Dir: Bertrand Bonello. France-Canada. 2003. 118mins
After his initial outing in Critics' Week, where he was much applauded two years ago for his debut, Le Pornographe, Bertrand Bonello might have done better with his second picture had it not been kicked upstairs from its original Un Certain Regard position to a far more demanding slot in Competition. This attempt to update the myth of Tiresia, the most famous soothsayer in Ancient Greece, into a contemporary background does not seem to have much of a purpose beyond hitting the marks of the original story in its modern reading as accurately as possible.
Starting as a tale of transsexual obsession, to become at a certain point a religious metaphor and then a philosophical observation on the burden of seeing the future and having to relate it as it is, this is an art movie by definition, restricted to festivals, semiotic analyses, and little else.
Tiresia, for those who have forgotten their Greek mythology, is the blind seer who predicted the end of such various heroes of the old world as Oedipus and Narcissus, and went on prophesising after his death, when Ulysses came to visit him in Hell. His blindness was attributed to the goddess Athena, who covered his eyes with her hand after he saw her bathing; his transsexual identity has to do with his separating two copulating snakes - the first time killing the female to become himself a woman, the second time killing the male, thereby regaining his original identity.
It is not altogether clear what hides behind Bonello's decision to transplant the Tiresia myth to the present day, and what made him separate it into two distinct parts. In the first part, Terranova, a solitary collector who dedicates his time and attention to beautiful anomalies, to wit his fascinations with flower mutations, picks up a young Brazilian transsexual called Tiresia and takes him home, not for sex, but just to keep as an object. His prisoner is naturally unhappy with his status, and worse, without his regular hormonal treatment, his/her beauty soon withers and with it, the collector's fascination for him. Blinding him, to make sure that he will not be able to identify his tormentor, Terranova discards his victim's body in the woods. End of part one.
A young, innocent girl, Anna, discovers him there, takes him home, washes his wounds, nurses him back to life, at which time he starts predicting the future. Soon he is a local celebrity but the Church, once it hears of the unfair competition, feels measures have to be taken, mostly since Tiresia is extending his services for free.
The first part of the film starts with a prolonged journey into the dark recesses of the Bois de Boulogne transsexual meat market, as the hookers, in their most revealing costumes, line up to offer their services to passing car drivers. Then Bonello's film twists around into a hesitant version of William Wyler's The Collector, sadly lacking, however, both the credibility and the real substance of the original.
The second part, which takes place in a country house, offers a much calmer pace and steadier camerawork, and the mood is more pastoral and relaxed. All characters in both parts, however, are schematic at best, for the very simple reason that only their roles in the context of the overall allegory really counts. This makes the task of the actors so much more complicated as they are required to personify abstract ideas rather than real persons.
Using the same actor (Lucas) as the collector in the first part of the film and of the Catholic priest representing the Church in the second part seems to indicate beyond any doubt that they are one and the same character. If this is indeed the case, it is tempting to interpret it as a harsh indictment of the Church that first blinds its believers and then disposes of them when they refuse to conform to its dictates. On the other hand, Tiresia is played in the first part by a girl (Choveaux), but once he/she is rescued and restored to his/her health, a man (Teles) takes over the part, in order to conform with the ancient myth.
Slow-paced and often repetitive, Tiresia brandishes symbols such as the Pilgrims' March from Beethoven's 7th Symphony or a modern spiritual like Poor Little Jesus to underline the religious aspects of the film, with long-winded poetical monologues that are intended to offer a sort of key to the secret codes of the film, and with dialogues stating in earnest tones universal truths unveiled long ago. Bonello's work looks as if it could use plenty of lenience to be accepted, but lenience is one commodity the Cannes competition is very short of at all times.
Prod co: Haut et Court, micro_scope, Arte France Cinema
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Prods: Carole Scotta, Simon Arnal-Szlovak
Co-prod: Luc Dery
Scr: Bertrand Bonello, story by Luca Fazzi
Cinematography: Josee Dehaies
Ed: Fabrice Rouaud
Prod des: Romain Denis
Costumes: Dorothee Guiraud
Sound: Claude La Haye
Main cast: Laurent Lucas, Clara Choveaux, Celia Catalifo, Thiago Teles