16 March 2011
Does Argentina offer the most exciting film in the world right now? It’s got to be in the top 3 at least (with Spain and South Korea, perhaps?). For example, have you seen the beautiful thriller The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos), analyzed here by our friend JustMeMike? Feminéma especially likes Argentina’s amazing female directors: I’m obsessed with the films of Lucrecia Martel, and I learned recently that Buenos Aires was the site for the first International Women and Film Festival for Gender Equity last year. Now that I’ve seen Lucía Puenzo’s XXY, I’m ready to declare Argentina my favorite film country ever. XXY takes a close look at the confusion of gender, biological sex, and sexual orientation that arises in intersex cases — it’s fascinating, never easy to watch, and totally compelling.
We slowly learn that Alex (Inés Efron) is 15 and intersex, living on the coast of Uruguay with her parents (Valeria Bertuccelli and the always-terrific Ricardo Darín). I say slowly because the film amounts to an emotional thriller — as it unfolds we learn new insights into how each member of the family has a very different relationship to Alex’s gender and sexual identity, especially now that she’s beginning to manifest and sexual preferences as well. I say she because that’s how everyone refers to her, though that is very much one of the things up for debate.
She has long taken medication to suppress the appearance of masculine traits, but during the last few weeks she’s stopped taking them — with increasingly noticeable results. As if it’s not hard enough to be 15, Alex is twitchy, angry, highly sexed, and volatile as the meds leave her body. Watching Efron express those emotions — with all the conflicting elements of a skinny boy’s frame, her enormous, beautiful blue eyes, her soft head of hair, and her alienating glare — is stunning. I can’t imagine an actor who could more perfectly inhabit that aimless rage, nor the gender and sexual complexities of an intersex teenager. Meanwhile, her parents cycle through denial, anxiety, and panic. It’s especially touching from Darín, because as they sit together we realize how much she takes after him (those blue eyes, that tumble of hair) and how much he’s always believed she’s perfect.
If this were a Lifetime Channel movie of the week, it might unsubtly ask, what in heavens’ name can her poor parents do? But this film is too smart for that. Clearly, Alex’s mother has considered sex reassignment surgery; she’s even invited a prominent surgeon to visit for the weekend with his wife and artistic son, Álvaro. But this film doesn’t go down familiar roads. Instead, Alex propositions Álvaro and they begin an odd relationship controlled by Alex’s mecurial moods. Meanwhile, Alex’s best friend — a handsome teenaged son of a fishing family, whom she has punched in the eye during some unexplained (unexplainable?) conflict, still haunts the edges of their lives, trying to reconcile with her. He warns Álvaro off: “She’s too much for you to handle,” he says matter-of-factly, and we get yet another teeny glimpse into Alex’s sexual preferences — except that she also has a tender friendship with a pretty girl next door.
What will Alex do? Does she have to choose? She’s at a crossroads in this coming-of-age tale (the most unusual coming-of-age tale since Jeffrey Eugenides’ beautiful Middlesex). As much as XXY is about the difficulties of being intersex, we start to wonder what will happen when doctors en masse allow intersex children to grow up and make up their own minds. Which means that more children will remain both male and female. This is an amazing film that looks at sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation in such fascinating ways that I finished it thinking, this could never have been made in the U.S. It’s a subtle, real, unflinching look at one family’s experience. I’m haunted by it and I hope you’ll watch it too and join me in my reverence of Argentine cinema.