness in the vein of Dorothy Valence’s wailing declaration (“You put your disease in me!”) in Blue Velvet.

That’s not to say Feast condones these crimes; instead, love takes on a more expansive meaning similar to eros, in the ancient Greek sense of the word. Love is fundamentally mysterious: an overwhelming, irrational force equally capable of taking the form of calm, intellectual desire. Plato’s Symposium, per the director, was a major touchstone. That work of teeming homoeroticism considers the meaning of love through (often unreliable, second-hand) speeches delivered by seven wise men with diverging opinions. With each vignette, Leyendekker, too, offers seven versions of the truth that attempt to fill in some of the infinite shades between black and white. “I’m not interested in taking sides or saying what’s right or wrong. [The film] is about the many possible ways we can talk about things that go beyond the limited characters in a tweet, because the truth is always moving.”

In one of the sections, we see the three perpetrators lounging in a room and philosophizing over the meaning of love and beauty. A Francis Bacon triptych hangs in the background, a reminder that, if anywhere, our ugliest, most macabre desires should be free to find expression in our art forms. Meanwhile, alternate versions of these same men observe their debating counterparts through a one-way mirror, diagnosing them with mental disorders or coming to jury-like conclusions about their flaws in the context of their crimes, then falling into a similarly Platonian discussion that considers the question of consent.

One of the perpetrators is interviewed in another section, though his actual identity is called into question—key to Leyendekker’s project is this ambiguity, which keeps us constantly questioning the implications of our assumptions. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Caniba (2017) comes to mind; here, as in that film, the subject is rendered in extreme close-up to the point of abstraction. And as he speaks openly about his relationship to the other perpetrators, and the chaotic nature of the orgies, these visuals assume a carnal, uncomfortably aggressive quality—an echo of the dangers within the deep-end of sexual freedom.

But Feast’s greatest provocation is perhaps the way it considers the victims—that is, not as irreducibly innocent and virtuous. It’s a refreshing, if thorny, departure from a righteous mainstream cinematic approach that casts victims of sexual assault as morally unimpeachable lest nuance or shades of ambiguity undermine their claims. Leyendekker recalls a personal experience in which he was robbed by a man with whom he had had sex in the past: “When I went to the police station, the [officer] I spoke to was skeptical, saying how this wasn’t exactly a robbery if [the robber] had been to my place before and knew where I lived. ‘If I tell my colleagues, I don’t think they’ll take me seriously,’ he said, which left a profound impression on me.” Feast never diminishes the victims, nor does it concur with the victim-blaming perpetuated by the media, the police authorities, and the accused themselves (“The naivete expressed by those that pressed charges did irritate me,” says the perpetrator from the aforementioned interview.).

It does, however, take seriously the enigma of desire itself: how we might be compelled to jeopardize our safety in pursuit of fulfillment; how masochistic urges potentially cloud rational decision-making; how we as humans might know the difference between good and bad, yet rarely deal according to these notions. “One Dutch newspaper that was actually very positive about the film, also said that I took sides with the perpetrators. I think it really has to do with the fact that I don’t choose sides. At the moment that you don’t, this means you’re on the wrong side,” Leyendekker observes. Scattered throughout the film are visualizations of the victims passed out in different locations—a park bench, a beach, an empty road. Their bodies, defenseless and corpse-like, communicate the aftermath of violation with palpable force. Feast may not take sides, yet in these bodies it locates its truth.

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International Film Festival RotterdamInternational Film Festival Rotterdam 2021Tim LeyendekkerJust One Film
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