Thursday, June 03, 2010

Turning a Blind Eye

In Greek myths, Tiresias was the blind prophet/oracle who was changed into a woman for a period of seven years after witnessing the mating of snakes in a ritual holy to the goddess Hera. When Tiresias stumbled upon the ritual again, he was changed back into a man. According to one set of myths, Zeus and Hera were arguing over who got the best part of sex, the man or the woman, and they summoned Tiresias to settle the matter. Zeus claimed it was the woman, while Hera claimed it was men. Tiresias sided with Zeus, which angered Hera. She struck him blind. By way of making amends, Zeus gave Tiresias the gift of second sight. The myths vary to a great degree, and don't agree with one another. I kind of like the snake ritual myth, myself, because it suggests that the myth of Tiresias is an extremely old myth by conflating Hera (whose symbol in the classical tradition is the peacock) with the snake goddess of the Minoans. According to some myths, the female version of Tiresias was either a priestess or a prostitute of great renown. As a woman, she was mother to several children.

Tiresias appears in a lot of mythology. He/she was the oracle of choice in Greek tragedies, including Oedipus Rex and Antigone. For the most part, the prophesies of Tiresias are never wrong. Over the entirety of Greek myth, Tiresias straddles multiple realms, notably male and female, but also life and death. Odysseus encounters the prophet in the underworld where the gift of prophesy still burns.

All in all, a fascinating character, so it's no surprise that someone might want to make a movie that retells some version of the myths, and that's what we get in Tiresia (2003, directed by Bertrand Bonello). In this modern retelling, Tiresia is a Brazilian transsexual working as a prostitute in Paris. She's kidnapped by the inscrutable Terranova, who imprisons her a la John Fowles's The Collector, and watches her transform back into a male when deprived of hormone treatment. In a fit of rage, Terranova blinds Tiresia and dumps her in the woods, where she's rescued by the kind-hearted Anna. As she recovers from her ordeal, she discovers that she has gained the gift of second sight.

This sound like an exploitation movie, and, to an extent, it is, but this is an art house movie, so it couches the story in a fair amount of long-take tedium, in which an inordinate amount of time is spent on quotidian minutiae. Further, it conflates the myth of Tiresias with a vague Christian impulse. Is Tiresia intended as a Christ figure? The movie makes that suggestion. It also plays games with its own basic epistemology. Tiresia is played by Clara Choveaux, a cisgender female actor, in the first half of the film (and again in flashback) and by Thiago Telès, a cisgender male actor, in the second half. Additionally, Terranova (Laurent Lucas) might as well be two different characters in the two halves of the movie. But, again, this is all dressing. The movie itself is an exploitation film, in which the audience watches a man kidnap, maim, and ultimately kill another human being, and unlike any self-respecting exploitation film, there doesn't really seem to be a point to it all.

Also, I find it almost impossible to divorce my own experiences as a transsexual from my reaction to this movie.

What we have here is a movie that's too literary for its own good. Oh, it knows how to signify the history of transgenderism in art. In one of its opening scenes, we watch Terranova discover the famous "Sleeping Hermaphrodite" in the Louvre. Later, a poster on the wall of his home is of the statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. But knowing transgenderism from art and myth doesn't make the film any less odious when it comes to depicting the lives of transsexuals. In a way, it exacerbates it. It trades in transgender imagery as it is found in the dominant culture's archetypes: you have the transsexual as prostitute (justified by an interpretation of the myths, I guess, but I doubt the filmmakers gave it that much thought, given how all-pervasive this image is in European film), You have the transsexual as victim. You have the transsexual as medical construct. You have a film that denies that variant gender identities are authentic at all. Not only does Terranova view transsexuals as imitations, but you have Tiresia herself declaring herself to be unnatural as she stands before him naked.

This last bit requires a bit more attention. You can argue that the dominant image of transsexuals in media come from pornography, and the film is explicitly mining that image in the full-frontal shots of Tiresia. In this one where she's standing before Terranova as she bathes:

And this one, in a sexual fantasy sequence:

Purely from a socio-political standpoint, I find the exploitation of trans-imagery in this movie to be completely abhorrent, especially because it's not adding anything new to the pool of images at all. Instead, it not only reinforces tired stereotypes and enforces a binary gender essentialism, but also consigns transsexuals to a very specific lot in life. Listening to Tiresia claim that "all little boys who become women become whores" is one of the more infuriating pronouncements in trans-themed movies. I'm also increasingly uncomfortable--well, "uncomfortable" isn't the right word; appalled is more like it--with movies that portray trans people as inherently disposable, as this one does with the body dump scene in the middle, and again at the end. Given that trans women have a ridiculously high chance of being murdered, this strikes me as irresponsible. There are enough images like this one in real life:

I've pretty much given up on finding positive or realistic transgender imagery in movies, but that doesn't make watching yet another movie get it so spectacularly wrong any easier.

No comments: