To be he or not to be he? That is the question facing a young hermaphrodite in the beguiling Argentinian drama XXY (released on 9 May). It would be damning with faint praise to call this the best intersex film of the year - chances are it's the only one, unless there is a big surprise in store in the next James Bond outing.
The 15-year-old Alex (Inés Efrón), who lives on an island near Uruguay, has been raised as female by her overprotective father (Ricardo Darín) and anxious mother (Valeria Bertuccelli). But now she has quit the hormone pills that have maintained her appearance of femininity, and skulks around in her hoodie. (How curious to see the UK's national dress adopted as a statement of indeterminate gender.)
This coincides with the arrival of some family friends, one of whom is Ramiro (Germán Palacios), a plastic surgeon keen to stabilise Alex's gender definitively. The doctor is accompanied by his teenage son, Álvaro (Martín Piroyansky), who has not been briefed about Alex's physical idiosyncrasies. Álvaro raises an eyebrow when he notices his father's choice of holiday reading (Origins of Gender, rather than the latest Wilbur Smith) but nothing prepares him for the tomboy who bowls up after he arrives and accuses him of having recently masturbated.
Following that ice-breaker, Alex proposes sex. When they do eventually get to roll in the hay, Álvaro is in for a shock. But then, so are we: the lad turns out to rather enjoy himself, leaving Alex to deal with his amorous attentions when she was fully expecting some kind of fracas or fallout instead. The youngsters - who also include Vando (Luciano Nóbile), Alex's best friend until she gave him a black eye, and Roberta (Ailín Salas), to whom she flees in times of trouble - are constantly behaving in this spontaneous, sparky way, while the adults brood and lament.
This invariably means that the parents feel less clearly defined, although Palacios, as Ramiro, gets one jaw-dropping scene in which he is devastatingly frank about his opinion of his son. And Darín is often magical as Alex's father, a marine biologist who, for all his concerns, regards his daughter as part of nature's miraculous fabric. The camera corroborates this view, taking care to situate her among the scuttling crabs, loafing turtles and brooch-like beetles on this sun-dappled island.
XXY is level-headed enough to treat its protagonist's condition like a symptom of adolescent confusion, but it doesn't sidestep the issue of our natural curiosity. One nagging question for the audience, as the writer-director Lucía Puenzo understands, is how much of Alex we will get to see. Cinema is by nature a voyeuristic medium, but a film about physical peculiarity places an unusually high premium on the act of looking. A director can either choose to confront us starkly with that peculiarity from the off, as Peter Bogdanovich did in Mask, or play peekaboo games which cast doubt on our right to look, like Alejandro Amenábar's Open Your Eyes or David Lynch's The Elephant Man.
I won't say whether Puenzo serves up the full Crying Game, as even a film this conscientious relies partly on that titillating suspense. But there's a crafty moment early on when the camera follows Ramiro's gaze, part-professional and part-prurient, on to Alex's crotch; the surgeon looks like he's trying to guess the weight of the fruit cake at a village fete, and we may realise, too late, that we are guilty of the same.
The film's delicate dramatic balance is threatened only by the appearance near the end of a trio of bullies who humiliate Alex. It's as though Puenzo was unsure, even this late in the day, whether we would experience properly the tensions in Alex's life, and so inserted a new impediment to her happiness. In narrative terms, this element is a graft that doesn't take. XXY could have been longer (XXL?) or more explicit (XXX-Y?), but no surgery is required to render it any more touching, defiant or true.
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