On To Die Like a Man Sense of Real Womanhood and Movie Magic

04/06/2011 4:00 AM |

To Die Like a Man
João Pedro Rodrigues

A Real Woman is such a rare sighting in movies these days, that the moving, subtle and oh-so-female To Die Like a Man demonstrates that now (or since the fear of the female struck sometime after WWII, more accurately), it takes a man to play a real woman. Tonia (as played by Fernando Santos) is this woman, the stellar center around which all the other sweet and sadly noble drag queens, junkies, MTFs, hairstylists and scruffy little dogs orbit. To Die Like a Man has the old-fashioned melodramatic appeal of a Joan Crawford vehicle, with that same level of emotional gumption, but in casual dress (cheap sweats, slip-ons and bleeding lipstick stains), and given some breathing room. Tonia has Crawford’s brass-edged magnificence, but mellowed by a down-to-earth affability more like Joan Blondell, or like all your favorite Golden Girls rolled into one Divine.

The story is about Tonia’s love affair with a slightly feral and skinny hot junkie young enough to be her son. It’s also about the return of Tonia’s son to his father. And, most of all, it’s about Tonia reaching the end of the road playing a woman, as her best friend gets an operation to become a woman. Playing, becoming, fooling and choosing are all key themes, proving that the emotional shifts and fluid lines in trans culture can teach us more about gender and identity than any disembodied academic gender theory.

To Die Like a Man is also a lesson in cinematic economy, proof that the shorthand of enchanted naturalism—of well-placed shadows, dappled lights in the woods, and a sprinkling of scenes of unexplained magic—practiced by directors like Jacques Tourneur or William Dieterle, usually under both budgetary and time constraints, produces the purest kind of cinema. All you need to make a movie is a spotlight shined through leaves, some sequins and lots of make-up. All you need to make a great sex scene, the movie further illustrates, is an exploratory flashlight and an innate sense of knowing the perfect moment to turn the light off — that plus a well-lit ass.

This 2009 film, one of the best of the past few years, has a spotty release history in common with an echoing title, Jean-Charles Fitoussi’s I Did Not Die from 2008 (and upcoming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center). Both are adroitly simple films, grounded in classic film grammar that’s been stretched out and slowed down so that it plays as something radically new, proving that the most challenging discipline in filmmaking is to do less rather than more.Whether through intellectual enterprise in the Fitoussi or melodramatic pain and squalor in To Die Like a Man, it seems that these films also suggest, by title and experience, that a little death in a good film is the anguish, suffering and strain (not too much, just enough) of its experience that is rewarded with release, and then a sense of leaving the theater renewed, appreciative of every small detail of life. To Die Like a Man is a delicately handled, vulgar and down-beat ride that is surprisingly life-affirming.

Opens April 8