I went into this film eager to like it. I worked to be on its side well beyond the halfway point. I cut it slack and trusted that various red flag moments would be sorted out by the end. But they weren’t, and I sat through the credits stunned by what I’d seen.
What this movie has to say can be boiled down to four propositions, two of them general, two of them ostensibly about the specific situation of the protagonist (but probably general as well).
1. Effeminate men are funny and probably gay.
2. Effeminate (and gay) men are obsessed with and want to be women.
3. Effeminate (and gay) men are made the way they are by mothers who want daughters rather than sons.
4. Therapy can empower effeminate (and gay) men to cut the apron strings and to become real men and to marry sexy women.
What am I supposed to make of a film like this? Especially when that film is receiving rave reviews?
A Generous Viewer
A generous viewer might see the whole film through the lens of the last five minutes and the framing narrative. In those last five minutes, the protagonist “comes out” to his mother as straight and tells her he is going to write a piece of theatre about a mother who tries to make her son a daughter. The film is presented as if it were that theatrical work and is being narrated and shown from the stage. In those final minutes and in the frame, a generous viewer might see a heterosexual masculinity bracketed as non-natural or non-obvious: “See,” it might seem to say, “queer and straight people all have to come to terms with and to claim their sexuality in the same way.”
I’m not a generous viewer. What’s more, I sat by several gay couples, and I’m fairly certain that none of them were generous viewers either. The theatre was full of men and women out for a date-night all of whom laughed on-and-off throughout the entire film. But I don’t think even one of the gay men laughed even once. And it seems obvious why not.
The first two propositions I list are stock homo-bashing tropes of mainstream cinema. The third is just basic 1950s homophobia spiced up with 1950s misogyny. Four bumps us back to the pre-1990s dark ages when queer sexuality was understood as an illness or personal failing. (This movie calls the protagonist’s failing “fear” and cures it through horseback riding. I shit you not.) What is there for a queer audience to laugh at?
This film comes from a member of the Comédie française, a fixture of official French culture. But French culture hasn’t had a very good year. When the political elite set out to recognize same sex marriages, tens of thousands of French men and women stormed the streets of Paris and other major cities to block the change to the law. More than once! Thankfully they failed.
This film (and I assume the play it’s adapted from) serves up a queer man the people protesting on the streets can like and laugh at. He’s silly and ridiculous, but at heart, he’s also a real man who, with a bit of help, discovers what real love is, gets over all that girly gay stuff, and figures out that he can’t tell his mom he loves her because men aren’t allowed to cry. (And he loves his mom and would cry if he said it so he won’t say it. Get it? Does the beauty of the sentiment and the inescapability of his double-bind bring a tear to your eye like it does to his? That’s kitsch, and it’s ugly. I thought you people read Kundera.)
I wish Quebec movie-goers and critics weren’t so eager to cheer along to French films that have won some prizes. Because in this case, sides are involved, and they’re cheering for the wrong one.