Venus in Drag
Published on November 16th, 2011 | by Halim Cillov1
“Tomboy” opens November 16 at Film Forum.
Running Time: 82 Minutes. Unrated.
Following her critically acclaimed directorial debut Water Lilies (Un Certain Regard Selection of Cannes Film Festival 2007), Céline Sciamma returns to the festival circuit and art-house theaters with an another equally provocative and idiosyncratic coming-of-age dramedy, “Tomboy,” a gentle and innocent, yet blatantly honest tale of first love and gender confusion. It’s the beginning of summer and Laure, a ten-year-old tomboy, just moved into a new suburban neighborhood with her pregnant mother, laid-back father, and young girly sister. With her boyish bob, sporty clothes, and boisterous mannerisms, it’s almost too easy to mistake the pre-adolescent Laure for a boy. In fact that is precisely what happens when Laure meets Lisa, a sweet and outgoing girl from the neighborhood, who seems to be the leader of the local kids. Confidently Laure introduces herself as Mikael and joins Lisa’s diverse gang of friends undercover as a regular soccer-loving boy-next-door. While Laure/Mikael goes to great (and often hilarious) lengths to keep her real identity a secret from her new set of friends, she also develops a friendship with Lisa that slowly blossoms into something more romantic. However, when the inevitable happens and her secret gets out, Laure/Mikael’s summer of mischievous fun turns into a bittersweet journey of self-discovery and much needed self-acceptance.
Shot and acted in a hyper-naturalistic style, “Tomboy” almost functions as a documentary film where we become intimate spectators in the mysterious microcosm of pre-adolescent children. Unlike its Hollywood counterparts, the children in this movie act, talk, and look like real children. In here, children are portrayed as complex individuals that are unconsciously searching for their true identity, like most of us. This cultivated approach to characterization renders the movie with realism and add layers to young characters that traditionally tend to lack depth. Though, the real source of the cinema-vérité aura of the film comes from the awe-inspiring performance of Zoé Héran, who sublimely nails down the dual role of Laure/Mikael, a tortured misfit struggling with society’s oppressive, heteronormative standards that she doesn’t comprehend fully. As the protagonist of the film, Héran’s authentic screen presence is felt in almost every frame of the film, despite the fact she is probably the most silent character in the entire film. However, her pensiveness and subtle face expressions speaks volumes about her character’s psychic distress and frustration. She is the epitome of the downtrodden underdog that we all love with to identify with and Héran plays this role without an iota of sentimentality.
Gender-confusion and cross-dressing have been prominent themes within the LGBT cinema since the invention of this genre. As the film festival aficionados know too well, only within the last few years there have been many widely praised festival hits that explored these themes colorfully, such as “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Ma Vie En Rose,” “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” and “Wild Tigers I Have Known.” Though, what separates “Tomboy” from many other similar films with LGBT-oriented themes is its genuine pathos. The fact that it was crafted with heart and honesty, nothing is there just for the sake of shock value. Throughout the movie, director Sciamma communicates so intimately and profoundly with the viewer that it feels like we are reading a personal letter from the protagonist herself. That feeling of being in the personal space of the character, seeing the world through her eyes, is what acutely connects us to the world of “Tomboy.”
For a film with such a controversial premise, this is also a surprisingly apolitical work of art. By showing the narrative from the point-of-view of Laure/Mikael, a burgeoning girl who has not been adulterated yet by the strict heteronormative moral code of the society and naturally sees nothing wrong with pretending to be a boy, Sciamma highlights how old-fashioned and restraining our views about gender roles and human sexuality are. Sciamma’s progressive view of sexuality might not aim to criticize specific people or dogmas, but that doesn’t mean contextually this movie is lacking a message or a purpose. On the contrary, this movie provides something very rare and valuable to the LGBT cinema that has been deprived of Hollywood style happy-endings: a hopeful and believable love story. Laure/Mikael and Lisa’s bond might be too subtle and artsy to turn them into gay icons overnight, but their heartfelt and relentless attraction towards each other is definitely going to make them stand out amongst many plastic couplings of LGBT cinema that have a tendency of ending in tears and heartbreak.
Unfortunately, not everything is in its right place in “Tomboy.” Firstly, in terms of its pace, at times the film is just too predictable and monotonous. Particularly, cinephiles who are avid followers of LGBT cinema are going to experience a déjà vu of boredom with the film’s narrative structure, which for the sake of minimalism never gains full momentum. Only a very few notable events happen within the movie that have a strong impact on the plot and/or on the characters. If only the movie was a little more bold by inducing more drama and exploring some secondary characters further, such as the love interest, Lisa, this could have been easily one of the most striking movies of this year. The fact that the character of Lisa, arguably the second most important character of the film, had no palpable depth besides being the love interest was this film’s most disappointing aspect.
On the whole, “Tomboy” still manages to be a charming movie that is about the universal desire to be accepted as who we are and fitting in without giving up the essence that makes each of us unique. At a time when there is an alarming increase in the suicide rate amongst the LGBT youth, “Tomboy” is an insightful work, which inhales tolerance, exhales hope, and firmly postulates that love is love regardless of the participants’ gender.