Post-war drag queens in Summer Nights
by Vittoria Scarpa
- VENICE 2014: French director Mario Fanfani's debut feature portrays the phenomenon of male transvestites on the eve of the sixties
“I am Mylène, a beautiful and intelligent woman, a devoted wife who never talks about politics.” These words open Mario Fanfani's Summer Nights [+see also:
interview: Mario Fanfani
film profile]. But it is not a female voice that utters these words off-screen. Sitting on a sofa in a very composed way, sporting a pink twin-set, a string of pearls and a well-groomed wig, is Michel. Some minutes later, we will see him change back into men's clothes before he goes home to his wife and son, as if he just came out of therapy. This phenomenon of male transvestism in the 1950s is at the core of this French debut feature that is in competition in the eleventh edition of the Venice Days, and also in the running for the Lion of the Future and Queer Lion awards.
This story is not about homosexuality. Michel (Guillaume De Tonquédec) is a respectable provincial solicitor, an attentive father, a husband who loves and desires his wife. He has already seen the horrors of the Second World War, he has his traumas, and now, in the midst of yet another conflict – the one between France and Algeria; it is the year 1959 – he is looking for an escape for his mind. That is what he manages to find whenever he meets up with his friend Jean-Marie (Nicolas Bouchaud, also seen at last year's Venice Days in The Good Life [+see also:
interview: Jean Denizot
film profile]), who goes by the name of Flavia. No sex, that much is clear – just friendly chats, make-up sessions and hunting trips (because women like to go hunting). What women do not do, however, is talk about politics, and that is exactly what Michel needs.
The film does not stop at Michel and Jean-Marie: it enters into a cabaret world where men in women's clothes entertain young soldiers about to leave for Algeria, where models of masculinity that are so different from one another come together, and where songs of pacifism are sung, revealing a phenomenon that was more widespread than you would expect in the puritan society of the late fifties and early sixties. “The film is based on a book of photographs, published in the United States a decade ago, in which post-war American men portrayed each other in women's clothes,” explains Fanfani. “What struck me was how these men broke the mould in an era in which these kinds of transgressions were very difficult, coupled with the fact that the type of femininity they were influenced by was still a very traditional type of woman – the only type available back then.”
The director then thought of transferring the phenomenon to France, against the backdrop of the French-Algerian conflict, “because you cannot have a film take place in 1959 France without talking about the war in Algeria,” he points out. As a result, the war seems to affect all the characters in the film a little bit, even Michel's wife, Helène (Jeanne Balibar): during an evening dedicated to the soldiers, she expresses her dissent – in front of a shocked audience – about the number of young lives being sacrificed on the front lines while the bourgeois microcosm around her cleanses its conscience by sending the drafted youngsters biscuits and bars of soap. Husband and wife soon discover they are both equally nonconformist. The film, however, has a lot less of that: the direction is rather classical and the portrayal of the post-war drag queens is not lacking in clichés. What remains is the value of revealing a reality that is unknown to many and of reminding us that fantasy is often a much-needed safe haven – to each his own.
(Translated from Italian)