Sunday, September 27, 2020
Isobel Sandoval | Lingua Franca
by Douglas Messerli
Isobel Sandoval (writer and director) Lingua Franca / 2019, general release 2020
This morning before I sat down to write it dawned on me that perhaps in some future time the film I had seen and admired yesterday, Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca, might be perceived simply as a heterosexual romance in which there are some very serious complications concerning the central character Olivia (played by Sandoval herself), most notably that she is an immigrant without a green card working as a caretaker for an elderly Russian-Jewish woman, Olga (Lynn Cohen) residing in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, at a time in which President Trump has illegally ordered ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents to arrest people like Olivia while they go about their daily lives.
Even more importantly, the man with whom Olivia falls in love, Alex (Eamon Farren), Olga’s handsome grandson, living in the same house, has inexplicably stolen her passport, the only document which might allow her, through marriage to become a US citizen and to gain access to a green card and the legality which would take away her fears of suddenly being returned to her native country, The Philippines, as Olga’s previous nurse Wanda was.
In such an instance, Sandoval’s narrative would center primarily upon the mixed feelings of the rather immature Alex—who also has serious problems with alcohol and, accordingly, in maintaining a job—has about getting married to the woman with whom he has been sleeping and is, quite apparently, now in love. The issues here might be centered upon their cultural differences, Alex’s erratic behavior, and upon his dependence upon his boyhood friends who clearly prefer that he remain trapped in the teenage world-views which they have never escaped. Indeed, it is one of his drunken friends, staying overnight in Olga’s house, who lifts Olivia’s passport and a CD from her bedroom drawer, passing in on to Alex, something which the latter never mentions. But the very fact that Alex has held onto these items suggests that his good intentions to help out Olivia and, perhaps, even his professed love has all been a kind of pretense.
At one moment, he even appears to have switched off the apartment’s electric power— terrifying Olivia in the increasing would of paranoia which she inhabits—to suggest that ICE may be on her trail. Soon after, Alex goes even further with a clumsy lie, telling her that he has seen a man in a ski-mask leaving her room. Why, asks Olivia’s good friend Trixie (Ivory Aquino), would an ICE agent dress up in a ski-mask?
Certainly, these might be obstacles posed by the plot of any heterosexual love story, despite the fact that near the end of this work— which might remind any knowledgeable cinema buff of a film by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai—Alex, after spending a romantic night in a local bar dancing with Olivia to the standard love song “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” appears to be more intent upon marrying this Filipina from the Cebu region more than ever. The lovers even briefly discuss what size family they might each desire as we almost buy into the film’s title by recognizing that the “lingua franca” which the movie touts is love.
But, also as in any traditional Hollywood romance, when the couple wakes up the next morning in a hotel room with the male beginning a sentence with “About last night…” we know the lovely fantasy the film has woven has come to an end, just as it does in this case.
I was highly amused by comments by many of the critics, male and female, who all seemed to concur that Sandoval’s great movie somehow ran out of steam in its last minutes by not more carefully explaining why the couple’s relationship could not last.
Writing on the Roger Ebert site, Christy Lemire, for example, wrote:
Sandoval wisely refrains from spelling everything out about these characters and their backstories, but her film might be a bit too understated. It ultimately runs out of steam just as it’s reaching its most compelling point, leaving us hanging emotionally. Still, the dreamlike mood she’s set lingers afterward.
Or, as Dennis Harvey concurs in Variety:
There’s a simultaneous delicacy and straightforwardness to Lingua Franca that stamps Isabel Sandoval’s third feature with a distinctive directorial sensibility—even if her script eventually muffles some of the film’s early promise. …Nor does the ambiguous fadeout offer much satisfaction. To a point, Sandoval’s commitment to intriguing understatement comes off as intelligent restraint. In the end, though, a little head-on confrontation and plot resolution surely wouldn’t have hurt.
One wonders if either of these writers and the others who have argued similarly have ever seen Damien Chazelle’s La La Land in which Emma Stone, despite her clear love of Ryan Gosling, intentionally chooses the wrong man and lives somewhat happily ever after; or Catherine Deneuve who, in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg purposely abandons her young romeo Nino Castelnuovo for an older and wealthy man. Or, for that matter. The central couple of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love; the list might go on forever. Heterosexual romances, I might remind them, just as in life do not always end up in perfect bliss.
LGBTQ films, in fact, seldom end up in standard romantic notions, and that, obviously, is what is missing in my attempts above to imagine Sandoval’s film being located in the precise genre in which in any sane world it might belong. But in 2020—a throw-back year which in every way possible has retreated to the cruel days of hate while wiping away so many recent representations of social responsibility and loving that one might have previously imagined—the fact that Olivia (including the actor her performs her and has written and directed this work) is a transsexual woman, which skews the entire fabric of this finely wrought fabulation in the direction of a life that inevitably is battered by the winds of fear, bigotry, and outright horror for both lovers.
Women like Olivia must generally seek out men whose love or marriage they must purchase, as has her friend Trixie has, a companion (permanent or temporary) to escape the terrors of living as a woman with a passport from another country on which her former male name is her sole identification. Yes, there is the constant worry as an illegal alien she might be arrested at any moment, but there are just as great fears that she will never find anyone who truly loves her or might, if her previous sexuality were to revealed, be subject to deadly violence.
In a sense, Alex, in toying with her own fears (stealing her passport, controlling the apartment lights, and creating a fiction that suggests that ICE is following her movements) and in his own return to alcohol has played out just such violence, even if he mercurially loves her as well and even visits websites about the logistics of New York State marriage.
He may even see himself as a kind of hero by enabling her to release some of her layered anxieties, but somewhat like Stephen Rea in The Crying Game, who attempts so save a transgender woman (not a transsexual one who actually has undergone a medical procedure to alter her birth sex) with whom he has experienced a deep relationship, his love will perhaps always be mixed with a strong element of disgust.
Sandoval fortunately doesn’t linger on this issue. For if Alex deludes himself into believing that he might brave the mockery that the brutes who surround him will surely dole out if he were to actually make such a commitment, the sensitive viewer of this cinematic masterwork knows that the hero, Olivia, will surely be better able to buy her way into the American Dream rather than waiting for it to happen naturally. Besides, as all LGBTQ people know very well, what most people perceive as something they might define as natural are usually quite blind to everything else.
Los Angeles, September 27, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (September 2020).