A Good Man

To review a film that has garnered controversy early, in this case at the inception of its casting, it is best to begin with a disclaimer. As a cisgender lesbian, even if I may experience dysphoric tendencies, it is not my place to tell trans men how to feel about the way they are represented on screen. I can look from a perspective of an LGBTQ person, but it is not how my life is being shown to the world, so I cannot speak to whether this is an accurate depiction of the life a transgender man leads, but only speak using the perspectives of others. However, this does not give me the right to parrot hyperbole, and to call a well-meaning but incredibly misguided film with a cisgender actor cast as a transgender person that at least strays from exploitation an act of violence feels like an underplaying of some of the worst bigotry imaginable.

Due to my limited perspective to discuss this film from experience, I would like to highlight the great readings on it from trans film critic Danielle Solzman, and trans representation consultant Gabe (@nbgrownupkid).

Now that we’ve gotten the obvious controversy out of the way, A Good Man is a simple enough drama on paper. Ben (Noémie Merlant) and Aude (Soko) have been together for seven years, and want a child. The only catch is, Aude is infertile, and Ben is due to have a surgery that will finally complete his gender transition. The decision Ben makes to delay surgery and bear their child seems incredibly rash at first, as their inability to adopt for legal and financial reasons isn’t mentioned until later, and he and Aude don’t discuss it before Ben declares his decision. Over the course of the film, we see how strong their love is, and the two have an astounding chemistry, and it’s impressive how tenderly the two actresses are able to play a heterosexual couple.

Unexpectedly, the film is hardly voyeuristic about Ben’s body. The two shots that stand out are a brief shot of Aude helping him inject testosterone, and another quick one of him changing revealing faded scarring from top surgery. The closest the film gets to voyeurism is a shot of his chest and pregnant stomach near the end, and a grimace shows how alien this typically female ritual of birth feels to him. Unlike the disaster that was Girl, there is no lingering upon genitalia with a camera, it is outright avoided in both a brief sex scene and when the birth is shown, and the bare minimum is done to draw attention to Ben’s transness when it is not needed for the narrative. This is not a film about the struggles of transition, but the struggles of parenthood in a world that does not understand the way your family works, and it is a love story built upon the sacrifices for your family. When Ben holds his son, he is not treated as the mother, nor does he cry out for this childhood he should have had, but he and Aude are allowed to welcome their newborn into their world like any other in a moment of universality. In terms of craft and direction? The film is incredibly well done. It is the messy script, and choices of phrasing where the end result begins to go awry.

It is a film about mothers without daughters. Benjamin’s mother mourns the loss of who she calls a daughter she never quite understood when her son gets in a car accident, and Aude mourns her inability to have a child of her own without risking her partner’s hard-earned contentment. The film tries to create some parallel here, as the two women both have sons at the end of the film, but to compare infertility to your adult child’s choice for self-actualization and living as himself is a dangerous comparison to make.

Similar to Adam’s backwards way of managing to be offensive in reference to both trans men and lesbians as an attempt at representation, A Good Man makes a strange choice to put the two at odds. Both characters are disgusted at being referred to as lesbians, in Ben’s case understandably so, as it ties him to a womanhood he is about to denounce. Aude, however, proclaims sexual fluidity and is disgusted to be referred to by the l-word, mocking it, even as someone at the time who is only interested in who she perceives to be women. This is likely an easy cop-out from addressing the complications of human sexuality (or avoiding going fully into the territory of a narrative on the struggles of the cisgender partner of a trans person, in the vein of Laurence Anyways), but it not only states that sexual fluidity is the only way someone could have a partner transition and stay together, but denounces women attracted solely to women at the time identifying with the term lesbian, claiming it to be a derogatory exclusionary identity, even when it is accurate in the moment. This scene is especially off-putting when later in the film, Aude is nearly attacked by a group of angry men when she is perceived explicitly as a lesbian, and Ben comes to her rescue. Not only does this imply that Ben’s transition gives them a form of safety, like his transness is not a risk in a homophobic and transphobic world as well, but in the broader context of film, lesbianism, which should be allied here, is painted as solely an insult and cause for abuse (not to mention Soko’s noted protest at being typecast in lesbian roles).

Not to defend the casting decision, but an aspect of the film’s narrative calls into question the ethics of casting a trans man in the role. Early on, there is a club scene that cuts between Ben dancing in the present, and a flashback to his pre-transition self lost in a similar cloud, swaying, without a smile. This is meant as a narrative device to show how much transition has helped Ben, and to show the stakes he is at for choosing to put it on hold to have a child he and Aude so desperately want, though it may be a clumsy unnecessary way to do it. The pre-transition scenes feel less trifling when we see Ben contemplate, and then walk out to Aude to try and pass as male for the first time. We get to see the euphoria he feels, the fear at his world changing, and we know truly how much this has helped him, and what he is sacrificing to pause it, to delay the next step and go off hormones for nearly a year, so that the two of them can fulfill their dream of parenthood. The film makes these scenes essential to its narrative of Ben’s sacrifice the way it is told, and it is understandable for a trans male actor to be uncomfortable playing a character who is shown presenting as a cis woman for scenes, as this can be a very dysphoric decision behind the scenes. Even if no trans actor was up to the role, there is always the option of casting a separate actor for pre-transition sequences, or casting a cis male actor, a strategy used in video artist Midi Onodera’s would-be queer cult classic Skin Deep (which is unfortunately unavailable nowadays, though I and a few friends have seen it through the grace of the filmmaker via email), to play a trans man. The problem with cisgender women playing transgender men, or cis men playing trans women, is that it reinforces an idea that trans people are just their assigned gender at birth playing dress-up. Otherwise, cross-gender casting is a game of illusion, a near-camp choice, as it does not reinforce a commonly held idea in society about a marginalized group.

As a film? It’s the most competent thing Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar has directed. She has a tendency to write outside her range, in the case of Le Ciel Attendra’s clumsy handling of the Islamic radicalization of young white French girls, or awkward in the way of releasing a seemingly anti-motherhood film on Mother’s Day, or casting a late 20s Merlant as a young teenager in an earlier film. Hopefully this will be the last of this lengthy string of collaborations between the two, as Merlant has proven herself to be a skilled (and hopefully more socially aware) actress in Jumbo and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Mention-Schaar has shown that she may be better off directing the scripts of others, as the film is visually gorgeous, well acted and staged, and a fine bit of craftsmanship with a deeply flawed and stunted script. In terms of addressing the casting controversy, Merlant appears to be reading the room, and has not yet spoken, but the long term collaborator largely responsible for the situation in the director’s seat has released a deeply unaware statement defending her film that does not deserve to be further aired. We know the subject of trans men as childbearers can be handled sensitively, in the case of Seahorse, and we know that trans actors are out there to play themselves in France, in the case of Mya Bollaers in Lola vers la mer (as well as Jonas Ben Ahmed’s casting here as a cis friend of Ben’s, a genuinely progressive move for once here), so it feels inexcusable to use these defenses to say the filmmakers “did their best”. However, blindly ripping into the film without viewing it feels counterproductive, as those responsible for the mistakes will never learn if not engaged properly in debate, and I come from a place of privilege in that this is not my personal experience, and thus I can have these conversations more comfortably from a distance with those who inadvertently perpetuate tropes considered transphobic. I am a strong believer that one cannot criticize a film itself without viewing it, only factual aspects about a film known ahead of time, without viewing it, and even if the controversy may be accurate, a person can only comment ahead of time on the casting choice, and criticize that, but not the film itself as a viewing experience.

C-

C- Review

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