The Gay Erotic Thriller “M/M” Takes Toxic Masculinity to Task

Drew Lint puts the identity-swapping narrative to the test in new gay erotic thriller M/M. Troy Michael Bordun talks to the director about identity, queer desire, and masculinity in the film.

Queer cinema is thriving in the 21st century. This shouldn’t be a surprise since New Queer Cinema  (NQC) made a powerful mark on film culture in the 1990s. Coined by critic B. Ruby Rich in 1992, NQC refers to a largely US- and Canada-based independent film trend known for pastiche, irony, and alternatives to identity politics. Films by Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin, and Derek Jarman, among others, made their marks on American cinema in the early 1990s. According to Rich, these films “are irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive. Above all, they’re full of pleasure.” Several of these traits are found in Canadian Drew Lint’s debut feature M/M (2018).

While Lint’s identity-swapping thriller is clearly indebted to the work of Canadian queer icons Bruce LaBruce and Xavier Dolan, he also cites the influence of Araki and France’s Alain Guiraudie. When I spoke to Lint at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal, he noted that his affinity with these directors is rooted in an “interest in making bold films that are unapologetically queer. ” In regards to Araki and LaBruce specifically, “It feels like they’re taking space for queer culture — saying ‘fuck you’ to the mainstream, but also pushing their work into it and impregnating it with queerness.”

Lint’s erotically-charged M/M is set in Berlin and depicts a few weeks in the life of Matthew (Antoine Lahaie), a 20-something who, like Lint himself, is a transplant from Canada (the director moved to Berlin from Toronto several years ago). For Lint, “Berlin is a pretty perfect location for a contemporary film about sex and desire. Regardless of preference, the city is really teeming with sex.”

In the opening sequence, Matthew is awoken by a call from his mother in Montreal. He briefly discusses his dreams of male statues which, later, perhaps justify his fixation on a poolside hunk.

This hunk is cleverly introduced. While on duty as a lifeguard, Matthew scrolls a dating app. After swiping on the attractive Matthias (Nicolas Maxim Endlicher), Matthew immediately receives a creepy message from him: I can see you. Matthew apprehensively looks around the pool until his gaze lands on a perfectly sculpted, bronze statue of a man lounging poolside, nearly busting out of his barely-there swimsuit.  

But Matthew hesitates. Instead of introducing himself, he chooses to pursue Matthias to the showers, onto public transit, and back to his home – all at a distance. Matthew watches from the street as Matthias undresses, performs a few chin ups, and hooks up with another man. Returning home, Matthew searches for his object of desire on a social media platform and M/M, at this juncture, transforms into a film that grapples thematically with stifled or unattainable sexual desire, the doppelganger trope, and competing notions of masculinity.

Lint suggests that “what really drives the film is Matthew’s unfulfilled desire. We get glimpses of what the resolution of that might look like, but he spends the entire film trying to satisfy a hunger. The film formally puts the viewer in his perspective, which becomes an increasingly uncomfortable place to be, the closer it gets to the end.” So the film is overflowing with sexual desire but because our perspective is aligned with Matthew, we aren’t privy to as much explicit sex as occurs in a LaBruce film or Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2013), for example. “Ultimately,” Lint confirms, “any real climax is withheld from the viewer, mirroring Matthew’s stifled desire.” As each day passes and Matthew’s desire for Matthias increases, his sense of self and reality become more unhinged.

Eventually Matthew’s reality completely breaks down.  His solution to stifled sexual desire is to, in turn, imagine himself as Matthias, imagine a sexual relationship with Matthias, pretend to be Matthias, and develop a relationship with him that results in disaster. The double or doppelganger is usually a superior or idealized version of the protagonist – such as in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013), with Jake Gyllenhaal performing the doubles to perfection – and this is clearly the case with Matthias. However, Lint adds an element of queer sexual attraction missing from films with a similar premise.

Lint loves the doppelganger trope (and so do I). “The idea of two people mirroring each other is such a staple of the thriller genre, and I thought it was a great way to explore that type of story and deconstruct that typical narrative.” Inspired by identity-swapping films such as Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), and Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female (1992), Lint pushes the limits of the viewer’s narrative comprehension; we’re never quite sure what is a dream and what is real. Moreover, by pushing the identity-swap theme into the realm of the sexual, Lint adds another layer to the characters’ psychological states, and further complicates the relationship between Matthew and Matthias. Finally, as the pair’s relationship develops, peaks, then collapses in the last act, we’re forced to ask ourselves whether Matthias enjoyed this kind of intimacy and unrestrained worship.

So who is this model of a man named Matthias, a man who literally models for a 3D printing of his sculpted physique? Lint clarifies, “Matthias is an idealized version of the young, gay male. He is everything Matthew wants to be and seems to have everything Matthew wants to have. He’s an object of desire, a shell — an empty, idealized image, like a perfect, beautiful statue.” However, we know that statues don’t have goals, dreams, desires. When Matthew is confronted with Matthias’s agency, with a real, existing person who can’t be assimilated into Matthew’s identity and fantasy, he responds with violence. Matthew could echo Betty/Diane (Naomi Watts) while she’s reading lines to her double in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001): “I hate you. I hate us both.”

With the contrast of these two bodies and minds, Lint examines this violence, competing notions of gay masculinity, and practices of toxic masculinity. The director admits his own fascination with the diversity of masculinities. “While making the film,” he says, “I realized the depth of my attraction and repulsion to hypermasculinity, and I think that’s a really important dichotomy in M/M.”  So Matthew has difficulty expressing his emotions, as most men do, and his emotional struggles are then expressed through physical aggression. The actors shine here, Lint observes: “The acting in the film is very physical and Matthew and Matthias interact like animals.” In the penultimate sequence, Matthew and Matthias wrestle one another in an abandoned and dilapidated indoor pool. Similar to the characters in Dolan’s Tom at the Farm (2013), their behaviours could be read as either hostile or sadomasochistic (likely a bit of both). The doppelganger narrative here finds its logical endpoint. As Freud notes in his famous essay on the uncanny, following the work of Otto Rank, perceiving or imagining a doppelganger is a primary narcissism to be sure, but as the person moves on from this stage, the double then “becomes the ghastly harbinger of death.”

still from M/M movie

Similar to many identity-swap thrillers, the film leaves us with more questions than when it began. First, we’re free to muse on the problems of masculine desire: Matthew is not unlike Scottie (James Stewart) in Vertigo, where the traumatized detective demands that Judy (Kim Novak) transform into his former love interest Madeleine (Novak). Or perhaps we’re led to assess identity in general and the likelihood that the self is always split, divided, and multiple, not far from the preoccupations of Mulholland Dr. Or finally, Matthias is Matthew’s better self, a self that is also a stumbling block and rival (for Freud, the double is often a sexual rival), in line with films such as Richard Ayoade’s The Double (2013).

Aside from teasing out possible meanings and interpretations, M/M is also a great trip: dream and reality collide in visually and aurally jarring scenes and sequences. Lint flexes his filmmaking skills while  challenging our perceptions and preconceptions of desire, identity, and interpersonal relationships. Following Freud again, Lint’s representation of the double phenomenon is, ultimately, “a vision of terror.”

Troy Michael Bordun is a contract instructor in Communication Studies and Sociology at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, and Cultural Studies and Sociology at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.  



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