I Am Jonas: overly cerebral or intelligently thought-provoking?

This film is painful to watch. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t, and that doesn’t mean that it’s bad; it’s just a warning.

I’ve tried to make my review a little more comfortable.

If I’m being completely honest, I wasn’t sure how to approach this review, and I’m still not sure how to approach my understanding of the film. A lot of it relies on the sheer emotional power of its dramatic twist, and I watch the bulk of the film in confused anticipation. I’m not sure how much more I can say about all that just yet, so for now, let me take you back to the start, and the moments leading up to it.

I Am Jonas (Christophe Charrier, 2018) is a coming-of-age gay love story shrouded in dark mystery. Originally made for the (as the name suggests) artsy European TV network ARTE and then brought to Netflix in spring 2020, it tells the story of the eponymous Jonas and handsome troublemaker Nathan. We explore their teen romance, its subsequent murky demise and the long lasting after-effects.

Biggest Gay Mood: arriving late to a lecture so everyone looks at you

Watching with the original French language subtitles, the first closed caption of “musique oppressante” (no language prizes for guessing what that means) tells us we’re in for a bumpy ride. Here, as someone who hates horror films, I have to warn you about the jump scare in the first scene. You’ll know when it’s coming. This is the point where, watching downstairs late at night on my own, I locked the door. But don’t worry, there is only one, and the bulk of the film lulls us through a mixture of blossoming teen romance (flashbacks) and adult gay Grindr-filled soul-searching (present day).

Throughout I Am Jonas, but especially at the start, temporality is deliberately confused. We see a GameBoy, a rubix cube, so is this the 90s? Yes. Soon after there’s an Instagram feed, is this now the 10s? Also yes. It takes a while to get your head around when we’re in the present, when we’re in the past, and which pairs of actors are playing the same character. The only actor who gets to play both 90s and 10s versions of their character is Aure Atika as Nathan’s mum, but she’s sensational (both actor and character), so no one minds. 

Adult Jonas (Félix Maritaud), while not quite sensational, is convincingly disturbed by and obsessed with his past, as well as his current search for identity. I don’t mean this as shade, but he is especially effective when he says nothing at all. One shot where he sits unflinchingly on his hotel bed, cigarette in hand as the room’s smoke-activated sprinkler rains down on him (a fierce contender for “Biggest Gay Mood” this week), immediatey springs to mind. Maritaud, as with his British lookalike Russel Tovey (down to the ears), is gay himself, and in I Am Jonas it feels like he gets it. [For more detailed analyses of why queer actors are better for queer roles, check out my reviews of Alex Strangelove and Disclosure, third paragraph in both.] Getting into a fight at the gay club and shouting a little too angrily at a catfishing hookup, adult Jonas does get a little too #Masc4Masc at times. Still, as his past unravels, we learn to empathise with him and understand his reasons for having so much pent-up aggression.

Britney Line Time: comme une coupure électrique [tr: like a total blackout] (yes Britney did do a song in French)

While you might spend a long time confused about the plot, the visuals and soundtrack do a lot to make up for that. Sepia tones, European plazas and neon lights create a balanced, pretty visual distraction. Muted colours of high school gym matts (see header) draw you into the teen romance and make you forget how tense you are. Music is creatively and intelligently placed and displaced, and there’s plenty of moody pianos, distorted synths and French indie-pop to keep your ears inspired.

Soundtrack Stand Out: Atlas, Adrian Gallo

This brings us back to the film’s artsy European TV network heritage. Without giving too much away, it must be said that I Am Jonas did feel a little like it was trying to prove something. Like it was trying to teach me something. Like it had a moral. The twist is almost too clever, too well-placed, too self-important in the way it makes you confront the presumptions the film and its marketing encouraged you to construct. On top of that, we get the Sixth Sense effect: I’m sure if I watched it again I’d see it in a completely different way, noticing details I missed the first time. Finally ー and maybe this is internalised homophobia, or perhaps just my squeamish aversion to jump scares, but ー I was surprised to see a horror-adjacent gay love story rated only as 13+. This all makes me think that it was not only made for early evening TV, but made to be discussed: “ooh wasn’t that clever”. Any dislike I feel for I Am Jonas stems from the fact that it can, in places, feel like an overly cerebral educational resource, as opposed to a piece of queer art.

Then again, maybe I’m the one being overly cerebral. I mean the twist is pretty fucking clever. They got me gal. When it hit, I did indeed just write ‘fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck’. If I didn’t have to write these highly sophisticated and analytical notes about my reaction, I probably would have just curled up into a ball in the corner and rocked back and forth. And I’m sure I could have done this for at least the amount of time that it would take to round this 1 hour and 20 minute film up to a more conventional feature-length. If you have the same emotional investment as me, I invite you to do so too.

Top Tip: don’t watch this expecting to go to bed right after. I would suggest some mild cooking videos to soothe the mind after. Have a piece of bread and maybe you’ll calm down

Overall, if you’re well prepared, I think it’s worth the emotional trauma.

Click stars to view criteria

Header image via Netflix (screenshot)

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