When Queer Means Utopia
BY STEVE ERICKSON
In the past, I’ve thought that out gay Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues was making the kind of films Pedro Almodóvar might be doing if he didn’t have an eye on the international box office.
Now that he’s made three films, it’s clear his work combines melodrama and metaphysics, as well as the influences of Douglas Sirk and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It also attacks the received notions of both straight and gay audiences.
His film “Two Drifters” ends with a man being penetrated with a strap-on by a woman who seems possessed by the spirit of his dead male lover. This isn’t gay sex, but is it exactly straight sex? The kinds of situations shown in Rodrigues’ films are what the concept “queer” was revived to describe. “To Die Like a Man” does for gender what “Two Drifters” did for sexuality.
Although she lives as a woman on a day-to-day basis, Tonia (Fernando Santos) considers herself somewhere in between a drag queen and a fully transitioned trans woman. She performs at a Lisbon nightclub, where we hear the audience scream her name. Urged on by her junkie boyfriend, Rosario (Alexander David), she decides to complete sex change surgery; in the first scene after the title appears, she meets with a doctor to discuss her options.
Tonia’s son, Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch), has killed a man and gone AWOL from the army, turning up at her house as Rosario is going through withdrawal. Meanwhile, Tonia is slowly being poisoned by botched breast implants.
“To Die Like a Man” reworks both melodrama and magic realism. The plot sometimes seems overloaded, yet the film takes time for moments that other directors would cut out as dead space. The lighting and color are stylized to the point of being garish. The performances are flamboyant and theatrical yet believable.
It may not seem surprising that the opening scene of “To Die Like a Man” shows someone putting on makeup. But that character isn’t a trans woman. Instead, he’s a soldier applying camouflage. Rodrigues is clearly interested in the amount of work his trans characters have to do to make their outer appearances match their inner sense of self. As critic Dennis Lim pointed out in Artforum, he’s equally interested in masculinity, and very critical of it.
After having sex with a fellow soldier, Zé Maria shoots him for pointing out that his father has become a woman. Yet when he goes on the run, he turns to Tonia for protection, even as he directs homophobic slurs, which the Anglocentric subtitles translate as “poofter,” at her. The men in “To Die Like a Man” tote guns and syringes. Their world seems just a step away from death.
By contrast, the rural compound established by two trans women, seen at the very beginning and again at the middle of “To Die Like a Man,” is the closest this film comes to utopian fantasy. Nature plays a key role here. While the forest sometimes seems threatening — as when soldiers walk through it in early scenes — it’s more often peaceful. Rodrigues usually foregoes his bag of directorial tricks and films its beauty without any colored gels.
Still, the film’s high point finally unites nature and artifice; in a static, red-tinted shot lasting more than five minutes, five people sit around the forest listening peacefully to a song by Baby Dee. Gender politics and heroin addiction seem a world away. Camp turns into spiritual communion.
In America, the very existence of trans people too often remains a joke on late-night sketch comedy shows. In comparison, “To Die Like a Man” is far more respectful. That said, I’m not sure that the trans community in the US will embrace it. Tonia feels ambivalent toward her femininity, and her trajectory is unpromising. Spectators looking for empowerment and uplift are bound to be disappointed.
In many respects, Tonia’s tragedy is that she lives in a world that expects everyone to fit into a binary model of gender. Her boyfriend is scared of any traces of gender ambiguity in her body. It is Rosario’s pressure, ultimately grounded in homophobic anxiety, that pushes her toward a complete transitioning, with which she feels uncomfortable. She needs and deserves a new and better man.
Rodrigues deserve a place in the lineage of challenging queer cinema artists that includes Jack Smith, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Todd Haynes. He also fits squarely in the best of the Portuguese filmmaker tradition; his direction of actors shows the influence of the great centenarian Manoel de Oliveira.
Making films about LGBT characters has undoubtedly helped Rodrigues find an audience outside Portugal (his equally talented heterosexual compatriot Pedro Costa has had much more difficulty with that), but his work shows that he’s obviously uncomfortable with a niche audience. “To Die Like a Man” deserves a better fate than being treated like a campy novelty item. One hopes that American audiences will be kinder to it than the world is to Tonia and many of her real-life sisters.
TO DIE LIKE A MAN
Directed by João Pedro Rodrigues
In Portuguese with English subtitles
Opens Apr. 8
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