The subtitle to Eduardo Velázquez’s mumblecore short Guao is “Coming Back Catherine.” It’s a reference to Catherine Deneuve. After getting some dispiriting news, Luperón (played by the Dominican writer-director) decides he will become that iconic French actress. It strikes his sister as an odd choice, for sure, but in the heightened reality of Velázquez’s short, nothing is impossible. And so, by the time we get to the second half of the short (aptly titled “Lupe”) we see that our lead has begun living his life as a woman and has begun dating a devout religious man who thinks he’s God.
Are you keeping up? In the disorienting vision of Buenos Aires that Velázquez has crafted, it’s all too easy to lose your bearings. Thankfully, the Caribbean artist, who’s made a name for himself by exploring the transgressive queerness of his own identity, is guiding you towards asking fascinating questions about faith, sexuality, and gender. In fact, putting the short alongside Velázquez’s paintings (which use the “Lupe” figure in Frida Kahlo-esque compositions) and his performance pieces (which explore the seductive allure of the displayed male body), you can see an artist intent on breaking down boundaries and subverting any notions you may have about him, his work, and his personal outlook.
Ahead of the short film’s screening over at the New York Independent Film Festival, we talked with Velázquez about how his latest short expands his larger artistic project and why Deneuve was such a perfect starlet through which to tell this story.
Guao is clearly fleshing out issues in your art (especially your paintings), but I was curious as to what pushed you to craft it into this kind of filmic narrative. What was the origin of this film?
During my MFA years, I did a little bit of writing. I was working on a book of short stories under the hashtag #postcolonialbooty. Guao was one of the short stories I wrote for this project. The story narrated the journey of a boy who wanted to become Catherine Deneuve. I’ve always been fascinated with the construction of gender, and how this construction is deeply entwined with — and inherited from — your immediate community and long cultural history. Growing up in the Caribbean, it was clear to me that my identity and idea of gender was formed by an agglomeration of colonial history, as well as images of beauty, violence and the pursuit of whiteness. Therefore, my paintings and my performance artwork offer glimpses into the formation of a queer bodily self. I address these violent ruptures and constructions, along with queer érotique in my paintings, mimicking an unattainable fantasy — a fictional ideal of femininity imposed by European canons of beauty and the search for acceptance in a postcolonial macrocosm. All these elements are present in the Luperón/Lupe (the film’s protagonist) desire to become Catherine Deneuve.
Can we talk a bit about influences (cinematic as well as theoretical) that inform this short?
“I learned a lot about over the top dialogue, the aesthetics of low-budget and mumblecore films, and the morphology of character design.”
As a kid living in Santo Domingo prior to the internet boom during the early 2000s, I am a proud half analog-half digital human. I practically lived in the National Cinémathèque. There, I was able to watch so many films, going from screenings of the French New Wave and Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses to Dogma 95 and Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Happily, I rewatched many of these films over the years. I memorized the dialogues and composed scenes within my paintings influenced by the films. I learned a lot about over the top dialogue, the aesthetics of low-budget and mumblecore films, and the morphology of character design. I believe many of the characters in Guao are close relatives to many of the characters presented in the work of both Truffaut and Lars Von Trier. These similarities are a bit of a secret, but that is another conversation.
Why Catherine Deneuve? What do you think Luperón/Lupe sees in the French actress?
The reason that Catherine Deneuve came into play was because becoming Catherine serves Luperón/Lupe as a catalyst for the reconceptualization of her new reality as a transwoman, as well as the representation and reproduction of this reality. Catherine Deneuve is an icon in the history of cinema. She gained recognition for her portrayal of aloof, mysterious beauties for various directors, including Luis Buñuel and Roman Polanski.
I have a funny anecdote about Catherine. I spent a lot of time when I was growing up in DR with a close friend of mine named Jyssell. She lived with her grandmother. Her grandmother was into fashion, expensive creams (which she made herself!), and beauty. I have always been a natural ethnographer and observed this woman. I was so fascinated by the kitschy French glamour and Parisian simulacra in her house. One day, I found several piles of magazine cutouts with images of Catherine Deneuve in her basement. Each cut-out had Jysell’s grandmother signature/autograph on the top, as if she was Catherine herself.
“As a kid living in Santo Domingo prior to the internet boom during the early 2000s, I am a proud half analog-half digital human.”
At the beginning I found it fascinating (I loved Catherine Deneuve in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Belle et Jour), but the more cutouts I found with her signed name, the more I realized there was no way she could be Catherine Deneuve. How could she? She wasn’t French; she wasn’t blonde, or even white. Catherine represented an ideal and the grandmother’s obsession with ideal beauty — it was how she searched for acknowledgement and self-love in a postcolonial society. Luperón/Lupe character’s possesses a similar longing to belong, and there is no better icon of unobtainable beauty than Catherine Deneuve.
The film offers a rather radical reversal in terms of trans tolerance (the religious fanatics seem more open to Lupe than her own sister) and I was curious to hear more about what you make of the Federico character.
The radical comes with the idea that Luperón/Lupe is fully accepted by Federico. Federico sees her as what she wants to be — a natural woman. Federico is a religious extremist and believes he is God. He finds in Lupe a person who accepts him as he is as well. Similarly to Ursula in The Little Mermaid, Federico offers Lupe the possibility of rebirth as a biological woman based on the biblical miracle of Lazarus and the resurrection. This miracle happens in exchange of Lupe’s blind devotion and love. Things get more complicated in the short film and this ultimate transformation takes them both to unchartered territories. Trans tolerance in religious settings is almost inexistent — it’s a unicorn.
What do you hope audiences take away from seeing Lupe’s story?
Guao is definitely not a sad film. Beyond the obvious questions about trans tolerance and gender performativity, I hope people see Lupe’s struggle as a miracle of life, beauty and camp.
Guao is playing at the New York Independent Film Festival on Saturday, April 30 at 4:30 p.m.