Not a Transition: On Andrea Pallaoro’s “Monica”

December 9, 2022   •   By Eva Pensis

EIGHT YEARS AGO, TIME magazine launched its “Transgender Tipping Point” issue featuring Laverne Cox, one of Orange Is the New Black’s breakout stars. Signaling a generation of “out” trans and gender-nonconforming actors, the tipping point came with a host of dilemmas around the representation of trans life — dilemmas that we encounter in different ways across seemingly unrelated spheres of public life in the United States. Less than a decade later, a record number of antitrans bills are making their way through state legislatures, trying to topple the tipping point in the opposite direction. The current wave of antitrans legislation has been laser-focused on impeding the process of gender transition, seeking to ban hormone replacement therapy, criminalize providers who care for trans children, and reassert state control over children’s bodily autonomy, especially when they are trans. In terms of trans representation in entertainment, the public imagination of trans life has relatedly not strayed far from the physical process of gender transition and its assumed social dramas. Not only does this constraint trap trans people, and the multitude of stories we might begin to share, within oversimplified performances of physical transition (the banal before and after); it also identifies the process of gender transition as a metric of trans meaning, similar to how the current legislative onslaught against gender-affirming care seeks to render trans bodily autonomy as meaningless. Both approach trans life in ways that rely on the “act” of transition (as if one such act exists) to make trans characters and trans narratives legible as trans. Given that the idea of casting a trans actor for a presumably cis role is still so foreign within Hollywood’s casting practices, we might ask two pressing questions of this regime of visibility: if narrative draws close to gender transition in order to “be” a trans narrative, whom, exactly, is that narrative “being trans” for? And, importantly, what stories do we miss when trans narratives are only valued to the degree that they stick to the popular tropes of gender transition?

Monica, the most recent film from director Andrea Pallaoro, challenges us to consider trans representation beyond the standard transition narrative. In an interview for the Viennale Podcast, Pallaoro stressed that the film is not about one character being transgender, acknowledging his belief that it’s “important to tell stories about transgender people that don’t focus on the transitioning part.” In a media landscape where the very act of gender transition is routinely scrutinized and debated in graphic detail, Monica takes us in a different direction, exploring a story of a mother and her child who each grapple with distinct strands of alienation: the daughter’s, set into motion by her family’s abandonment when she came forward as trans; and the mother’s, a result of her early onset dementia. Taken together, the film is softly animated by the question of whether and how these two forms of alienation can give way to recognition and, potentially, forge some sort of relationship out of a vexed history of estrangement between mother and daughter.

The film chronicles Monica (Trace Lysette) as she returns to her childhood home in Ohio to care for Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson), her mother suffering from dementia. Leaving her life in Los Angeles behind, Monica’s pilgrimage homeward is the first time, we learn, that she has reunited with her blood family since she was kicked out of her family’s household as a teenager, joining her sister-in-law Laura (Emily Browning), brother Paul (Joshua Close), and Eugenia’s caretaker Leticia (Adriana Barraza) to care for Eugenia. Rather than striving to articulate everything that’s been left unsaid, the film shares its story obliquely, full of clipped phrases and muted intensities that spill out into dialogue and tiptoe around that which would be too much to bear if approached head-on. When her sister-in-law asks Monica how she wants to be introduced to her ailing mother, she seems to search for the words only to come up empty, preferring to be introduced simply as Monica. In this way, the film asks us to witness the contours of the family’s fractures, offering an emotionally dense and conflicted portrait of a home that is no longer a home: a meditation on the inheritance of intimate estrangement, loss, and the failure of family to live up to its name.

Keeping with Pallaoro’s other films, Monica has an almost campy, arthouse-film quality to it, something about the pacing, mood, method, and style that takes the power of understatement tacitly. It prompts the viewer, frustratingly at times, to read between the lines with no certain closure, a skill that I would suggest many trans folks navigate in their daily lives. It’s a style of filmmaking that moves from the awareness that language itself can also be deceiving. One of the more persistent criticisms of the film from mainstream reviewers entails its lack of description, preferring open cadences and cinematic tableaus as opposed to packed dialogue and narrative explication. Admittedly, when I first watched the film, I also remember my own confusion over Monica’s initial inability to explain herself to her relatives, her preference for observation and minimal engagement in place of profuse articulation. Still, when I asked myself what I wanted her to say, what she could possibly say that might encapsulate decades of estrangement, it dawned on me that, for Monica, her refusal to explain herself was perhaps the best way — the only way — that she might maintain her own well-being without letting the past, and all its traumatization, consume and define her.

