The Law of Desire

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First conceived by her husband Sergio Bizzio as a short story titled Cinismo, Lucía Puenzo’s first feature film tells the dramatic story of Alex, a hermaphrodite facing the challenges of her medical condition and the prejudices of a small Argentinean town, all in the midst of the crisis of being a 15-year old teenager. So far, XXY has won fifteen international prizes including Cannes, Athens, Bangkok, Cartagena, Edinburgh and the Goya.

Thirtyone year-old Puenzo, daughter of famed Argentinean filmmaker Luis Puenzo, has published several novels such as El Niño Pez (Beatriz Viterbo, Tusquets, 2004), 9 minutos (Beatriz  Viterbo, Tusquets, 2005) and La Maldición de Jacinta Pichimahuida (Interzona, 2007). Lately, she collaborated with her father writing the screenplays for his film La Puta y la Ballena (2004) and Rodrigo Fürth’s A Través de tus Ojos (2006).

I had the opportunity to meet Lucía through the MoMA Press Office, which first debuted the film in New York at its annual New Directors/New Films, presented by Lincoln Center Film Society, and through Film Movement, one of the few U.S. distributors devoted to independent Latin American films like Mexico’s El Violín or the Peruvian Madeinusa.  Lucía had just arrived from Buenos Aires that morning, and straight from JFK to the Film Movement headquarters in Manhattan to do press, with no time to sleep or eat. Nevertheless, she was spotless, excited about her film in spite of having finished a previous interview, and extremely kind.

RE: Beyond the genetic codes, the film title appears on screen as an XXX, and then the last X has a mutilated leg. What does the title represent for you?

Lucía Puenzo: Well, one of the ideas was exactly what you just said. Having those three “X”, and having one of them being mutilated had a lot to do with the idea and name that is given to these surgeries: normalization. The ideology behind the surgeries lies in that word; if we are all “X” some have to be mutilated. And, of course, the idea of women and men. There was an internal conflict to decide if I had to use that title or not because the title doesn’t respond exactly to the diagnosis of Alex (Inés Efrón), and it was part of my own conflicts: Having an extreme medical realism or making a fiction out of the subject, even with a lot of investigation and many months of research. The script was so dense, filled with medical information that it had almost become a documentary. At some point, I decided to make a respectful fiction and because it was respectful, I was able to use a title that wasn’t exactly the diagnosis.

RE: Alex is so special, like the turtles we see in the beginning. It’s not only because of her sexuality, but also because she is a homeopath, a vegetarian and she even has a pet lizard. I wonder if Alex is the maximum expression of being different.

L.P.: We worked that idea a lot with the actress Inés Efrón when we started thinking of this little Alex growing up in a place that wasn’t her own city. She had been put there when she was very small, in a place that she didn’t know. She was very lonely growing up in this place, so she made her own world, her own toys from things she found in the beach. In a way, I thought this character had to be very peculiar, not because of her physical condition but because she was a very lonely child. I spoke with a lot of parents and doctors about growing up with this secret. Many parents, whether the children had been operated or not, tell them to be careful about speaking about this with others, and this makes a lonely child. That loneliness creates a very fearful character, or a very strong character such as Alex.

RE: Kraken (Alex’s dad, played by Ricardo Darín) talks about the day Alex was born. He remember saying: “She’s perfect”. What is perfection in a society like Argentina or many other modern ones?

L.P.: What I like about a father saying that is that anybody can find anything perfect. It’s a very strong word, like a maximum. Perfection can be found anywhere, what a father sees, what a lover sees, if it’s perfect, that’s all it counts. I was playing with such a strong word on purpose, almost to question what is perfection, because in this society everything seems to be divided in a binary. When a third part comes into the question, conflict arises and the problem now is what do we do with three? So, the meaning of the word is related to that: I can see perfection in another place.

RE: How can Alex survive in a macho Latin American society? I wonder if she should she move to Europe instead of Uruguay, or if she would have more fun with people that hide behind the “macho” icon?

L.P.: Actually, when I started writing the film I was quite surprised with how open- minded Argentina is about these issues today, even more than in some European countries. There have been a lot of step forwards, even legally. Not only we have now gay civil unions and adoptions between gay are also legal, but also today the inter-sex organizations are for any person no matter what sex they choose, and you can even change your name under the new sex. That was a big surprise, and also how the film has been received. I also had my prejudice in a macho society like Argentina. I met some inter-sex activists after the film, and not before, which was good for me, and they agreed. It would have been more political, and it wouldn’t have been good for the sake of the story. Actually, something I realized when the film was done is that this big fight about inter-sexuality begins when the film ends: they decide they will defend this body as it is, and the fight begins there.

RE: It is still very difficult to find a fair representation of gays in mainstream media like television or films. Did this bring you even more obstacles, or did this unusual and untreated theme present you with a window of opportunity?

L.P.: What happened with XXY is that gay communities also adopted the film. They recognized themselves in many ways. The other main character, Alvaro (Martin Piroyansky) is a young virgin discovering his homosexuality but he is so terrified by his father that he can’t even talk about it. When he connects with desire and what he wants after desiring Alex and not caring what she is, he is stronger. That character made a great connection with gay communities, also unexpectedly, because it wasn’t something I looked for. The polemic that arises in the film is then what is the real subject of the film. One day an inter-sexual friend told me, and I agree, that the most interesting part in the film is not the freedom of choice or inter-sexuality in itself, but the place that desire has in the story. The film is really about desire, and if you connect with desire you are saved. Any person that connects with what brings them pleasure and makes them alive will be fine.

