After supporting turns in Transparent and Hustlers, the magnetic Trace Lysette takes the lead as a woman who returns home to care for her dying, long-estranged mother (Patricia Clarkson) in Andrea Pallaoro’s Venice competition entry Monica. It’s an all too rare instance of a trans actress occupying nearly every frame of a fictional feature. The result, alas, doesn’t live up to the promise of the occasion, turning the character’s journey into fodder for a sluggish exercise in formalism.
As in his previous movies, Medeas and Hannah, the director (collaborating with screenwriting partner Orlando Tirado) tries to wring tension from visual and narrative austerity — a mostly static camera, deliberate pacing and parsimoniously doled out bits of backstory. But Hannah had a masterful Charlotte Rampling seeming to invent new ways to embody unhappiness before our very eyes, and Medeas was imbued with an atmospheric, slow-motion horror. These were dreary and self-consciously detached works — think Haneke lite — but, in their déjà-vu art house way, effective.
The Bottom Line
Minimalist, and minimally compelling.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition) Cast: Trace Lysette, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Browning, Joshua Close, Adriana Barraza Director: Andrea Pallaoro Writers: Andrea Pallaoro, Orlando Tirado
1 hour 50 minutes
Monica, by comparison, feels like a movie perpetually struggling to connect. Lysette has real presence, her regal beauty softened by an affecting sadness and stillness. But the film doesn’t dig deep enough beneath that surface of sultry melancholy, and Pallaoro’s handling of the character, particularly when it comes to her gender identity, is oddly gimmicky. An effort to generate suspense as to whether Clarkson’s cancer-stricken Eugenia, slipping in and out of lucidity, recognizes Monica as the person who was her son — as to whether Monica is “passing,” essentially — is a melodramatic, almost Almodóvarian contrivance, incongruous with the movie’s low-pulse realism. It’s also a distraction from the fact that Monica deprives its title character of personality, emotion or experience beyond the same handful of despondent beats.
Plunking this recessive central figure down into a stale mix of tropes and themes — fraught homecoming, terminally ill mother, aggrieved LGBTQ child — Pallaoro fails to tap into anything especially surprising or insightful. Monica plays like something we’ve seen countless times before decked out in auteurish accoutrements.
The formal fastidiousness is more irksome than the familiarity of the material, because it saps the film of sincerity; there’s a vanity in how fussily Pallaoro tends to his minimalist visuals while undernourishing his story and the woman who floats through it. Such an imbalance is a miscalculation: Downbeat studies of alienation are a dime a dozen on the international festival circuit; fully realized trans protagonists, less so.
Pallaoro opens with a close-up of Monica (Lysette) in a tanning bed, then shows her fending off unwanted attention from a sleazeball in the parking lot. The director therefore centers the character’s physicality from the get-go, an emphasis the film maintains to the exclusion of her inner life — and to its own detriment.
After receiving an unexpected call, Monica, who lives in Los Angeles and works as a massage therapist and webcam girl, gets in her car and takes to the road. The boxy aspect ratio suggests her isolation, an impression reinforced by the impersonal nature of her interactions in the early scenes — leaving voicemails, distractedly kneading a client’s back, snapping a photo for a family of tourists. Pallaoro and DP Katelin Arizmendi (Swallow) frequently shoot Lysette with her head turned away from the camera or her face obscured by her mane of ’90s Julia Roberts locks. The effect is a sort of teasing distance, also achieved by capturing her reflected in windowpanes, mirrors and photographs, or with her head cut off by the top of the frame. Pallaoro never closes that gap between viewer and subject, which is unfortunate for a film that ostensibly wants to move us with its tale of forgiveness and healing.
When Monica arrives in a leafy Midwestern suburb (the movie was shot in Cincinnati), she’s welcomed by Laura, her brother Paul’s kindhearted wife (a very good Emily Browning). The reception is cooler over at her spacious, elegantly unkempt childhood home, where a bedridden Eugenia (Clarkson), looked after by saintly nurse Letty (Adriana Barraza), is refusing to take her medication and doesn’t want anyone new in her space. Nobody — including Monica — seems inclined to tell Eugenia that this particular new person is her own child, whom Eugenia hasn’t seen since disowning her when she came out as trans as a teenager.
Monica settles in anyway, taking on some of the care routines, reconnecting with Paul (Joshua Close) and bonding with his three kids. She also does a lot of smoking and staring off into the distance; makes several desperate phone calls to an ex named Jimmy; moodily nurses a drink while waiting for a date who never shows; and has a one-night stand with a stud who sidles up to her with some seriously dire pickup lines.
Monica certainly avoids the shrieky confrontations and faux catharses typical of dying-parent dramas, erring rather on the side of overcorrection. None of the characters says or does anything very striking, and Pallaoro injects their conversations with drawn-out pauses, so scenes feel bloated with meaning that isn’t there. The movie takes on a sedated, enervating quality, as if playing out underwater.
The director’s insistently flattening style and tone are self-defeating. Striking images — like Monica’s young niece and nephew in the car in front of hers, turned back toward her with faces frozen in curious stares — come and go with little inflection or impact. Lysette does have a wordless knockout of a moment when Monica can’t bring herself to meet Eugenia’s searching gaze, her eyes shifting every which way, looking for an escape; for a few seconds, she’s a child again, powerless before her mighty mother. It’s one of the only points at which the movie’s anesthetizing haze clears.
Between the hormone shots, the sex work, the objectification, the difficulty finding romantic connection and the abandonment by family, Monica is matter-of-fact in its portrayal of the challenges faced by trans people. But there’s a kind of grim rigidity to the film’s vision, a sense that it’s reducing Monica to her trauma.
A brief reprieve comes midway as Monica gets ready for a night out. Spraying herself with face mist and dancing around her room to O-Zone’s absurdly catchy Romanian pop anthem “Dragostea Din Tei” (a highlight from the nicely curated diegetic soundtrack) — eyes closed, hips swaying, smiling serenely — Monica relishes a moment of private ecstasy, and the film stirs to life.
“Most days,” Monica replies when her brother asks if she’s happy, and that’s the only glimpse we get of it — and of the movie Monica might have been had it given the character space to express the full spectrum of her humanity.