Credit: Viktor Irvin Ivanov/© 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film Horizon Line

Housekeeping for Beginners — Goran Stolevski

April 12, 2024

Although Goran Stolevski’s third film only features one gay sex scene and next to no same-sex romantic intimacy, Housekeeping for Beginners has a claim as one of the queerest films of the 2020s so far. That his first two films, You Won’t Be Alone and Of An Age, came out just two short years ago hasn’t prevented the Macedonian-Australian director from becoming a well-regarded name on the festival circuit and with the kind of film lovers in possession of a Kanopy account. Those films, too, were pretty queer, but in his latest film, the subversive queer capacity, and necessity, to reimagine and reinvent the family, rather than the more usual transactional superficial representation or sex itself, breathes a queer life into the text.  

Inspired by a photograph of his openly gay filmmaker friend Tony Ayres from the 1980s, Stolevski’s Queer Lion winner at the 80th Venice International Film Festival begins from the perspective of Ali (Samson Selim), the only new fish to the queer haven and safehouse of Dita (Anamaria Marinca) and her devoted Roma girlfriend Suada (Alina Șerban). The venery of the other adult in the house, Toni (Vladimir Tintor), is what brings the 19-year-old Ali, also a Roma, to the affectionately homemade queer sanctuary. A cadre of queer teen outcasts fills most of the space in the cluttered home. Only Suada’s two daughters — the fire-starter Vanesa (Mia Mustafa) and the full-of-life pre-teen Mia (Džada Selim) — do not conform to identifiable queer typologies. Mia’s too young to be into anyone, while Vanesa concocts a plan to run away with a boy after tragedy strikes the home in the form of pancreatic cancer. Though they are not queer, they are emphatically part of the house — integrally so. Their presence is never questioned, their way of existing never alienated. 

The house almost suffocates the viewer. There are so many bodies, so many voices, so many things to the degree that any set of eyes will struggle to find respite. Naum Doksevski’s Academy aspect ratio and close-quarter cinematography help create this feeling, and the favored look prioritizes raw and legible emotion, a task most easily weaponized through close-ups. Full-body shots might even be sparse, which puts an added encumbrance, or opportunity, on the actors. Some excel, others wallow in exaggerated performances. The film also struggles to maintain Selim’s spark after Ali departs both the house and the screen for some time and only manages to refind itself by bringing the character back into the picture. 

The only sex scene runs short and strangely distant. The faces of the two lovers are depicted in a shot-reverse-shot pattern more than any entangled two shots or sensual bodily close-ups. The sex resembles a conversation more than a reclined dance of passion or animalistic desire. Of course, gay men, like heterosexual couples, can and do have bad sex. But that’s not what’s happening here; at least, it’s not how we’re supposed to regard what’s happening here, and that makes for an uncompelling and uncomfortable intimacy. The sex bores. 

Housekeeping intrigues the most when it comes to the interwoven and knotted-up bonds of ethnicity and sexuality. Dita lives the most privileged (and straight-passing) life of the women, her sham-marriage partner being Toni. The Romani of the house share a more visible narrative of injustice. Even if, with regret, one can hide sexuality under a veil of secrecy or imposed shame, ethnicity is something you wear on your bones. After cancer takes Suada, Vanesa, who is no mother in spirit or practice, is jettisoned into motherhood — a motherhood that doesn’t require only a motherly figure but a legal figurehead, one who can provide her daughters with a non-Roma last name if possible. The new caregiver who arises, then, isn’t a classic motherly type, but rather Ali, the new hook-up who hangs around a bit longer than usual. Stolevski says as much in his interview with Letterboxd: By assigning the caregiving role to a queer Roma man, and by making Vanesa, a straight-passing woman (whose queer self can’t and shouldn’t be minimized) stubborn to traditional maternity, Stolevski subverts the heteronormative fantasy of the household. 

Elsewhere, the combination of pop-optimism and classical traditionalism of the soundtrack bridges the themes of the historical family film with that of the “modern” queer film. Similar to how Lin-Manuel Miranda deemed his own Hamilton “America then, as told by America now,” Housekeeping bridges two segregated collections of values — the indestructible love of the family unit, and queer normativity and liberation — and offers, without the needless intellectualism of leftist Twitter or the corporate virtue signaling of Hollywood, a dearly simple compatibility of two ways of seeing the world. With the Serbian Eurovision Song Contest 2022 contestant Konstrakta sitting comfortably alongside Chopin and the other titans of European classical music, the soundtrack challenges the supremacy of the artistic canon, an artistic standard formed and championed by heteronormative power structures. In tandem with the adaption of the multi-generational Balkan household, another detail Stolevski intentionally draws attention to in his Letterboxd interview, and the use of the Academy ratio, Housekeeping for Beginners carries forward a notably subversive, queer gestalt.

DIRECTOR: Goran Stolevski;  CAST: Samson Selim, Anamaria Marinca, Alina Serban, Vladimir Tintor;  DISTRIBUTOR: Focus Features;  IN THEATERS: April 5;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 47 min.