CIFF Diary: Day 2, pt. 2 - On Nipples, Gen Y, Narcissism, Serial Rape and Murder

10/8 - Barely 3 minutes had passed between the kind smile of Eduardo Nunes, giving an insightful Q&A for his beautiful first film Southwest, and the opening image of American Translation:  the back of a murdered head lying motionless in the dirt; a strangled male prostitute.  The murderer, we quickly discover, is Chris, (Pierre Perrier) the narcissistic, lap-dancing serial killer at the center of American Translation.  Chris soon hooks up with the Mallory to his Mickey when he finds Aurore (Lizzie Brochere), a French/American little rich girl with nothing to rebel against (we know this because she tells us that when you're a little rich girl you have nothing to rebel against) .  Bored by her father's business dealings one afternoon, Aurore steals away to the ladies room of a ritzy hotel that Chris has wandered into.  It' s love at first sight, and Chris follows Aurore into the ladies room, where, in a lengthy take of the two of them kissing for the first time, we get the first taste of the kind of languorous, dangerous young love that we are going to be way too close to for the next 90 or so minutes.

Aurore and Chris meet in American Translation
I think it is the intention of the directors, Pascal Arnold and Jena Marc-Barr (who also plays Lizzie's father) to put us uncomfortably close to the two, in an attempt to get us to feel as if we are swept up, as they are, in the amoral whirlwind of sex and violence that comes and goes through the course of the film.  Maybe I sat too close to the screen, but midway through their opening kiss scene, I was over living in the world of these two characters.  After a few more scenes, I had decided that most porn has less nipple exposure than American Translation.  Don't get me wrong.  Like most people, I love nipples...but nipples--like elbows and fingers and toes--are attached to people, and living so closely to these particular nipples was making me uncomfortable with nipples.

Aurore and Chris posture in American Translation
Chris and Aurore's journey is really one where Aurore goes along with all of Chris's pleasure-seeking routine in a completely affect-less manner, which includes picking up boy prostitutes, sometimes taking them home for a threesome, sometimes taking them to the woods, anally raping them, and strangling them to death.  The wide shots of Chris's van, as it travels the outskirts of Paris, to and fro, are a relief from the nauseating propinquity of the whole journey.  I kind of felt like wiping their hair out of my face when it was over.

Aurore and Chris get close in the van - American Translattion
American Translation is a very low budget independent feature that does manage to achieve a consistent aesthetic vision, and I do believe that the actors are very committed to the psychology of these characters, which is, intentionally, incredibly shallow.  American Translation puts me in a difficult place critically, and one that I think we find ourselves in often:  In the case of Pierre Perrier, the question becomes, when you dislike a character so much what kind of credit does that actor/director deserve for getting that character so right?  In the case of Aurore, who really has nothing going on--no interests, desires, skills, etc.--how much praise do we give her for diving into that puddle of psychological exploration?  In some ways, this critique might parallel the way in which Chris loves sex with guys, but is also compelled to murder that aspect of his sexuality.  With American Translation being part of the CIFF's OUTrageous programming that focuses on LGBT issues, the characterizations here might be problematic for some viewers, even though I'm not trying to make the argument that all gay film has to present positive gay role models, be overtly political, or be any one thing in particular.  Still, as I'm writing this on National Coming Out Day, and thinking of my partner Jen Salamone who is currently the director of the LGBT center at UM Flint, working to help college students deal with that always difficult issue of confronting sexual identity, seeing a film like American Translation, which could so easily be used as another piece of evidence for the misguided argument that homosexuality is synonymous with perversity and violence, is a bit disheartening.  Ultimately, although I want to give credit where credit is due in terms of the effectiveness of the overall aesthetic, I have a feeling the people who like the film might defend it for the same reasons it put me off.

Up Next:  The Forgiveness of Blood  

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