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NYFF 09: "To Die Like A Man" (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal)

NYFF 09

It's a funny thing: A viewing experience as engrossing, exhilarating and frequently moving as Portuguese director Rodrigues' latest ought to resonate, and richly, on reflection. Instead, when contemplating the film, I tend to grow frustrated at the way its distinctive parts fail to cohere, and by what I increasingly see as its sins of omission.

First things first: the direct experience of the picture, which is immediately wrenching. Soldiers on a training mission; a couple of them sneak off for a sexual assignation; they then get lost in a mysterious forest setting, and make an odd discovery. The wrong thing said at the wrong time leads to a shocking action that recalls, of all things, that early scene in Blade Runner in which replicant Leon says "Let me tell you about my mother."

And then...we're in a completely different narrative, or so it seems. Welcome to the world of aging drag queen Tonia, where it's always something. Her much younger lover, fey, oft-petulant designer Rosario, is a recurring junkie who's often selling off Tonia's stuff for a fix. And when he straightens out, he's after her to get what American transvestites call "the chop" (which is described in some detail as we're introduced to Tonia). Which she's ambivalent about, for religious reasons. While this character trait ties in with the film's title, it doesn't quite dominate the proceedings as much as one is led to believe. The picture's first half is all about the way Tonia lives, not meets death. But as I'm saying, the living ain't at all easy. Tonia's also got a rival at the club where she performs ("There's only one blonde in this show," she warns the Nubian-evoking Jenny, who blithely borrows the wig anyway). She gets into a silly fight over hair extensions with her best friend Paula. And, last but hardly least, she receives a visit from the son she fathered in what seems to be another life, who's AWOL from the army (this is where the narrative thread from the film's opening gets woven in), a bit of a psycho, and who completely wrecks Tonia's aquarium.

The index of individual miseries is so extensive that the above doesn't even begin to cover it. Thank heaven Tonia's got her adorable and reliable pooch Augustina (one of several very cute dogs featured in various NYFF presentatations, as it happens), although even she is revealed as a source of some trouble later one. And director/co-writer (with Rui Catalao) Rodrigues covers it in exacting, not to say grueling, detail. Fernando Gomes' performance as Tonia is protean, exhaustive. The film takes an unusual turn in a psychedlic key during a fractious hair-styling session with Paula and Tonia. And it later goes all-out phantasmagoric, as Rosario and Tonia get lost on a road trip and find themselves at the beautiful house of two other drag queens, self-imposed exiles from the world, it seems, who reside in a cocoon of enlightened elegance wherein the dominant figure of the couple, Maria Bakker, smokes cigarettes from a holder and quotes Paul Celan. Arguably the film's centerpiece is a red-tinted scene in which the principles sit in the forest to be serenaded by an unseen Baby Dee, an associate of Antony and the Johnsons, not that you'd have to be told upon hearing her.

After that it's back to reality, as the supperating wound Tonia has been hiding from everybody finally forces her hospitalization. The film's conclusion is moving, but not nearly as galvanizing as I suspect it wants to be. And while Gomes' magnificent performance is one for the ages, other aspects of the film now seem out of register to me. Why, I wonder, does the picture never once depict Tonia's audience, or any aspect of her club besides the backstage area? Interaction with those patrons, both gay and straight, is a signal feature of "the life," and Rodrigues' decision to omit it is becomes puzzling in retrospect. Similarly, while the picture's near fantasy moments-of-respite are both emotionally welcome, and tie together some narrative threads in a surprising way, after the initial surprise—and relief—the cleverness feels a little ostentatious.

What does one conclude about a picture that falls short of greatness in such a way? I can only register my frustration, and note nonetheless that I was glad to have sat through it anyway. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Enjoyed your write-up, Glenn, especially the phrase “a cocoon of enlightened elegance.” As if the caterpillar must surround itself with venusian trappings in order to be patient enough to transform into a gorgeous queer butterfly. Perhaps it’s the beauty of the cocoon that, in fact, marks the wings of the butterfly? This is an oddly queer desire: to become something more beautiful than imagination can conjure. And any tome on mythology will reveal that the cocoon, the chrysalis, the caterpillar, the butterfly have long held the secret of the soul’s desire for transformation. You’ve nailed that one quite accurately. Your reservations, frustrations, about the film interest me. Especially your query: “Why, I wonder, does the picture never once depict Tonia’s audience, or any aspect of her club besides the backstage area?” In other words, why has the expected relationship between performer and audience been circumvented? As Rodrigues mentioned to me when we talked, this omission was purposeful. It’s precisely the performative relationship between drag entertainer and audience, if not the revelation of the anatomical secret, that governs most transgender narratives. He wanted a different focus. He wanted a more private transformation. Not one to please an audience; but one to satisfy a self. Her final performance becomes, indeed, for a funereal audience when as celestial Tonia her performance has achieved apotheosis.

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