Credit: Marie Hinson/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
by Alex Fields Featured Film

Desire Lines — Jules Rosskam [Sundance ’24 Review]

January 25, 2024

Desire Lines is a hybrid film that understands the themes it wants to address, but struggles to find the formal means. Part conventional talking heads documentary, part experimental dramatization, it’s a record of gay, transmasculine experience. As solo interview subjects and in roleplaying pairs, subjects discuss the specificities of this experience, from transphobia among cis gay men and difficulties in hooking up to the lack of awareness around HIV in trans men and the gender euphoria to be found in intimacy and kink. Several also discuss the intersection of racial identity with queerness and the normative whiteness of gay male spaces.

These interviews offer a good introduction to the film’s thematic throughline, though probably nothing here will feel especially new to anyone who’s spent time in trans spaces, even just online. But the film isn’t trying to be an essay. It argues for the importance of archiving the history and experiences of trans people, and indicts the invisibility of gay transmascs in the historical record. Many doctors and gender clinics — not to mention writers — didn’t even consider this as a possible identity as late as the ’80s and ’90s, regardless of the many individuals actively living it at the time. In that sense, any film that documents these lives is a welcome corrective. In particular, the variety of materials here provide some useful context for the changes to terminology over time, and several of the most interesting moments arise from how individuals relate to the available language, given self-conception that is obviously more complex than the language can capture.

Where Desire Lines struggles is in its effort to develop the idea of the archive into a formal device that structures the film itself. The second major throughline is a dramatized visit of an Iranian-American trans man to a queer archive, where he meets and connects with a young archivist who works there. There’s chemistry between the two that makes some of these scenes work, but almost nothing else this thread does. It’s not clear what this man is trying to research in the first place, or what ties his findings together beyond their relevance to the film’s larger themes. In several “time-traveling” sequences, his journey through the archive becomes a literal trip into the past, and the physical space of the archive becomes a bath house, a relatively safe space for cruising. 

These scenes are partly a means of incorporating archival documentary elements, partly an excuse to introduce narrative sequences that approach the film’s themes from another angle. Both strategies feel convoluted relative to conventional documentary or narrative film, and spend too much time working through fewer ideas. A more radical work, one more committed to its formal experimentation, might have found productive use for the idea of a time-traveling archive, and a way to integrate the various archival and interview elements into one clear structure. 

As it is, the film bounces back and forth between its strategies without ever quite figuring out how to integrate them in productive conversation. One thread that it tries to use for this purpose is the case of Lou Sullivan, one of the first publicly gay trans men, who recorded a series of interviews between 1988-1990 after he was diagnosed with AIDS (he died in 1991). The archivist and visitor watch some of these interviews together, and letters between Lou and his transmasculine correspondents are interspersed throughout the interview segments. The intention, clearly, is to connect the experiences of trans people across generations, and to highlight how the ways we talk about their experiences have perhaps changed more than the actual experiences. This point, at least, is quite well taken, even if the film stumbles in its formal choices.