Spotlight | João Pedro Rodrigues

By Dennis Lim

Is there still such a thing as queer cinema? On the one hand, Cannes 2009, where every other movie seemed to have a gay character, theme, subtext, or sensibility, could be seen as a reflection of a “post-gay” cultural climate, where onscreen homosexuality is so ubiquitous that its existence barely seems worth noting. (Indeed, everyone went on and on about the blood and gore , but not the gays.) But what should we make of the fact that the most vital and singular of these homocentric films, and easily one of the two or three best films of the entire festival—João Pedro Rodrigues’ Un Certain Regard entry To Die Like a Man—received almost no attention, and furthermore was expressly condemned by both Variety and Screen to a purgatorial existence in “gay festivals?” (Like Cannes?)

The indifference that met Rodrigues’ third feature—about an aging drag performer, past her prime but still ambivalently pre-op—could partly be chalked up to puzzlement. Its dignified fatalism ignores the politically correct line on gender dysphoria; its homespun flamboyance and its odd, boldly sustained tone of anguished comedy thwart any existing notions of camp. Plus-sized Tonia (Fernando Santos), born Antonio, has lived as a woman for decades. She’s a battle-scarred veteran of the Lisbon drag clubs, with a cute if somewhat crazy lover young enough to be her son (she also has an actual son, an army deserter working through his own sexual issues).
But as the title flatly suggests, she ultimately finds it impossible to escape her biological destiny. This is a poignant rumination on the mysteries of identity but hardly an affirmative celebration of our fluid and malleable selves. A wry, strangely enchanted tragicomedy, To Die Like a Man is, in the end, so resistant to taxonomy that it only points up the predictability of most gay-themed films, which—nearly two decades after New Queer Cinema, after the endless exhausted debates about visibility and representation—remain boxed into tidy sub-categories.

The coming-out template remains eternally popular, as evidenced by Xavier Dolan’s J’ai tué ma mère, a crowd-pleasing harpy mom/gay son bitchfest that swept the prizes at this year’s deeply queer Quinzaine. So, too, does the forbidden-love melodrama, which reached its commercial apogee with Brokeback Mountain (2005). Ang Lee was back with another portrait of tentative gayness in a repressive environment (the Catskills on the eve of the Age of Aquarius), in the tepid counterculture comedy Taking Woodstock.
Two other films took on the Brokeback theme of socially unsanctioned love: Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open, about the scandalous affair between an Orthodox Jerusalem butcher and his hot new employer, and Lou Ye’s Competition entry (and surprise Best Screenplay winner) Spring Fever, an extended middle finger to the Chinese authorities and, despite its longeurs, a plausible and touching account of the ubiquity of sexual repression in present-day China.

Then there were the gimmicky twists on tried-and-true formulas. Le roi de l’evasion, from Alain Guiraudie, whose previous films mined the unlikely erotic dream life of rural France, is a reverse coming-out movie in which a portly fortysomething gay tractor salesman switches from homo gerontophilia to hetero near-pedophilia—wacky farce ensues, but by Guiraudie’s standards, it’s fairly conventional. More or less the opposite happens in Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, a more overtly comic Old Joy (2006) in which two straight buddies (one married, the other adrift) try to get it up for a gay porno.

I Love You Philip Morris, from Bad Santa (2003) screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, employed a familiar strategy of subversion, subjecting stereotypes to comic exaggeration. Jim Carrey plays a devout, married Southerner whose midlife coming-out and attendant lifestyle changes (“Being gay is expensive!”) lead him on a career path as a con artist. In the film’s boldest breach of taste, he even fakes his own death from AIDS.

Many of these films had their moments, but all seemed somehow small and obvious next to the irreducible enigmas of To Die Like a Man. The film’s central conundrum is understanding how someone so determined to live like a woman reconciles herself to dying like a man. Resisting the sentimentality of an illness weepie (the implication is that Tonia has AIDS), Rodrigues discreetly connects his heroine’s failing health to her dawning acknowledgment of her corporeal limits. A devout Catholic, Tonia has never been able to work up the courage for the final gender-reassignment procedure—Rodrigues, who studied biology (he wanted to be an ornithologist), provides a graphic origami demonstration of a sex-change operation—and toxic silicone implants have left her breasts sore and her nipples pustulent.

But her final burst of resolve and clarity also comes from the cumulative fatigue and self-consciousness of a life lived in between genders. When Tonia’s boyfriend, Rosario (Alexander David), a volatile junkie, breaks into one of his fits of contemptuous abuse, he invariably takes aim at her identity: “neither fish nor flesh,” “a man with boobs.” The subject is clearly ever present in Tonia’s mind. When she catches Rosario ogling her buxom younger rival, Jenny (Jenny Larrue), she snaps, “Have you never seen a naked man?”

