Tiresia (Clara Choveaux), a Brazilian transsexual living illegally with her brother in Paris and working as a prostitute, is abducted by Terranova (Laurent Lucas), an aesthete determined to possess the rose-like perfection of her fabricated beauty. Yet not long after becoming Terranova's house bound prisoner, Tiresia begins to change physically, as, deprived of daily hormone treatment, her masculine traits re-emerge, until her captor, disgusted by a process he cannot stop and terrified of retribution, pokes out Tiresia's eyes with a pair of scissors and dumps her unconscious body in the countryside.

Blind, Tiresia (now played by Thiago Teles) is taken in by 17-year-old Anna (Celia Catalifo) and discovers that he has the gift of prophecy. This attracts the attention of the local townsfolk, who come to revere him, and of the parish priest Father Francois (Laurent Lucas), a keen tender of roses, who regards Tiresia as a dangerous rival and an abomination that must be destroyed, even if the seer's final prediction is of Christianity, both perpetuated and renewed.

If Tiresias is a highly changeable character from ancient folklore, then the myths that enshrined his story were equally subject to variance. In one tradition, a mysterious encounter with two copulating snakes transforms wise Tiresias into a woman and a similar encounter seven years later enables him to regain his male form, leaving him unusually well placed to settle a dispute between Zeus and Hera, as to whether men or women derive the greater pleasure from sexual intercourse, but his answer leads Hera to punish him with blindness and Zeus to reward him with second sight. According to an alternative version, Tiresias is blinded by Athena as punishment for seeing her bathe naked, but then compensated by the same goddess with the gift of prophecy.

Bertrand Bonello's bold retelling of the myth in modern dress retains many elements from the ancient original(s) - his ambivalent gender, his violent transformations, his blinding, his power to see the future and even a figured version of his snaky confrontation (in Terranova's house, Tiresia's face is seen reflected on a painting of a coiled serpent), but the film also allows its transgressive protagonist's essential identity to remain no less difficult to fix in place, as Tiresia is set adrift in the ever-shifting no-man's-land between man and woman, art and nature, ancient and modern, native and foreign, paganism and Christianity, stasis and flux. For the opening (and recurring) images of molten lava point to the central theme of the film, that nothing is forever set in stone and even the most stable bedrock can be turned into a moving river.

"I feel lost. I don't understand it all. I just take it. Now I see that separate things seem to be connected." So declares Father Francois towards the end, echoing the puzzlement of the viewer. For the film is structured, not unlike David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), as an enigmatic diptych in fugue.

There are two distinct parts presented in succession and clearly demarcated by the change from actress Clara Choveaux to actor Thiago Teles in the role of Tiresia, but it is left to the viewer to weave their interrelated strands and repeating motifs (roses, paintings, genital gropings and the portrayal of Tiresia's two antagonists by a single actor) into something approaching a meaningful whole. Of course, we are as doomed to fail as Tiresia's persecutors in our attempts to pin this Protean protagonist down, but his/her journey reveals a (post)modern, enlightened, monotheistic world still resonating with mysteries as old as time itself.

Intense, intriguing, beautifully framed and intellectually challenging, Tiresia defies easy categorisation (much like its principal character), but to be struck blind by its obscurity is also to be rewarded with an altogether different kind of viewing experience that brings desperate joys of its own.

Reviewed on: 17 Sep 2005
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Modern take on ancient myth of a blind seer who is man and woman.
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Director: Bertrand Bonello

Writer: Bertrand Bonello, based on a story by Luca Fazzi

Starring: Laurent Lucas, Clara Choveaux, Celia Catalifo, Thiago Teles, Lou Castel, Alex Descas, Fred Ulysse, Stella, Marcelo Novais Teles, Olivier Torres, Isabelle Ungaro, Abel Nataf

Year: 2003

Runtime: 109 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France/Canada


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