Judge Joel Pearce has stricken many snakes, but not once has it brought on a sex change.
"How terrible it is to have wisdom when it does not benefit those who have it."—Tiresias, Sophocles the King
Contemporary culture has become so caught up in science and technology that we often lose sight of the power and simplicity of myth. We no longer see a reason to pass on stories of the gods, of heroes who accomplish the impossible. For older cultures, these stories had a dozen purposes. They taught how the world was created, where we stand in relation to the gods, as well as how to live with each other and nature. We have lost our reliance on parables and oral culture, but we still long for these stories, in some form or another. Bertrand Bonello (The Pornographer) has created Tiresia, a retelling of a classic Greek tale, updated for a contemporary audience.
Facts of the Case
There are several key concepts that remain the same in the many tellings of the ancient Greek myth of Tiresias. He was both male and female, which gave him a mystical insight into human behavior and relations. He was blinded as punishment, but given the ability to speak to birds, which allowed him to see the future.
In Tiresia, Bonello reincarnates the blind Greek prophet as a transsexual Brazilian whore living illegally in France. Unlike most of her peers, Tiresia (Clara Choveaux, The Pornographer) is slender and beautiful, her penis the only indication that she was once a man. Obsessed by her beauty and paradox, a brooding man kidnaps her, holding her in a barren room for months. He doesn't wish to sleep with her, but refuses to let her leave. The man (Laurent Lucas, Calvaire) becomes agitated when, denied her hormone treatments, Tiresia starts transforming back into a man. He blinds Tiresia and leaves him for dead, but fate has a strange way of turning things on their heads.
Contemporary France is astoundingly different than ancient Greece. This creates challenges for Bonello, who can't decide how closely he should stick to the original myth. When the gods are involved in such matters, there's no reason to explain their motivations and actions. The gods are fickle and powerful, and humanity is completely at their mercy. But when a cruel man takes the place of the gods, we need to understand why he would do such a terrible thing. For all of the ideas tossed around, Tiresia often lacks such explanations. Viewers need to bring their own ideas to the film, and be prepared to fill quite a few gaps.
In the original Greek legend, it's not so strange that Tiresius would gain the ability to see the future. The Greeks had a number of ways to divine the future, from animal sacrifices to the creative use of herbs. French Catholicism is a long way from the Greek Pantheon, which causes some other narrative problems. When Tiresia gains the ability to see the future, the people around him consider it a miracle. The whole third act doesn't come together the way it should, simply because the story doesn't fit in the world in which it's been placed. Again, some more explanation would have helped, but there is none to be found. It doesn't help that the male actor who plays Tiresia in the second half (Thiago Teles) looks absolutely nothing like the woman who plays her in the first half.
That's not to say that Tiresia doesn't explore some interesting concepts. Instead of mystical, Tiresia's transformation from man to woman is technological. Internally, Tiresia has always considered herself a woman, and thanks to current technology, it's a choice that she is able to make. The man who kidnaps her is fascinated because he finds her artificial beauty to be more attractive than that which can be found in the natural world. He finds the same thing with roses, which have been modified by humans for centuries. Isn't the beauty of the natural world supposed to be the ideal? Have we actually come to a point now that we prefer the artifice that we have created to the things that we are trying to imitate? Are we so incredible that we can create copies that actually improve on the original? If so, we will need to throw out 3000 years of religion and philosophy.
Now, I don't necessarily mind doing some work while I'm watching a film. I realize that's a major part of watching art films from Europe. Unfortunately, Tiresia almost becomes a parody of the genre at times. This is a thriller about the kidnap of a transsexual prostitute. With that topic, I am prepared to be challenged, shocked, offended, disturbed, perhaps even disgusted by the things that happen. What I don't expect is to be bored after a few minutes. Every sequence and shot in Tiresia lasts an eternity, as though Bonello was far more interested in framing his shots than making a movie. Every now and then, I was jolted out of boredom by inappropriately bombastic classical music and horrible violence. There's so much potential for this film, both in the ideas it explores and the high quality of the performances. I'm sure snobby cineastes will accuse me of missing some sort of point here, but that doesn't change how bored I was in the middle of this colossal juggernaut of a narrative.
Koch Lorber has done a fine job with this DVD, presenting it in its original 1.85:1 anamorphic ratio. It has no PAL-NTSC transfer issues, which have always plagued smaller studios. The colors are accurate. There's an unusual level of shadow detail for a foreign film, making this an overall impressive video transfer. The stereo sound transfer is flat and dull in comparison, but the dialogue is always clear and the music comes out as strong as it was intended to. The disc has a few extras, including an interview with Bonello. It's a good interview, as he explores more clearly the ideas that are present in the film. If only the film itself had been so forthright. There are also cast interviews, which are interesting thanks to a playful interchange between the two Tiresia actors.
I wish I could recommend Tiresia to a wide audience. It has fascinating ideas, and I am intrigued by the possibility of updating Greek mythology. It's just so ambiguous and dull that I can't recommend it, though, except to true lovers of European art cinema. The rest of you will have to turn elsewhere for gender bending thrills.
Tiresius was said to have lived at least eight generations. This version will not be so lucky.
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