After enjoying her Granta 113 story, I decided to track down Lucía Puenzo’s film XXY (2007), an adaptation of a short story by Sergio Bizzio. Puenzo makes good on many of the promises of her short story: in particular she is fantastic at weaving a story around highly charged issues of gender and sexuality, playing off of some film genre stereotypes but avoiding the pitfalls they might usually entail. The story focuses on an intersex teenager (Alex) and her parents and a visiting family with a son (Alvaro) of the same age.* The film is playing with material that has real potential to dive headlong into a Lifetime movie combination of voyeurism and pity, but Puenzo seizes the opportunity to play with some of the melodramatic tropes to which she alludes. The story opens through the perspective of the son of the visiting family, which has been invited by Alex’s mother, Suli, because Alvaro’s father, Ramiro, is a plastic surgeon and past friend with whom she’s been discussing the possibility of surgery to “decide” Alex’s gender (as female).
In a more conventional melodrama, this would be an opportunity to show the evils of Ramiro, while Alvaro redeems himself (and through him, the audience) by confronting Alex’s “true nature” and learning to love her—all the while leaving Alex as mostly a scientific specimen discovered on film by the camera’s increasingly prying eye. And to a certain extent this happens: Ramiro is a bully that Alvaro is going to have to continue living with, and there is some sympathy for Alvaro’s situation in the end. But really what is interesting is how the film narratively sidelines Ramiro as the villain: yeah, he’s a bad guy, but the threat he poses is easy to see and ultimately not very interesting here. Instead, the film offers us more and more of the perspective of Alex, Kraken (Alex’s father), and (to a lesser extent) Suli. In the process, the film develops some distance from Alvaro, turns the critique against him in addition to his father, and, as a result, makes the audience squirm. Instead of building on the suspense of what gender Alex “really is” or visualizing her intersex condition, Puenzo asks us why we think about the issue through that lens. The shift also opens up a perspective on the issues within Alex’s family that allows for a more interesting view of intersex lives than the abuse from the outside world and the fight to overcome it.
The film isn’t perfect: excepting the way she plays very well with point of view, Puenzo could work most on the visual in film. Not that the film isn’t beautiful, but there are some images that come across to me at least as a little heavy handed (the turtles, particularly early in the film, although later they work more seamlessly). I also felt Ramiro needed to demonstrate his “bullying” of Alvaro a little more clearly earlier in the film, but maybe its abrupt, seemingly random entrance into the film (in a scene over dinner) is part of the point. Still, these issues don’t come anywhere near to outweighing the strengths, and XXY has confirmed my interest in Puenzo’s writing enough that I’ve order a copy of her novel The Fish Child.
*I use the feminine pronoun in this post because the character has been raised to appear as a daughter, but one nice thing about the film is that it refuses the idea she is “truly” any one gender, something that I noticed was punctuated in the film by that fact that Alex’s father, Kraken, alternately refers to her as “mi hija” and “mi hijo” at certain points.