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A tenderhearted if rather formulaic drama of family reunion, Lola Pater marks a slight milestone in French cinema, telling the story of a trans woman reconciling with her long-lost son in ways that are more fitting for le grand public than the art house.
Written and directed by Nadir Moknech (Goodbye Morocco, Delice Paloma), the film is a thoughtful, albeit predictable, look at transgender issues from the viewpoint of an aging mother and former father (“pater” means “father” in Latin) that pushes a few boundaries and a few familiar buttons before heading to its expected conclusion. After premiering at the Piazza Grande in Locarno, Lola is receiving a mid-sized release in France and should find play with distributors in Europe and elsewhere.
Although trans characters have featured in French movies before — notably in Sebastien Lifshitz’s 2003 film Wild Side, as well as Quebecois director Xavier Dolan’s 2012 Cannes prizewinner Laurence Anyways — they have never been portrayed in this kind of crowd-pleasing narrative. Not that Lola Pater is close to a Hollywood movie: Its plot can feel both thin and stretched out, concentrating more on character traits than on major twists (except for the big reveal at the opening), and moving along at a slow if sensitive pace that fans of modern French cinema will recognize.
But the fact that legendary actress Fanny Ardant — known for her work with auteurs Francois Truffaut and Alain Resnais, as well as for roles in a number of popular comedies — has been cast as the lead definitely gives the movie a more commercial bent than like-minded Gallic fare. (One could question director Moknech’s decision to not use a real trans person to play Lola, although in his defense there are probably zero trans stars in France who could get such a movie financed. Perhaps more problematic is the choice to use the very French-looking and sounding Ardant to play a character who, before her transformation, was an Algerian man named Farid Chekib.)
Luckily, Ardant is the kind of performer who can captivate by simply walking into a room, and here she’s given ample space to strut her stuff, revealing Lola’s more flamboyant side as she slinks around Paris with heavy makeup and plenty of scarves. The actress is well-matched by Tewfik Jallab (first discovered alongside Jamel Debbouze in the 2013 dramedy Homeland), who plays Lola’s son Zino, a stoical piano tuner who’s blindsided by the death of his mother at the film’s start, and then later on by the discovery that his missing father is alive and well but has become a woman.
Moknech handles the push-and-pull between Lola and Zino in sensitive enough ways, making us empathize with both characters: the former because she truly loves her son and wants him back in her life; the latter because he feels slighted and ashamed by an absentee dad who’s now a mom. You can understand why they have a hard time getting along, although Zino’s inability to accept his trans parent for most of the movie becomes hard to believe — the guy is a Paris-based musician who certainly would have crossed paths with the LGBTQ community before — while Lola tends to overdo it in the drama-queen department, particularly in a sequence where she drunkenly belly dances in a bar and then lies down after in the street to kill herself.
Despite a dedicated and spirited turn from Ardant, this is not exactly a subtle portrayal of Lola’s psyche, which is why the film seems more catered to broad tastes — especially with a feel-good ending that doesn’t come across as merited. (It also feels very truncated, as if a few scenes were cut in order to get there.) Too bad Moknech didn’t try to take things further, rather than wrapping them up in a package for the whole audience to enjoy. It’s a bit of a letdown, especially for a film that deserves credit for trying to address trans questions that have rarely, if ever, been posed in mainstream French movies until now. The problem is that it gives us all-too-easy answers.
Production companies: Blue Monday Productions, Versus Production
Cast: Fanny Ardant, Tewfik Jallab, Nadia Kaci, Veronique Dumont, Bruno Sanches
Director-screenwriter: Nadir Mokneche
Producers: Bertrand Gore, Nathalie Mesuret
Director of photography: Jeanne Lapoirie
Production designer: Johann George
Costume designer: Paule Mangenot
Editor: Chantal Hymans
Composer: Pierre Bastaroli
Casting director: Richard Rousseau
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Sales: Doc & Film International
In French, Arabic
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