Steve McLean’s first film, “Postcards From America,” was also his last, made way back in 1994. But with his follow-up, “Postcards From London,” it seems no time has passed at all: the film is so steeped in stylized mannerisms and dialogue that it might have been made 25 years ago.
“I’m searching for a world full of mystery and possibilities,” 18-year-old Jim (Harris Dickinson, “Trust”) announces after arriving in London from the relative backwater of Essex, where he’s long dreamed of adventure. His wish serves as a sort of motto for a movie built upon declarations.
Jim quickly falls in with a group of hipster escorts, who see their work as art. They charge big bucks primarily for their post-coital conversational skills, in which they debate art and literature with the men who hire them.
Jim willingly joins their ranks, but he’s not truly one of them. We know this because other characters are constantly stopping in their tracks just to tell him how special he is. He has the face, they gush, of “an angel,” “a Caravaggio.”
This, it turns out, is (sort of) literally true. Jim is so exquisitely sensitive to beauty that he suffers from a condition called Stendhal Syndrome. As a result, he has an extreme physical reaction upon encountering great art. He sees a painting, faints, and imagines himself a part of it. Thus he becomes muse to, for example, Caravaggio himself (Ben Cura).
If the disorder sounds familiar, it may be because Dario Argento made a movie about it in 1995, starring his daughter Asia. And it’s certainly a promising starting point for any filmmaker with an extreme visual bent. But self-consciousness is not the same thing as self-awareness. And in a movie overflowing with the former and lacking in the latter, Jim primarily becomes an inadvertent symbol of narcissism and superficiality.
McLean has taken tremendous care with the film’s look, bathing his deliberately artificial set in rich color and calling attention to every edit and camera position. The costumes are timelessly cool, and the sets strikingly theatrical. But to what end? The characters do little more than quote the work of other, more accomplished people. Derek Jarman, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud serve as lodestars, but inspire more admiration than creative sparks.
And for a movie about rent boys that hinges on Caravaggio, there’s an odd lack of sexuality or even earthiness. When Jim begins his new job, he’s required to take an oath of loyalty: “Place your hand on this packet of condoms, and repeat after me: we’re the oldest profession, and we take pride in what we do.” But rather than treat this timeless occupation with pride or intrigue or even just straightforward practicality, the movie cuts away coyly whenever Jim is actually required to work.
Mostly he poses, which feels representative of the project itself. Dickinson, who navigated issues of sex and identity with far more complexity in 2017’s “Beach Rats,” is as objectified by McLean as he is by his clients. We’re told over and over how stunning, how sensitive, how remarkable he is. But he’s such a blank slate that there’s not much actual evidence of these traits.
It’s not Dickinson’s fault; he’s been directed towards a particular style of performance that favors tell over show. In the end, Jim learns that it’s not enough to admire art; the next step is to create it in some authentic way. The same holds true for beauty, too.