The arrival of the urbane forest-dwelling grand dame Maria Bakker (Gonçalo Ferreira de Almeida) ups the one-liner count, but To Die Like a Man mostly unfolds in a melancholic minor key (“the most downbeat film ever made about transsexuals,” Jonathan Romney declared in Screen). Still, it’s not without its subtle raptures. A distinctive stylist with a pop touch and an eye for the totemic, Rodrigues has a knack for the perfectly uncanny image: a car, wrapped in foil, presented as a birthday gift; an extended switchblade hitting a plastic shower curtain; a succession of objects (a gnawed chicken bone, a family photo, a stiletto shoe) incongruously dropped into an aquarium.

Rodrigues’ films are both precise and radical in their use of sound and music. O Fantasma (2000) was almost silent but for an infernal chorus of howls and barks. The Odete (2005) soundtrack featured Bright Eyes, Andy Williams, and various versions of “Moon River.” To Die Like a Man, despite its strategic avoidance of on-stage vamping (we never see Tonia perform), is practically a musical—in fact, the most lovably artless movie musical since Jacques Rivette’s Haut bas fragile (1995), which likewise mines the quotidian for surprising moments of euphoria. Rodrigues rejects the clichéd ostentation of musicals and drag shows—as indicated by the constrained 1.33 frame —and his vaguely ascetic approach has the perverse effect of making his material all the more magical.

There’s a wonderful matter-of-factness about the way the characters break into song—Tonia dreamily continuing a tune heard on a car radio, singing with her friend Irene as they fuss with her wig—and in the plainspoken yearning of the lyrics (most songs are Portuguese pop, with the notable exception of the hymnlike “Cavalry,” by transsexual performance artist Baby Dee, which accompanies a nocturnal interlude in the woods). Rodrigues uses the musical numbers as license for experimentation and trickery (a playful camera angle here, a tinted image there), occasioning a few moments of bargain-basement transcendence worthy of Guy Maddin.
It is absurd to think of Rodrigues simply as a gay filmmaker, though that may be the most effective way to get his work seen (especially in the North American marketplace). The tag is especially annoying given how routinely he’s compared to Pedro Almodóvar, who has long escaped the gay ghetto and now rules the middlebrow roost. This year’s obligatory Almodóvar film at Cannes, the sombre meta-noir Broken Embraces, only reinforced the sense that Rodrigues’ films have in abundance precisely what’s been missing from Almodóvar’s—verve, nerve, a real empathy for carnal needs and transgressive behaviour—for years now. If anything, the “gay film” that To Die Like a Man most resembles is one that could share its title (and one that held little appeal for what marketers typically think of as gay audiences): Jacques Nolot’s tough, mournful Avant que j’oublie (2007).
With each of his three features, Rodrigues has tackled a loaded or negative archetype—with O Fantasma, the submissive slut; with Odete, the fag hag; and with To Die Like a Man, the tragic tranny. It is reductive and even misleading to say that he has ennobled these figures (he does not necessarily see them as fallen, to begin with). But he has attempted, in each case, to provide a full and credible account of their deepest and most tangled desires.

Cinema Scope: The film is dedicated to Sonic—who’s that?
João Pedro Rodrigues: That’s my cat. He died on August 26th, while we were shooting the scene where Tonia and Rosario are singing in the cemetery. I had him for 15 years. The tracking shot in that scene, it’s like an appreciation. 

Scope: Is Tonia based on an actual person?

Rodrigues: Several people. I had the first version of the script before I met Fernando Santos, who plays Tonia, but he had been doing drag for years, so there are a lot of things he offered to me.

Scope: Could you talk a bit about the double meaning of the title, which has a macho connotation but also refers to the character’s biological fate?

Rodrigues: Well, it starts a little like a war movie, with the two soldiers in the forest. There’s a fight and one of them dies. So the idea was to play with this expectation that, OK, that’s why it’s called To Die Like a Man. There’s the military sense, but, of course, there’s another sense at the end, which is that Tonia wants to die like a man. The main idea is someone who believes they have a fate and they cannot escape it. In Portugal, with the power of Catholic education and the idea of religious fate, this is someone who cannot go against their ultimate desire of change, and that’s very tragic and very touching.

Scope: Odete ends with the heroine transcending her physical body. This film is about a character who, despite her best efforts, is ultimately unable to do so.

Rodrigues: You’re right, but it’s not theoretical. I work a lot by intuition and it’s difficult to theorize about the film. It’s always difficult for me to figure out my next film, and I think this did start from there, from the last shot of my previous film. That’s a scene where a girl is possessed by a boy and she’s fucking this other boy, which made me think about the disruption of gender, the idea of this floating gender.

Scope: I know that you researched O Fantasma by closely observing trash collectors in Lisbon. Was there an equivalent process here, immersing yourself and befriending people in the drag community?

