March 1, 2017

Don’t Call Me Son Explores Privacy and Gender Identity, and Made Me Anxious

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Watching Don’t Call Me Son, a 2016 film directed by Brazilian filmmaker Anna Muylaert, was one of the most stressful, quietly terrifying viewing experiences I’ve ever had. It is by no means a horror movie, which makes this accomplishment all the more notable.

Don’t Call Me Son stars Naomi Nero as Pierre, a high-schooler who wears stockings and garters under their jeans, shaves their chest hair and takes their time after showering to try on lipstick while the bathroom door is locked. The plot of the movie revolves around the revelation that infant Pierre was stolen away from their biological parents at birth and that the woman they believed to be their biological mother is, in fact, not. Brazilian social services take Pierre away to live with a new mother, father and brother they have never known. In the new family’s house, Pierre loses their name and becomes “Felipe” instead.

Don’t Call Me Son is a depiction of what goes on behind closed doors. The film’s tension, character conflict and unsettling horror all revolve around questions of privacy. For Pierre, a queer person who passes in day-to-day life as a man, not openly identifying as transgender, their privacy is extremely important. Several borders conceal the nuances of Pierre’s identity from the outside world: a bath towel, a locked bedroom door, a suitcase hiding a dress or red changing room curtains.

The opening scene of the movie establishes, in stark contrast, the divide between the public and the private. Pierre is first seen on a party dance floor, their body intertwined with their dance partner’s. The dim, colored lighting obscures the action of the scene, as do the other partygoers who pack the room. But as soon as they find their way off the dance floor — when they are alone, behind a locked door, in privacy — the lighting becomes harsh, white and entirely clear. As Pierre begins to have sex with their partner (in an energetically depressed manner that quickly becomes their modus operandi for most of the movie), the camera pans down to their garters and stockings, shone plainly in the bright light. It is only in private that Pierre can share this part of their identity with another person.

Don’t Call Me Son is at its most anxiety-inducing when these boundaries begin to slowly crumble. Pierre is thrust into increasingly uncomfortable public situations, wherein crowds of people no longer serve to hide and protect them, but rather place them at the center of interest and scrutiny. At the same time, as Pierre’s privacy gradually erodes in their new environment, they use their limited moments of solitude to further isolate themselves. Previously, Pierre’s privacy was an opportunity to explore and reflect on their gender and sexuality. Now, it becomes a self-imposed prison. Watching as Pierre’s public and private life are slowly consumed by the pervasive, intrusive gazes of others was, for me, actually pretty scary.

Pierre’s mounting anger and frustration at their situation is palpable. There are a few points in the movie when what happens behind closed doors is not sexual but violent — in other words, Pierre gets tired of dealing with nonsense and lashes out on the world around them. Pierre’s anger makes the scenes in which they’re surrounded by overly-friendly and enthusiastic “family members” all the more tense.

Throughout the movie, I anticipated with substantial dread when everything would snap. The movie builds, bit by bit, this hidden energy. It grows every time someone calls Pierre “Felipe” and every time their new mother calls them “son.” Pierre’s resentment at being constantly misidentified is all the richer for its two dimensions, which are also apparent in the title of the film. Pierre is not your “son” because their gender cannot be so easily defined, and they are also not your “son” because, as they don’t hesitate to say, they had a family before their new one.

I was scared for the entire movie because I slipped so easily into Pierre’s mindset. They’re surrounded by people who constantly scrutinize, misidentify, and frustrate them. Eventually, someone or something is going to go too far.

Don’t Call Me Son also deserves praise for vividly depicting a number of power structures while barely saying a word about any of them. Besides the obvious queer and transgender issues, there are also other unspoken points in the movie that still scream, quite loudly, about other inequalities. There’s the way that the police roughly handcuff Pierre’s former mother. When Pierre sees their new family’s house, a few things stand out: the freshly painted walls, compared to the cracked façade of their old home, the gate that surrounds the complex and the expensive-looking art pieces that hang everywhere. And they have a maid who is darker-skinned than anyone else in the movie.

The film refuses to explicitly address questions of Pierre’s class, gender and sexuality, but it has a lot of rich commentary to offer on an implicit level. In my mind, this is to the film’s credit. Despite the unique perspective provided in moments when we the audience become voyeurs to Pierre’s privacy, these snapshots of Pierre are still highly ambiguous. It’s unclear what Pierre intends to do with all of the selfies they have of themselves with lipstick on or for what exact reason they’re putting on lipstick in the first place. But it certainly seems like Pierre doesn’t have the answers to these questions either, or to any questions we might have as to the “technicalities” of their identity.

This was, in a way that I did not anticipate, refreshing. One of the hallmarks of a group greeting that takes place under the auspices of Political Correctness and Liberal Tolerance is a clarification of preferred pronouns. One of the challenges I found in writing this review was that I had no idea what pronouns I should use to refer to Pierre. We didn’t meet in orientation, and they didn’t get to tell me their pronouns. But this is entirely realistic. Does Pierre have any idea what they want to be referred to as? Does an examination of their gender from within the private sphere, from “behind closed doors”, clarify this issue or just muddy it further?

I loved Don’t Call Me Son’s ending. After I occupied varying states of dread for most of the movie, it was the one part when I felt completely at ease. Throughout the film, privacy is something that Pierre partakes in alone, an opportunity to see to what extremes they can take their expression in clothing, cosmetics, anger, romance and sexuality. But at the end, Pierre’s privacy becomes shared and no longer extreme. Instead, it is halting and awkward, the first steps towards something more intimate.

Cornell Cinema is showing Don’t Call Me Son on Thursday, March 2nd, at 7:00 PM, and Sunday, March 5th, at 4:30 PM.

Albert Chu is a junior in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected].