Imitation of Love

Imitation of Love

Published by the International Film Festival Rotterdam to accompany Tim Leyendekker's film Feast.

By Paul Clinton

Plato and dildos make for happier bedfellows than you might think. One line of argument in Tim Leyendekker’s film Feast (2021) has it that a gay sex party is as good a place as any to pursue Platonic ‘eros’. The purest form of love, it is achieved through desire but ultimately touches on the divine, transcending the individual for a higher ideal of truth and beauty, one that enables man to overcome his fear of death. Let’s not forget that the Symposium was a drunken party, so even if ancients didn’t have access to Crisco and poppers, they might not have disapproved of such means altogether. 

Feast is a film about uncertain philosophical distinctions between love and possession, freedom and choice, raised by the much-publicised 2005 legal case in Groningen in which three men were found guilty of drugging and injecting twelve others with syringes of HIV+ blood at a series of male-only sex parties. The perpetrators are on record as claiming that infection was the ‘purest form of relationship’, an attempt to liberate men from fear of the virus by giving it to everyone (this was before PrEP). Shocking as those ideas sound, as Leyendekker points out, they bear a striking resemblance to Plato’s celebrated definition of love. In fact, throughout Feast, the same arguments about desire and responsibility are shown to take on vastly different meanings depending on whether they are expressed in private or in a police interrogation room. 

Inevitably the central topic of the film is consent. The men who attended these parties, the convicted claim, sought oblivion in sex and drugs. If they agreed to lose self-control, does that mean that they gave up their right to determine whatever happened to them thereafter? Is consent a once-and-always commitment, like a marriage vow: speak now or forever hold your peace? What meaning does such agreement have if who you are in the bedroom isn’t the same as who you are in the streets (as in the case of one victim who is revealed to have a girlfriend)? Consent has so often been used to blame women and gay men − “well you did go there willingly” − while claims of harm have been used by conservative lawmakers to outlaw all kinds of consensual kinky sex. Perhaps there need to be other criteria to judge such cases. The perpetrators’ claim that everyone knows they risk infection at a bareback sex party sounds callous. But when repeated by a police officer to a victim, these views merely reflect those of a homophobic society: promiscuous faggots get what’s coming to them. Such was the condemnation heaped on all gay men who practiced unsafe sex before PrEP, that it’s difficult to tell who would be considered innocent and who is guilty.

That the opinions of law enforcement and the convicted echo each other lends a degree of uncertainty over who is in the right, or has the right to determine the truth. HIV more than any other virus has been so thoroughly moralised, that separating the facts from interpretation is increasingly difficult. Leyendekker plays with the muddled nature of reality, at times clearly using actors who swap roles, at others seeming to interview the real people convicted, although we can never be sure. At one point, an actor argues that true love is like acting: becoming what the other desires. Admitting that the truth is culturally overdetermined doesn’t, however, serve to absolve those involved of responsibility. The film is punctuated by haunting images of drugged men abandoned on park benches and beaches. But Feast does ask if responsibility shouldn’t radiate outwards from the individuals, into a discriminatory society at large. 

By asking the big philosophical questions arising from the case, Leyendekker avoids making this into an example of individual pathology, within a population − gay men − who have historically been seen as sick, perverse and against the reproduction of life. Queer theorist David Halperin has argued that gay men who practise unsafe sex are simply responding to the shame placed on them, trying to turn stigma into punk defiance of social norms. Feast goes further, intimating that far from aberrant, their acts might be an extreme and troubling symptom of some of the most celebrated ideas of love and care.