The illusions of pornography are well known. Chief among them, though maybe least discussed, is the idea that orgasm provides resolution—an erotic capstone that comes in the closing minutes. Offscreen, sex isn’t so easily solved. Cruising in particular is an impossible equation. For all the satisfaction you can find on your knees in a moonlit park, the restless desire that inspired that outing is bound to return in a matter of hours or days and so remains elusive. It’s something like fantasy in motion, sharing the same unpredictability and encroaching sense of danger that bolster all myths and legends. As with any good adventure, it’s the journey not the destination.
But there are precious few porn films that frame this repetitive quest as the focal point. Rarer still is the skin flick that indulges melancholy as its primary mood. Newly restored under the stewardship of Yann Gonzalez, Equation to an Unknown (1980) is a glorious outlier from professional enigma Francis Savel (a.k.a. Dietrich de Velsa or Frantz Salieri). It follows a nameless stud as he roams around on the noble steed of his motorbike, fucking strangers in locker rooms, public toilets, and construction sites before quietly hallucinating a climactic orgy between all of his conquests.
Like its single-minded hero, the film is never wholly sated by one encounter alone and is forever looking elsewhere for its next meal. It’s also refreshingly frank about the obsessive tunnel vision that desire brings on, as well as the intractable potion of libido and loneliness that motivates all public sex. It’s sorrow and sublime filth in equal measure. Speaking to his boyfriend after a long day in the company of others, our itinerant protagonist candidly confesses, “I wish I could love only you.” This is Savel’s central thesis: we would all do better to admit that both sex and romance are endless journeys of dissatisfaction.
It’s only natural that the first line of dialogue is an ejaculatory “Shoot!”, yelled across a muddy football pitch on an overcast afternoon. There’s a game underway and the sole onlookers are a trio of men, including our stud wearing bright sunglasses thatdraw attention to his gaze as if to highlight that area of his body as the active agent. An anxious heartbeat thumps through the scene. It’s paired with the sound of women and children cheering from the sidelines, though no such crowd is visible. This is an all male reality. Here that translates to a largely non-verbal reality, too. But far from crafting a world of lumbering brutes, Savel instead allows loaded macho silence to infect even the least sexy of scenes. Every movement is scored by the wet hum of potency. Whether playing pinball or filling up a petrol tank, a relaxed pre-AIDS eroticism flows freely between all the men on screen. It’s almost too fanciful—the violent fear of emasculation that would hound these beaus in real life has apparently melted into nothing. This world’s lack of speech is matched only by its lack of guilt. To go cruising is to be attuned to a hyper-vigilant frequency at all times. It blocks everything else out.
Panning across a number of men being tackled into submission, we quickly realize the camera is fascinated by a player with shaggy black hair, strangely the lone teammate wearing a purple jersey. His chromatic difference connotes sexual deviance. And, sure enough, he’ll soon lie down with a friend in the locker room while his oblivious teammates shower off the day’s mud, playfully wrestling in the nude. Like the gas station attendant we’ll later see in an electric blue jumpsuit, or the construction worker in a canary yellow hard hat, it’s a color motif only noticed by the viewer and the protagonist. It’s entirely missed by the homosocial world that surrounds them, which Savel so often lenses in anemic grays that echo Pasolini at his most austere. Ascetic decadence is his personal project.
It’s telling that this opening encounter doesn’t even involve our narrative surrogate. He silently observes from a distance as the two athletes fuck in an incongruously elegant changeroom. Reflected in the middle of the frame by a well-placed mirror, our voyeuristic stand-in shares the space with his desired objects without being able to release his longing. It calls to mind the composition of van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434), another tableau that makes a coy joke out of breaking the fourth wall. Few would be surprised to learn of the director’s previous career as a painter, spending much of the 1950s practicing a somewhat dour expressionism in the coldest possible tone of every color.
That cool sense of removal will follow our hero as he drives to each subsequent location—getting a half-awake handjob from his boyfriend, receiving fellatio from a disturbingly exhausted adolescent, and abandoning a lover on the side of the road at daybreak in perhaps the film’s most mournful of its many reverse-zooms. All equations have irrelevancies. Cruising can be as calculated and unforgiving as mathematics in what—and who—it leaves out. When a series of suitors enter the restroom at a local bar to take turns with a submissive younger man, the camera at first chooses to linger outside rather than follow them in. Seated alone sipping on an aperitif, there waits an older homosexual as keenly aware of the situation afoot as he is certain that he won’t be allowed to participate. When the straight bartender uses the restroom some time later, finding the abused younger man still seated on the toilet, he manages to be so indifferent that he urinates directly over him.
In the brilliant hands of Savel, there is no fantasy without consequences. Just as he prioritizes the process of acquiring sex, he’s similarly unafraid to depict its messy aftermath. There will always be those who are considered too old or too ugly to join in. It’s not at all romantic to include these uneasy moments but as has been the case throughout, this director doesn’t believe in the cumshot as a neat resolution.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t hold space for humor. From an eyebrow-raising match cut between a stiff baguette and an erect penis to the bawdy reference to (J)anus Films in the opening credits, he finds a joke or two amid the clammy darkness—no doubt influenced by the tutelage of Joseph Losey, with whom he collaborated on Mr. Klein (1976) and Don Giovanni (1979). Likewise, the genuine carnality of Equation to an Unknown is never undone by its taste for melancholy. We see a duo copulate on a motorbike underneath a darkened underpass, shot from above to look as though one is mauling the other. We see lewd meet-cutes in sheds and shipyards. We see two men pass semen back and forth between each other’s mouths with a foaming rabidity that would put Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950) to shame.
Sensuality and sadness can here coexist without competing. If the film’s unusual prologue—in which two teenage boys scrawl chalk graffiti across a vacant construction site—initiates a theme of deconstruction, then it follows that the narrative would seek to dismantle an approach to intimacy that sees disappointment as negative and not motivational. When the boys eventually return for their non sequitur of a prologue, gaily whistling through the streets of their town on a shared bicycle, their ecstatic glee restates the original point. Lest we get the impression that their naive joy is supposed to cast judgment on the preceding debauchery, their non-sexual take on “cruising” in fact mirrors their older peers perfectly. Equally endless and smothered in pleasure.
It’s the same fruitless yearning for fulfillment that leads the story to its coda. Collapsing naked onto his bed sometime after dawn, our prostrate protagonist resembles some comatose Venus by way of Bob Mizer. After watching him roll around with his boyfriend for a moment, we suddenly move to a dank dream space. Somewhere between an apartment and a garage, we wait as each of his past lovers enters the room and finds a spot against the wall in a quasi police line-up. Meanwhile the stud lies at the opposite end of the den on a bed so altar-like that it conjures Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ (c. 1480). With the exception of his youngest conquest, who huddles himself ashamedly into a corner, the men begin to strip and slowly approach.
Marked with unexplained female laughter and the sound of sloshing water, this closing orgy is as seductive as it is unsettling. There’s no shortage of spit, widened eyes, dirty feet, and yowls of bliss, intercut with intrusive memories of the lover cruelly left at the roadside. It’s less a wild mirage and more the culmination of all our hero’s efforts—revisiting the road map of his exploits all at once in an attempt to achieve ultimate gratification. In any other story, that kind of ending might be euphoric.
In this film, he’s the only participant who doesn’t reach orgasm.