Boys Don't Cry, Pola X
directed by Leos Carax
Teena Brandon's deception starts with a haircut. A gay male friend clips her tresses down to a rakish scruff worn handsomely by actress Hilary Swank. It highlights her delicate features and sharp cheeks. "If you were a boy I'd fuck you," says the guy with the scissors. Thus director Kimberly Pierce explodes the first bombshell in Boys Don't Cry.
Of the recent gay-themed movies that polemicize more than entertain (that would be the majority), Pierce's dramatization of a 1993 gay-bashing incident in which the actual Teena Brandon was killed proves the most radical and effective. With co-screenwriter Andy Bienen, Pierce gives a dramatic focus to every gender issue raised by the real-life Brandon's challenge to sexual identity. Pierce downplays Brandon's rebellion?her reckless and defiant pose as a male, running from the courts in Lincoln, NE, then dating several girls in nearby Falls City. The story romanticizes Brandon's sense of freedom by keeping it a private, almost unfathomable willfulness. And Brandon's enigma is kept alive by Kimberly Swank's wholly convincing drag act.
Every shot of Swank plays with the question of androgyny, the blur between cute and pretty, girlishness and boyishness. Stepping into a new town as if making a stage debut, Brandon reverses her name order and falls in with a group of working class post-adolescents. She socializes by indulging in boy rituals?drinking, playing bumper steers (hanging on the flatbed of a truck in a four-wheel equivalent to chariot-racing) and chasing tail. The boys John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III) ignore her frail appearance, and the girls are charmed by it. Brandon's high on acceptance. A nighttime drive over the speed limit (encouraged by John's drunken seduction to danger) offers a metaphor for her exciting, hellbent need to be-like-the-boys-to-please-the-girls. Better than the majority of gay film stories, Boys Don't Cry lets the wonder of identity reside in gender performance, superficial appearance and liberating action. That keeps the reality at the heart of Brandon's transformation relentlessly disturbing?an ideological jolt.
This is different from the homophobia that American Beauty caters to; titillating the audience about homosex?passing-for-liberalism?then punishing the thought. (The s&m Marine father's an immediate giveaway of how safe the filmmakers are playing it.) Pierce more interestingly explores perception and tolerance?the place deep down where people observe and accept sexual difference, even if not able consciously to admit their condolence. We've all known boys who looked like girls yet never had to face a doubt.
The film's title comes from an 80s song by the Cure, a fair expression of new-generation gender consciousness, like the pop tunes used in other gay teen flicks (though that song's not as rich as Yaz's "Nobody's Diary" in Edge of Seventeen). Pierce sustains a mood of contemplation, making Boys Don't Cry the first Christine Vachon production to be poignant, justifying its polemical construct with emotional effect. Having long demonstrated a hard-nosed imperative, consciously confronting mainstream movie conventions with experimental narratives like Todd Haynes', consistent offbeat casting and subversive stories, Vachon's represented a cultural vanguard that often seemed not just arty, but elitist. But Pierce may be the director who gives Vachon a communicative breakthrough. Boys Don't Cry at first appears to be visiting urban sophistication upon the habits of its Midwestern rural setting, yet it stays nearly as rigorous as Ira Sachs' The Delta. The characters in Boys Don't Cry may be ideological pawns, yet they seem to belong to their region and to certain plain patterns of behavior that you may recall from before your own enlightenment. It contrasts the new Swedish film Show Me Love in which two teens, Elin (Alexandra Dahlstrom) and Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg), discover lesbian friendship surrounded by hostile peers and Leo, Nirvana and Morrissey posters. Young writer-director Lukas Moodysson copies the raw, confrontational style of Kids, but his tone is ultimately sweet and affectionate. It's a minor tale of small-town coping, but of all the gay teen pics it best combines innocence with sophistication.
While American youth movies frequently reference John Hughes' 80s films, Boys Don't Cry more interestingly evokes Coppola's fascinating 80s boy movies The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, those romantic, Oklahoma-set views of adolescence that combined nostalgia with experimental movie style?including some residual homoeroticism. Pierce's speeding clouds motif comes directly from Rumble Fish, adapting a representation of inexorable fate that Coppola made popular. Pierce and Vachon rightly sense that the public is ready for a richer, more sophisticated vision. This intelligent excursion into Americana uses Jerry Springer characters, but in a more sensitive context. Brandon moves between trailer park and white welfare communities?sociological settings so common they allow Pierce and Vachon to investigate the culture behind an outrage. They anatomize much more than crime, but also the complex intertwinement of human sexual and social responses.
Gender might, after all, make the esthetic difference. Pierce and Vachon approach the subject of identity more quizzically?not confusedly, but with amplitude?than most gay male indie directors have. Like some of the women Brandon beguiles, the filmmakers aren't worried about losing personal authority or polemical points. They are as certain about Brandon's own misgivings as they are about the ambivalence of the people who knew her. The movie is strong on personal emotional flux?a sense of compliance that may be bred in women more than men and yet is essential to artistry. (It's what distinguishes Love Reinvented, the current compilation film of mostly French, mostly superb AIDS shorts.) Heroes and villains both need to be made human, and though Boys Don't Cry paints its male rapists-killers as stereotypical criminal cases (they're wild youth, with "no impulse control"), at least it doesn't martyr Brandon. Her outsider's dilemma parallels the turmoil of her insider girlfriend and dupe, Lana (Chloe Sevigny).
