Jim (Harris Dickinson), the hero of writer/ director Steve McLean’s highly stylized drama “Postcards from London,” is “young, fit, and has the face of an angel.” He also has a glaring weakness: when he encounters an artistic masterpiece, like a Titian in a London gallery, he faints. Jim is that sensitive to beauty.
McLean’s film is a heady — and talky — mix of beauty, art, and intellect shot in a style that deliberately plays up its artificiality. In scenes where Jim imagines himself posing for Caravaggio (Ben Cura), while debating with the artist about his sexuality and even participating in a duel with him, McLean examines themes of beauty and objectification. A witty scene has Jim, working as a rent boy, posing as Saint Sebastian but unable to transport his client back to ancient times because the two men keep getting interrupted. A gorgeously lit shot of Jim posed as “the world’s first pin-up,” however, is quite striking.
“Postcards from London” opens with Jim moving to a neon-lit Soho “to make his fortune,” but sleeping on a street where drugs and sex are sold. In a bar where he hopes to find a job, he instead meets up with the raconteurs, a group of handsome young hustlers — David (Jonah Hauer-King), Jesus (Alessandro Cimadamore), Marcello (Leonardo Salerni), and Victor (Raphael Desprez) — who provide their johns with sophisticated post-coital conversation. Aiming to “drag male prostitution into the 21st century while paying homage to the artists who came before,” the raconteurs educate Jim about filmmakers Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder and artists Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. For Jim, sex is the easy part; it’s the art that fucks him up.
McLean prefers showing beauty, not sex, but the camera loves Jim’s body. His fainting, though, soon has serious consequences for him. He is diagnosed with “Stendhal Syndrome,” a rare condition that stems from the strong emotions he feels. As Jim’s condition worsens, he becomes more detached and, as a result, the audience’s interest may wane. In the film’s third act, Paul (Leemore Marrett, Jr.) lures Jim away from the raconteurs, hoping his fainting can help establish a painting’s authenticity and value. The film’s focus on beauty, creativity, and intellect shifts to concerns about commerce, but there is also a promise of romance and possibly love. This episode, unfortunately, remains underdeveloped.
The creativity of McLean’s visuals — the anachronistic recreations of Caravaggio paintings, peephole vantage points, and split screens — are all in the service of keeping the spotlight on Jim and underscoring his objectification. Dickinson, who played gay last year in “Beach Rats,” gives another mesmerizing performance here. He makes Jim curiously both self-aware and adorably clueless. It comes off as charming because he seems to be in on the sly joke.
McLean’s film is a companion piece of sorts to his last feature, 1994’s “Postcards from America,” adapted from the writings of David Wojnarowicz. Like that film, this new one is an acquired taste, but the combination of Jim’s chiseled chest and the cultural odyssey he embarks on has an enticing edge.
POSTCARDS FROM LONDON | Directed by Steve McLean | Strand Releasing | Opens Nov. 9 | Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St. | quadcinema.com