Rodrigues: It’s a small group of people, where everybody knows everybody else. For O Fantasma I followed the collectors for six months, at least once a week. Sometimes they didn’t want to talk. For this film, it was easy because most people wanted to talk. I was sometimes surprised by the degree of exposure. They were talking about their private lives with a level of detail that made me uncomfortable. I think a lot of them were inventing or exaggerating their stories. People tend to tell you not exactly what happened but their way of seeing their own life. But that was also interesting.

Scope: Did you work mainly with nonprofessionals again?

Rodrigues: Fernando Gomes, who plays the boss, is the only one who acted before. I try to find the right person to play the characters I invent. What usually happens is I feel that person has to be my character, even sometimes just by the way they move. I have to know everybody quite intimately before I start shooting, so we can trust each other. I couldn’t work with actors who demand psychological explanations of their characters and also I don’t think they could play these parts.

Scope: Even though Tonia is a celebrated drag performer, you never show her on stage.

Rodrigues: That was really important to me. I didn’t want to show the show, because I really wanted to make a film that was against spectacle. I didn’t want it to be like those films with transsexuals, like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). It can be funny sometimes, but I’m not interested in that. Everybody has seen drag shows, and it’s always the same. Drag shows were popular in Portugal in the ‘80s and ‘90s but now there’s a sense of repetition, singing always the same songs. I find it very tedious.

Scope: The intention to go “against spectacle”—is that why you shot in 1.33?

Rodrigues: Yes, I wanted some of the images and even the choice of the actors to suggest silent movies. I wanted to do something very unspectacular, even austere. It’s almost like a musical, but without the usual musical numbers. I wanted to keep the conventions of the musical, that during the songs the action stops. But instead of presenting it as a spectacle, I wanted to show the characters singing or humming in intimate moments. And in drag shows in Lisbon, mostly they sing Spanish songs, but most of the songs I used are popular Portuguese songs.
Scope: One obvious connection to silent films is the pseudo-tinted images during a couple of the songs.

Rodrigues: It was because I thought of silent films that I could be more playful and experimental with the image. The scene where they’re all in the forest [bathed in eerie red moonlight], the idea is they’re all sitting there like someone who’s watching the film, just sitting and watching the song. I wanted to always be a bit playful. The scene where they’re singing in the courtyard of the house [which cuts to an overhead shot and turns into a negative image] is like a Busby Berkeley moment. She’s singing very softly, then the picture becomes more flamboyant, but in a homemade way.

Scope: Two pivotal scenes take place in the forest at night—does the setting have a mythical significance?

Rodrigues: Mainly I wanted to get out of the city, because my other films were set there. But the forest has always been to me about fairy tales. I like that there’s this little house in the woods, although when you go in, it looks more like a New York apartment. The forest is a place where people can hide, but also a place for revelations, where Tonia really understands her fate and that she can’t fight it. Maria Bakker, who she meets in the woods, is a character I appropriated for the film. She’s a kind of double for Tonia, a more sophisticated version. Gonçalo Ferreira de Almeida is a friend of mine. It’s an act he’s developed, and he does it very seriously, always in English, so I had to convince him to switch to Portuguese.

Scope: Were you concerned that Tonia fits too closely the archetype or cliché of the tragic transsexual?

Rodrigues: Everybody tends to have a tragic life in my films. And most of the stories I heard were tragic. I talked to some doctors, too, and in that generation it was quite common to do breast implants that were badly made and not done under proper hygienic conditions. Their breasts would be rotted inside; the body corrupting itself from the inside out. The younger generations are different because they’re getting reassignment surgery younger.

Scope: It’s not spelled out, but the film implies that Tonia has AIDS.
Rodrigues: Yeah, but I didn’t want that to be clear.

Scope: We’ve been conditioned to expect a message of empowerment from films with gay or “minority” characters. Within that context, Tonia’s tragic end and acceptance of her fate seems almost politically incorrect.

Rodrigues: Perhaps, but also I think this is a unique story. I’m not comparing transsexuals and gays, or saying that you should accept your fate. It’s something the character does, and she does it with a certain dignity. Even her body—his body—it’s the body of a trucker. He’s very strong, not at all what I think a drag artist would be. That’s the drama. He cannot change his body because he really has a body of a man. I don’t want to make films with a sociological position. There are a lot of gay people who thought O Fantasma gave a bad image of gay life. People tend to reduce films that way, but films are about the unique stories of unique characters.
Scope: The clueless Variety review condemned To Die Like a Man to the “gay-themed fest circuit.”

Rodrigues: That was stupid. The review made me really mad. There’s the idea that I make films for gay festivals, when my films go to every kind of festival. It shows such a limited understanding about film, always wanting to put films in cages.

Scope: The film is dedicated to your cat, but dogs are prominent in the film, which brings up a sort of canine link to O Fantasma.

Rodrigues: I thought of the dogs as doubles of Tonia and Rosario. I like dogs and cats, but they’re really very difficult to work with.

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