This movie has two star performances?first in Swank's steady, unflinching focus, but most of all in Sevigny, who escapes Harmony Korine's rancid foolishness long enough to portray the movies' first full-fledged, irresistible dyke love object. You may want to shake-then-embrace Swank's Brandon, but Sevigny makes you want to fall into Lana's lap. Among Fall City's working-class girls, Lana is the most restless (not the most clear-headed). Country dissatisfaction is right under her skin and her flesh seems flushed with horny impatience. The boys in town don't fulfill her, and Brandon may not be the answer either. The "answer" is Lana herself (even the name sounds all-forgiving), a figure so sexually self-possessed that people gravitate to her in envy and lust?especially psychotic John and the emotionally fractured Brandon.
Sevigny is possibly the most unique American actress since Shelley Duvall. With a slightly stoop-shouldered stance but surprisingly alert, attentive eyes, she's a luscious slug. Her strangeness is disarming. And Pierce, fascinated by Sevigny's furry-skinned indolence, centers the entire movie around sensuous femininity?especially skin and hair. (The word "unshaven" adequately describes John's coarse villainy.) Pierce's emblematic shots of Lana show her hair tangled in her eyelashes or the downy skin of her ears. Intimate views. (In a sense the film is also a Halloween party, an openly dykey love story.) When Lana and Brandon make out in a car, Pierce and cinematographer Jim Denault subvert the teen-romance archetype by illuminating the car from within; it glows in the Nebraskan night?a beacon denoting several kinds of romantic conquest.
This tragic love story doesn't end with Brandon's death. Pierce, Bienen and Vachon recognize the sad complications of sexual puzzlement and constricting gender roles. Lana ends the movie carrying a torch for something unclear inside herself. And the filmmakers are not so gay-superficial to suggest she?or Brandon?ought to have been smarter. (The fairly discreet sex scene, with barely a shot of Brandon's cleavage, lets the mystery be.) When arrested for past law-breaking, Brandon is visited by a rescuing Lana and looks both heartbroken and aroused, conveying how her own sense of being feels imprisoned. It's Raging Bull symbolism (humorously admitted when Brandon stuffs a sock down her jeans and calls herself an asshole); physical, psychological and social prisons comprise the ruling metaphor.
In the film's exposure-and-humiliation climax, you understand Brandon's fear as well as her aggressors' offended trust and anger. It's a remarkable scene in a simple, domestic setting, but you can feel the ideological walls of the typical American home shaking. Everyone is in shock and fear gives way to obtuse, patriarchal terror. Brandon's attackers are so simplified their Neanderthal contrast to the gentle female characters merely seems polemical (a fault shared with the Sichel sisters' sensitive 1997 lesbian feature, All Over Me). The focus on female sexuality unfortunately denies Boys Don't Cry the inquiring masculine sympathy of, say, Last Exit to Brooklyn.
Pierce and company prefer a Raging Bull critique of masculinity for their own feminist needs. They admit: Brandon really was a challenge; her arrogance and dildo-packing deception were self-confounding gaffes. Forced to report her rape to the police, Brandon pronounces the words "my vagina" with difficulty. After the attack her hesitant self-identification represents shame, the ultimate degradation of femaleness.
Another New York Film Festival trailblazer was Leos Carax's Pola X. Reviled at its Cannes premiere last spring, this turns out to further confirm the director of Lovers on the Bridge's large talent. Less an intoxicating romantic celebration than the latter, Pola X explores love's depths and mysteries. If it has a New Wave antecedent (as every Carax film does) it is Truffaut's somberly magnificent Two English Girls. There's rich solemnity here, too. The story of a young novelist, Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu), who works under a pseudonym (as does Carax) to protect his aristocratic family, it is a drama of life's?and the psyche's?uncontrollableness. Pierre discovers his half-sister; falling in love with her is his doomed fate. Like Claire Denis' Beau Travail, this also interprets a Melville work (Pierre, or the Ambiguities), but as Carax declared, it is not an adaptation of the book but of "how reading it felt."
Expressionism is the film's glory. Carax actually conveys the dark imaginings that go with reading 19th-century literature; he gets the mood and the momentum. Cinematographer Eric Gautier (who also shot Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train) proves himself the d.p. of the year, ranging from lustrous daytime spectacle to brooding nocturnal visions. Each sequence in this barely articulated narrative is an astonishing visual setpiece, color coordinated and rhythmized for mood. An after-sex shower scene with Pierre and his fiancee Lucie (Delphine Chuillot) features pellucid intimacy. Pierre's first meeting with the mysterious Isabelle (Katerina Golubeva) begins in a dark woods that grows slightly brighter with every detail she reveals of her past. A nightmare of Pierre's blood fate takes the mere notion Kubrick had of the flooding elevator in The Shining out of doors and makes it grand, spectral and unforgettable.
Appreciating this movie means recognizing film is a visual art. The light and dark contrasts between Lucie and Isabelle describe the poles of Pierre's consciousness but the drama is almost entirely visual?that's Carax's gift. If it's not a new way of making film adaptations (c.f. Bertolucci's The Conformist) it's more intellectually honest than most. Lots of the great literature reaches us subliminally and that's how Pola X works. You fill in each mysterious sequence with your own emotions. Carax is always on the verge of giving film language new urgency. Only convention makes a picture like this a difficult sit. The resulting afterimages?evoking sensuality and mood?are profound, transfixing.
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