I started out watching So Pretty convinced it was “not for me” but by the time it had finished I wondered if I was precisely its target audience. Me? Gammon-faced guy whose exposure to trans culture extends about as far as an evening in Soho’s (London) infamous drag bar Madame JoJo’s once, quite a while ago, to celebrate someone’s birthday. I got drunk. Who knows if anyone there was even trans.
So Pretty starts with a shot of Franz (Thomas Love) picking up Tonia (Jessica Dunn Rovinelli, as Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli, unpick at will) at the airport. Franz is a lithe gay young man with long hair. Tonia is a trans woman (born male, since switched – and before people start commenting, these bracketed remarks are really for my benefit), with blond hair, cheeky breasts and a shadow of dark stubble on the chin.
Franz helps Tonia with her luggage, while a waiting middle-aged guy just on the extreme right of the frame follows them with his eyes, in a “what exactly do we have here?” rather than hostile way. Rovinelli the director left that shot in for a purpose.
Because “what we have here” is what the film is about, a portrait of four people all born men, some gay, some trans, all sharing the same communal New York life, day to day, coming and going, bored at home, clicking their heels on a night out.
Into what seems like a documentary – everyone has a character name but I’m not sure how much into fiction we’re actually venturing – Rovinelli weaves excerpts of 1980s German novel So Schön (So Pretty) by Ronald M Schernikau, a cult writer whose short life could be turned into a number of films – he “defected” from West to East, which is a subject ripe for exploration all on its own.
Gradually, the lives of Tonia and Franz plus lovers Erika (Rachika Samarth, who also provides the chunky/ambient music) and Paul (Edem Dela-Seshie) start to merge with events from the book, which is read out periodically to a half-moon of listeners, outdoors overlooking one of the bridges of New York, while the relationships between Tonia and Franz and Erika and Paul also do a bit of melding and transmuting of their own.
In decades gone by, when someone like Kenneth Anger made underground movies about what was then called the gay scene, the look of the finished product told its own story – badly lit, poor sound, on grainy Super 8 most likely, with amateurs who often didn’t get it quite right on the only take the director could afford (film costs money). Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the fringe, the definition of the finished product announced, a shadowy world of the barely glimpsed (or glimpsable). The medium is the message.
As gay and trans life has moved out into the light of day, it seems appropriate – almost technically determined – that Rovinelli has no such limitations. A digital camera, a laptop with Final Cut Pro, a handful of actors who can redo the scene countless times if necessary, that’s all you need to make a nice, bright, sharp film with clear sound and good performances.
At the start it looks like Rovinelli is going to take this technical superiority not as a starting point but as a destination. There isn’t much going on. Barely a story. Characters seem ill at ease in front of the camera. An almost haphazard feel. A video diary that seems to be about and for its subjects rather than the viewer.
But the lives of Franz and Tonia, Erika and Paul do become more fascinating the longer they’re on the screen, and as a more challenging view of queer/trans life in New York develops, that’s still very partictular to this foursome but with more universal ambitions. Otherwise why connect up with Schernikau’s novel?
Who is this film for? Me, I think. And that guy glimpsed at the beginning, wondering what the lives of people like this might be like. Boringly like the lives of the rest of “us” – and it’s this pronoun, rather than the usual he/him, she/her, they/them choice that Rovinelli seems most interested in addressing.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021