Consider the opening frame: close-up of a young soldier in fatigues painting his face with camouflage. Now factor in the title, To Die Like a Man, and this would seem to be a war film. Well, it isn't, at least not the conventional kind.
Minutes later, with typical brazenness, Portuguese director Joao Pedro Rodrigues switches genres and mixes genders. That callow soldier gives way to an aging drag queen with her own war paint, in her own battle dress, and having lived life in a perpetual no man's land, suffering from her own battle fatigue. This is Tonia's story, the tale of a transsexual who's fought too hard on the front lines and is facing the ultimate betrayal.
It's told with Rodrigues's usual mixture of studied formalism and wild audacity. The setting is Lisbon in the eighties, where, plying her trade as the star attraction at a local club, Tonia (Fernando Santos) is no longer a man, yet not quite a woman. Dresses, heels, a blond wig and breast implants all contribute to the camouflage, but residual Catholic guilt has prevented her from taking the final medical step to a full sex change. At the club, younger and more convincing queens are threatening to eclipse her. At home, she adores her little dog and mothers her junkie boyfriend Rosario (Alexander David). Once she was a father, too, but her son is estranged. He's the soldier in that opening frame, armed and decidedly dangerous.
Yes, melodrama abounds, and the debt to Rainer Werner Fassbinder is obvious. Yet, despite the outré material, Rodrigues resists the expected theatrics. For instance, we never see Tonia on stage in all her lip-synching glory. Instead, it's her backstage existence that occupies us - bickering with her rival, gossiping to a friend, tending with infinite patience to the always vulnerable Rosario, and, in her hoarse voice, singing laments drenched in saudade, in a sorrow both wise and weary.
But the genre-busting doesn't stop here. Rodrigues refuses to deal exclusively in behind-the-scenes, beneath-the-wig realism. Certainly, grim attention is paid to the infection oozing from Tonia's silicone implants - the body registering its betrayal. However, the camera also lingers in slow and stylized shots, generating strange images (a chicken bone in a fish-filled aquarium) that are elusive in meaning yet undeniable in visual impact. The effect is a sort of magic realism, but a black magic that, like the whole theme of sexual ambiguity, is meant to disorient and unsettle.
And it does, at best. At worst, the drag-queen travails just seem to drag on, and those held shots do nothing but inflate an already excessive running time. But then Rodrigues will catch our eye once more, and ho-hum will turn haunting again. The most exquisite example is also the most bizarre.
Tonia and Rosario leave their urban demimonde for the pastoral delights of the country. There, they happen upon the house of a transsexual couple living in relative seclusion from the prying world. At night, under a full moon, they all head into the woods, where Rodrigues poses them in a roseate tableau, yet with paradise undercut by a soundtrack playing the dolorous strains of Baby Dee's Calvary. Like a twisted take on A Midsummer Night's Dream, it's a breathtaking sequence, simultaneously mesmerizing and menacing.
The title leaves no doubt about the ending but, thanks to Santos's unflinching performance and Rodrigues's continued audaciousness, the climax still takes us aback. Ultimately, what's shocking is not that the war is over but that the war paint is off - life stripped of its camouflage looks deadly indeed.
To Die Like a Man
- Directed by Joao Pedro Rodrigues
- Written by Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Rui Catalao
- Starring Fernando Santos and Alexander David
- Classification: NA