Monica is largely composed of tableaus that make up its cinematic language, opting for the tight aspect ratio of 1.2:1 to keep the camera lens closely following Monica in a style Pallaoro described in an interview as the “juxtaposition of the aesthetics of intimacy and alienation.” The tableaus have a lingering effect, providing a multitude of frames in the place of narrative description or explicit action. For instance, the film opens with a mundane scene of harassment between Monica and an automotive detailer, only this time the camera lens focuses solely on Monica’s subtle agitation, a mixture of calm and distress familiar to those of us who know how swiftly the sexualized attention of men can modulate into aggression and abuse. Monica does not flinch to the diegetic onslaught of comments, using politeness to brush off the man’s persistent interest in a manner similar to the way she brushes the hair from her face: she’s annoyed but she’s used to it.

While the majority of the film plays out in an emotionally tense and psychologically conflicted register, when it finds moments of release and joy, the performances shine. In Monica and Eugenia’s stirring scene of recognition, Monica kneels down to assist Eugenia in the bathtub as Eugenia takes Monica’s face in her hands. Eugenia silently smiles, examining Monica’s face much like the way a mother studies the face of her newborn. Monica’s eyes quickly dart away as the two navigate a scene of mutual embrace, notable for its gentle connection and elegant aplomb for a scene that could easily have veered into trite gestures of acceptance or integration.

I was most struck by another scene, where we encounter Monica all by herself in her childhood bedroom as she gets ready to go out on a date. Blasting O-Zone and W&W’s 2003 Eurodance smash hit “Dragostea Din Tei,” Monica dances around her childhood room, performing all her night-out rituals, pumping herself up for what’s to come. Monica’s face radiates joy — lip-syncing as she scrunches mousse into her hair, catwalking while she spritzes perfume on her wrists and pats them to her neck — a portrait of a girl feeling her jush in the childhood home where she wasn’t in fact allowed to grow up as a girl, where her femininity had been the reason her family abandoned her. The scene brims with meaning without trying to put it into words. Monica is one of the few feature films where a trans woman’s joy is the subject of a scene, full stop. It’s also one of those moments that you don’t necessarily expect from Monica, who for the majority of the film relies on withholding to make do with circumstance, a gem from Lysette and Pallaoro’s collaboration.

Although the close-up visual style and constant focus on Monica might be viewed by some as a visual corollary to her own interiority, Lysette’s acting throughout accomplishes something more vexing and captivating. Through her artful use of withholding, Lysette negotiates her own relationship with the camera as she depicts Monica, placing the viewer in constant proximity to Monica’s subjectivity without being granted total access, keeping Monica opaque, even when subjected to a cinematography that monitors her every movement. Take, for example, a scene, just before the midpoint of the film, where Monica finds some heirloom jewelry (a necklace and earrings), trinkets from a lineage of matriarchal femininity to which she would never gain entrance. Monica’s face lights up as she puts the jewelry on, taking in her image in the mirror with the jewelry before the film cuts to its next scene, where we encounter Monica performing as a webcam model, softly sweet-talking to her laptop camera as she flaunts her form, replete with the heirloom jewelry. Less than a minute later, we hear Eugenia, off-camera, upstairs, crying out in agony for her mother. Immediately, Monica begins toggling between all the roles she’s played, pausing for a brief moment while she catches herself, slams her laptop shut, throws a T-shirt over her brassiere, and runs upstairs to care for her mother. Before the scene ends, we see the two in embrace, Eugenia’s head on Monica’s shoulder — the earrings and necklace faintly glimmering in the bedroom’s dim light.

I find something compelling here about how Trace Lysette portrays this side of Monica. While sex work is one of transfemininity’s oldest stereotypes, Lysette renders an image of Monica as a sex-working trans woman who doesn’t substitute a profession for an identity. In other words, there’s something profoundly ordinary about Lysette’s portrayal of Monica’s hustle, ordinary in its awareness that sex work for many trans women is one of the most consistent ways to make ends meet in a world that simultaneously sexualizes their existence while stigmatizing and criminalizing their presence. Monica navigates sex work as one form of intimate labor she is called to perform, much like the intimate labor of caring for a mother who would not have her — ambivalently. In doing so, Monica reckons with her alienation not by overcoming it, but by finding a way to stay with it, to inhabit a space beside it in order to live. Lysette, in an interview with Screen Daily, shares that “[w]ithin the story is the message that it’s important to cherish whatever time you have left with people that are important to us, and to find ways of burying the hatchet and spending whatever time there is in the space of love, and not resentment and anger.” This is the striking concept behind the film: in relinquishing the gender transition narrative and its exhausting rhetoric, Monica tells the story of a trans woman in her struggle to hold on to her capacity to define herself in the face of unwanting, choosing forgiveness in order to protect her spirit from a space of love.

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Eva Pensis is a multidisciplinary artist and scholar whose work explores the contours and legacies of transfeminine life within popular culture, nightlife economies, and entertainment industries.