Mel’s false cultural identity

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How are we suppose to perceive our assumed gender

Looking for me? Mel and Jenny

It must be frustrating when you want to tell a story that doesn’t conform to the mainstream norm and it bears even a passing resemblance to one that has been told before, particularly if that predecessor was financially or critically successful. For some reason it has been deemed that if you want to tell an unconventional tale or tell in an unorthodox manner, then it’s first come, first served, and all subsequent films are seen essentially as rip-offs. Sometimes such criticism is justified of course — Hollywood regularly feeds off of the creativity of independent and non-American cinema — but as Gasper Noe’s brilliant but punishing Irreversible ably demonstrated, just because you’ve chosen to tell your tale in reverse, it doesn’t mean you’re trying to copy Christopher Nolan’s Memento. But check how many on-line reviews quote Nolan’s film when discussing Noe’s. Mine did. So did just about every other one I’ve read. Nolan got there first, and in movies at least, an original idea only gets to be used once before it gets labeled old-hat.

Nan Neul’s 2008 My Friend from Faro [Mein Freund aus Faro] certainly risks being clobbered in this respect through its resemblance to an acclaimed and Oscar-winning American indie film from 1999. I could try to avoid revealing just what that film is but there’s not much point, given that the comparison is plastered on the DVD cover in a quote that also gives you an idea how Neul’s film ends (a little misleadingly, as it happens). Yep, when your telling the story of a transgender girl whose girlfriend believes she is dating a boy, all roads inevitably lead to Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. But despite some strong similarities, there are also enough differences to give Neul’s film its own distinct identity and prevent it from languishing in its predecessor’s shadow.

Mel is a 22-year-old girl who dresses and acts like an 18-year-old boy. When driving one night she literally runs into Jenny, a young girl who is hitchhiking to town with her sister Bianca. She’s actually not injured, having faked the impact to collar a lift from the concerned driver. Mel is instantly and unexpectedly entranced by Jenny’s beauty and accompanies the girls to their night club destination. Mel and Jenny strike up a friendship that quickly develops into something more, but Jenny is under the impression that girl she is falling for is a boy named Miguel who hails from the Portuguese town of Faro.

Complicated? You don’t know the half of it. Mel’s false cultural identity has not been randomly chosen, but influenced by her new Portuguese co-worker Nuno, with whom she has become fascinated but who pays her scant attention. At home with her craggy father Willi and her older brother Knut, Mel is the altogether more feminine Melanie. Knut has been pushing her to find a boyfriend, and on the day Mel meets Jenny he prods her again, primarily so that he and she can double-date at a dinner he’s throwing for his girlfriend Vicky. Much to his surprise, Mel claims that she already has a boyfriend. They met when she ran into him the night before — his name is Miguel and he’s from Faro in Portugal. Now it’s complicated. But there’s more. To give substance to the lie, Mel approaches Nuno and hires him to play her boyfriend Miguel for an evening, which also provides her with someone to claim she is out with when she nips off to see Jenny. Jenny, of course, thinks she’s Miguel. Still with me?

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