RE: Desire plays a constant fight with image, and we usually try to balance what we really want and what people will think about it. Why is it so difficult to choose desire instead of image?

L.P.: In a way, that is embodied by the family that comes from Buenos Aires. They are a very adapted family, father and mother are very beautiful, and they seem to be the normal ones, and actually they are the real dysfunctional family en la intimidad. The other family, the “freaks” with no place in the world, they really care about each other. Many times people are afraid of not belonging. You need to be very brave to not care about what society rules. It’s easy to say it, but when you meet people that every day of their lives they are fighting to belong, that’s courageous. They do it every single day, and you should take your hat off.

RE: Literature and cinema have been borrowing elements from each other for many years, but they are still different worlds in so many ways. Being a novelist, what advantages or disadvantages did you face when you had to adapt Cinismo to the screen?

L.P.: Everything, everywhere, all of them! (laughs). It was very hard. Sergio Bizzio is my husband, so that was a new difficulty. But the good thing is that he told me the very first day: “You have to absolutely betray my story and make it yours. If you make an adaptation that is faithful to me it won’t be good.” I was very comfortable in the area of literature because I always wrote novels and even screenplays for others, but then when I started to imagine that the story would be directed by me it was very hard. I knew about words but not about film directing. It was a lot of learning, like walking on eggs (laughs). The big surprise was that once you have the script and think about how to shoot it, you must then run a team. That’s a big challenge and a key difference between literature and cinema: solitude vs. teamwork. A big percentage of a director’s work is to have a happy and passionate crew. That was a huge learning experience.

RE: In another interview you mentioned the influence of John Cassavetes. His last biography is a recent and amazing book by Marshall Fine called “Accidental Genius”. I wonder if you, being you a novelist first, if you’re also a filmmaker by accident?

L.P.: Maybe! (laughs) Many times, when my husband and I are writing novels we say that we can be everything: the actor, the director, the editor. You can create a Hollywood super production on paper and nobody will tell you to make something smaller. You have a lot of freedom and you’re able to be on your own and do whatever you want. Especially in art cinema that you don’t have a big budget, you’re always fighting and it creates anxiety. You want to tell a story but you know you have difficulties in every way. I think I became a filmmaker because I couldn’t help it. (laughs). One day I was with my husband and I asked him if he would give me his story to write a script, and I started writing without thinking I would direct it; probably a friend would do it. But then the support from Cinef’ondation, the Residence at Cannes Film Festival made the whole thing to take another turn. After that some co-producers came in, and it became a more serious film. I had planned to shoot it with a few friends in Uruguay with a camera I had at home. So, yes, it was kind of by accident. Then I liked it and now I’m gonna make another one. (laughs)

RE: Can you please tell me about your experience in the Residence at Cannes, and why do you think those European film funds support so many Latin American films?

L.P.: Cinefondation changed a lot of thinks. For the last twelve years I’ve been working as a writer for other people, so in my everyday life writing my stories was at the beginning of the day or at the end of the day. During the rest of the day I had to write for living, so many times it was tiring to write my own stuff. The Residence at Cannes was the first time in my life that I could write for myself during the whole day, and explore something that I wanted to do for me – I wrote a novel and XXY. It’s strange but when you are earning your money to live, you don’t have the time for yourself – let’s say I need five months for my project. Then after the support from Cinefondation, other major co-producers like Fond Sud came to the project and XXY was turned around. It wouldn’t have been the same film without that support. The same happens with the support of other film funds like the Huber Bals from Rotterdam Film Festival: they change the destiny of a film. We asked the people at Cinefondation when we started to meet them and being close to them “please tell us a real reason why you’re doing this” (laughs). It’s not only about giving; they should be taking something back… They are looking for directors that are interested in them too: they create faithfulness. Cannes took my film to one of the sections, then I won a prize, and I will never forget everything that happened with the film there. If I must choose where I want to submit my new film, it will be Cannes. I will be forever grateful.

RE: Argentineans will always remember Norma Aleandro saying “…and the winner is” in 1986 [when Luis Puenzo’s La Historia Oficial won an Oscar for Best Foreign Picture – first and only time in Argentinean cinema history]. You were two steps away from repeating your father’s story as the official Argentinean selection for the Oscars this past year. How do you feel representing your country  in so many other film festivals in the world?

L.P.: It was amazing what happened in all the international film festivals. The first time that I watched XXY with an audience was in Cannes. I was there with Inés Efrón – her first time out of Argentina, and we were like in Mars (laughs). We didn’t understand what was going on. In a lot of festivals it was interesting to see the different reactions from audiences, i.e. in Bangkok or Japan. In the case of the Oscar, I have to confess I was happy nothing happened (laughs). The best thing that could happen to me as a first time director, who wants to keep on shooting the second, and the third film peacefully, living in Argentina was this: making the first one and being ready to shoot the second one (laughs), nothing else. I remember Volker Schlöndorff, who is for me a hero, saying about his first film The Tin Drum (1979), that it was his best dream and worst nightmare, because he won so many prizes. He continued making films, but people used to ask him “when you will make another Tin Drum?” Sometimes too much is bad.

RE: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to find new directors like you.