'Sequin in a Blue Room': Down the Rabbit Hole of Anonymous Sex in the Age of Grindr [Review]
The death drive becomes palpable as the body reaches the point of no return of sexual jouissance. Ecstasy and vulnerability go hand in hand: suddenly, the foreign naked body holds the potential for both our release and destruction. For some, this dynamic of pleasure is heightened by the animalistic and survivalist rush that purely sensuous, anonymous sex brings. Increased freedoms for queer people have not necessarily been followed by changes in the complex domain of desire; the secrecy of historically illicit cruising has found new shape in the liberal world of gay hook-up apps. Centred on the life of an always-connected yet aloof Australian teenager (Conor Leach), Sequin in a Blue Room inquires into the pleasures and perils of anonymous gay sex in the age of social media. Marrying the trivial notion that puberty is the time when emotional and sexual desires become conscious concerns to the likewise basic psychoanalytic idea that self-destruction and sexual gratification operate on a dangerously close basis, Samuel van Grinsven’s debut feature film is a thrilling exploration of an adolescent’s journey through the nameless, dangerous, and intergenerational world of gay sex.
True to the story’s premise, the main character remains unnamed throughout the film. “Sequin”, the online nickname he adopts, refers to the shiny crop top he ritualistically dons in the sexual encounters that he arranges with older men over an anonymous sex app. These often-married men are lustful for his youthful, slender body—not knowing he is, in fact, just 16—but Sequin cuts their eagerness short by imposing one rule: they can never see each other again. When he receives an invitation to attend the Blue Room, an anonymous gay sex party (strictly no names and no talking), Sequin instinctively accepts. As soon as he steps into the electrifying and hypnotically blue-lit warehouse, it is clear things will not go as planned. At first, Sequin becomes infatuated by a handsome and captivating stranger, so out of place at this libertine party, who leads him to break his vow of no-strings connections. But soon an undesirable reencounter comes to sabotage Sequin’s innocent hopes, setting in motion a dangerous game of manipulation and enigmatic violence.
In the fashion of much experimental cinema, it takes the viewer some time to find the film’s purpose. The theatricalised acts of violence, the rudimentary development of Sequin’s relationships, and the ostensibly incompatible mix of film genres (an unusual coming-of-age thriller) force an aesthetic distance that stops the viewer from becoming emotionally involved with what is happening on screen. In some ways, this could be seen as a weakness that leads to frustrated spectatorship. Yet, we could more interestingly argue that it is precisely this theatricality and emotional distance that drive Sequin in a Blue Room’s point home. Emulating Sequin’s pubescent incapacity to engage with both his father and the men with whom he has sex, we watch these scenes of violence and disorder without feeling the classic cinematic (heteronormative?) need to intervene and play Deus Ex Machina. We let the story unfold without rooting for any of the characters, whose intentions and reasonings go largely unexplained and, more often than not, befuddle us. If the underlying question of most narrative films is “what would success and happiness look like for these people?”, Samuel van Grinsven purposefully deprives us of an answer.
It is pure cinematic voyeurism with a strong emphasis on aesthetics and the head-turning eroticism Sequin exudes, which carefully avoids crossing the border into softcore pornography. Sequin’s sensorial emphasis on vision and on aloofness speaks to the experience of becoming immersed in the fast-scrolling, often headless and nameless gay sex apps. After all, isn’t air-headed captivation the effect sequins—the flat, disc-shaped beads—have on us? They, too, unexpectedly catch our eye, leaving us dazzled by flickering reflections of light and engrossed in camp cheapness. Certainly, the viewer empathises with Sequin’s struggle to find himself, wedged as he is between the anonymous figures he voluntarily and involuntarily comes to face. But it is, ultimately, the play between the unknowing, emotionally green main character and the inquisitive yet likewise oblivious viewer that makes for the film’s queerness. That is to say, Sequin in a Blue Room is a cynical though uncommitted reimagining of the world of relationships: a fundamentally queer aesthetic experience. Being queer has long been a dynamic of forging oneself through both contrivance and conviction. In asking for verisimilitude, we lose Sequin’s point.