'A Good Man': Film Review | TIFF 2020

A GOOD MAN
Willow Films
Well-intentioned but not always persuasive.

'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' star Noémie Merlant headlines Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar's drama about a trans man's pregnancy.

When his girlfriend can’t get pregnant, a trans man decides to carry the child in her stead in the French drama A Good Man. This is the latest feature from writer-director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar. She here reteams here with Portrait of a Lady on Fire breakout star Noemie Merlant, who first appeared on the radar of French cinema lovers in Mention-Schaar’s equally well-intentioned female jihadi drama Heaven Will Wait.

The choice to have Merlant, a cis woman, play a trans man will no doubt reignite the ongoing debate about trans casting that last really intensified around the time Neflix wanted to debut their Cannes darling Girl Stateside. But the director at least ensures a certain measure of authenticity by having co-written the film with Christian Sonderegger, a French filmmaker who chronicled the transition of his trans brother in the documentary Coby, which Mention-Schaar also produced. In their fictional creation, which does get a “based on real-life events” mention at the start, a small, cis supporting role is also played by trans actor Jonas Ben Ahmed (though the part turns out to be quite inconsequential).

After receiving a Cannes 2020 label, A Good Man had its physical premiere at the Deauville American Film Festival before making its international bow at Toronto, where it screened as part of the Industry Selects program.

Aude (mono-monikered singer and actress Soko), a former ballerina, and nurse Benjamin (Merlant) have been together for six years when their desire for a child reaches its peak. There are however, two problems: Aude can’t have children and the dark-haired Benjamin (who looks like the newly bearded Zac Efron in some shots) is about to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Given the subject of the film, it’s not a surprise that Benjamin finally decides to hold off on the operation and further hormonal treatments until he has carried and birthed their child.

The film’s most illuminating scene involves a conversation with Benjamin that sheds light on a fascinating paradox, as Benjamin suggests that Sarah — his name before his transition — could have never had a child because he was then not at all comfortable in his own skin. And now that he’s Benjamin, he is able to see his pregnancy through and bring a child into the world because he is finally being who he truly is. There are a few moments sprinkled throughout that further shed light on the issue without ever sounding didactic, including a lovely offhand conversation in a baby-clothes store that suggests that being a pregnant father partnered with a woman might have at least one advantage compared to some cis households.

Mention-Schaar and Sonderegger’s screenplay, however, isn’t particularly well balanced in terms of how they draw their male lead. Even though Benjamin claims he’s now comfortable in his own skin, they show that he still does not allow Aude into the bathroom with him, for example. (This could perhaps be related to the fact Ben hasn’t fully physically transitioned yet because of the pregnancy, but the film never once addresses the reasons behind this behavior.)

His mood swings also remain unexplained, leaving audiences wondering whether they are a medical issue — a hormonal imbalance caused by the pregnancy, perhaps? — or related to either Ben’s mental health or, simply, his character. The script doesn’t offer viewers, and especially those not well-versed in transgender health issues and/or pregnancies, enough to make sense of what he’s going through and why he does the things that he does. This creates a certain distance between the character and the audience. And there is only so much that Merlant can do to make an extremely complex yet underwritten character sympathetic or at least comprehensible.

Another issue is the question of perspective. There’s a telling scene past the halfway mark in which Aude complains that Ben and his issues “take up so much space” that she starts to feel invisible. She has not only given up her career as a ballet dancer in Aix, one of France’s main contemporary dance centers, to move to the scenic but also extremely quiet isle of Groix, off the coast of Brittany, to be with Benjamin; she’s also dealing with the fact that her partner is carrying the child she wanted to bring into the world but couldn’t. In short, she’s dealing with two shattered dreams at once. But instead of taking the opportunity to explore her side of the story or at least consider their complex dynamic as a couple, the movie almost instantly sidelines Aude, as if to punish her for complaining about the fact that she doesn’t feel seen.

And speaking of seeing: There’s a flashback early on that showcases the moment Aude first met her partner at a club in Aix, six years earlier. Since it doesn’t reveal anything about the characters that we don’t already know, why would a film that’s about the pregnancy of a man insist on showing him earlier, as female-presenting, at all? A Good Man might have made quite a statement had it refused to show him before he started his transition, especially since the director seems to want to stick to his point of view and one assumes this is not necessarily something he would want to be reminded of.

One last point in terms of the writing is the odd way in which several supporting players — a parent, a colleague, etc. — seem to show their lack of comprehension and/or their anger over what's happening only to then just disappear. They will later resurface as characters who have magically, though entirely off-screen, come to the conclusion that Ben is a man worth showing up for after all. It’s as if Mention-Schaar is interested in showing the outside world’s disapproval over the issue, but not in how that world might come to terms with it. And since it’s not entirely clear how Aude or even Benjamin come to terms with it except in the broadest of ways, the film finally feels oddly unengaging.

Though largely shot on location in widescreen, the film never becomes the land- and seascape porn à la Portrait of a Lady on Fire. This is mainly because cinematographer Myriam Vinocour frequently opts for shallow-focus shots that are intimate and at times even claustrophobic (which feels entirely appropriate). Other tech credits are adequate.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Industry Selects)
Production company: Willow Films
Cast: Noemie Merlant, Soko, Vincent Dedienne, Gabriel Almaer, Alysson Paradis, Anne Loiret, Genevieve Mnich, Jonas Ben Ahmed
Director: Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar
Screenplay: Christian Sonderegger, Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar
Producer: Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar
Executive producer: Pascal Ralite
Cinematography: Myriam Vinocour
Production design: Isabelle Quillard
Costume design: Isabelle Mathieu
Editing: Benoit Quinon
Sales: Pyramide International

In French
No rating, 108 minutes