The title would appear to say it all – more than just being internationally recognised notation that requires no translation, the emasculated chromosomal X at the end of XXY gives a clear indication of the directness and brutality of the film’s treatment of the difficult subject of gender issues. You wouldn’t think it from the title, but Lucía Puenzo’s treatment of the emotions and confusion that lie within the issue of transgender and intersexuality are however handled with rather more delicacy and than would first appear.
The reticence with which the director initially steps around the subject however matches the situation for Alex (Inés Efron) and her family. Neither her father Kraken (Ricardo Darín) nor his mother are sure what to do about their daughter Alex, a young girl who from birth has been born with the sexual characteristics of both male and female genders. They have moved away from Argentina and now live in an isolated house on the Uruguayan coast, with few neighbours other than a small nearby fishing community where Kraken works as a veterinarian assisting the turtles that occasionally get caught in the fishing nets. Now fifteen years old however, the question of sexuality is becoming a more complicated issue for Alex and she has stopped taking the medical treatments that give precedence to her feminine characteristics. Her mother however has taken the initiative to assist Alex in taking the decisive step towards her own identity and has invited a noted Argentinean surgeon down to stay with them. Arriving with his wife and family however causes some problems for the family, particularly when their son Álvaro (Martín Piroyansky) forms an attachment to the troubled Alex.
And that’s where any holding back goes out the window, the film getting to grips directly with the very real and complex issues facing Alex, her intersexuality leaving her in a confused and intolerably indeterminate state. It’s a condition that the film’s author knows there can be no satisfactory response or answer to. Whether the choice is to become male or female - if such a choice can be definitively made - it will inevitably mean the rejection of the other alternative. Committing to either of those choices will inevitably be a serious wrench on the psyche of the young girl, so instinctively Alex’s inclination would be to remain in-between were it not for the impact this continues to have on her parents, and the suspicion it arouses in the neighbourhood boys, making her life no easier. The question only becomes more complicated when she gets close to Álvaro.
The issue with Alex takes precedence of course, but there’s more to XXY than it being a study of intersexuality. Essentially it’s about identity, about the choices one has to make at a certain stage and the long-term impact those decisions have in directing the course of our lives. The question of identity and in particular sexual identity is one that affects everyone, and in the film Álvaro also has a difficult journey to follow, one that perhaps makes the rather more unusual situation of Alex easier for the viewer to relate to and understand. A disappointment to his successful father, Álvaro, still only a teenager, also has to learn to find his own identity and have the courage to stand his ground against the impossible demands that are placed on him, demands that can only see him judge himself a failure.
And here also the film holds back nothing, cutting to the quick with brutal directness on the complex nature of Argentinean or Latin American relationships between fathers and their children, on the pressures of living and conforming to a society that is male-dominated. For Álvaro it’s about the pressure to conform to those machismo standards, for Alex it’s about breaking away from the over-protectiveness of Kraken. “You can’t look after me forever”, she tells him. Both look to their mothers for guidance, but the passivity of both women clearly indicates that in this society the females have little or no decisive input. More than her own personal feelings or wishes, it’s this factor that will perhaps most influence and determine the choice that Alex must inevitably make.
XXY is released in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures under their Petit Péché imprint. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is in PAL format, and is not region encoded.
The film is colour graded to have a deep blue-green tone and a dark gritty quality with the negative grain. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer handles this marvellously, the image being deep, rich, clear detailed and not overly sharpened. Contrasts are strong, with deep blacks that match the tone of the film and even the night-time scenes have excellent definition. Generously spread across a DVD9 disc, the grain is well controlled and there is scarcely a flicker of macroblocking evident.
The film comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mixes. Both are impressive, the stereo being rather ore direct and straightforward, while the surround mix is more dynamic and subtle in it distribution of sound. Clarity is flawless throughout.
English subtitles are provided and are optional, in a clear white font.
The principal extra feature related to the film is an exclusive Interview with Inés and Martin (22:51). Slipping between English and Spanish (with fixed subtitles on the Spanish), the two young actors talk about the difficult themes raised in the film and about how they approached them. The familiarity of working together before was a help, as were the working methods of the director Lucía Puenzo, who they felt understood what she wanted but left them room to interpret. There is a little discussion of Argentinean cinema in general and where XXY fits into it. Also included Drawing Gallery showing sketches made by Álvaro and Alex. The only other extras are the usual Trailers for Peccadillo Pictures and Petit Péché cinema and DVD releases.
Ostensibly XXY deals with the difficult subject of intersexuality, but it uses this theme as a means of approaching familiar issues about identity and sexuality that are complicated by Latin American attitudes towards male and female roles. The subject demands quite a bit of juggling to suggest the complex emotions and personality traits, to be direct and yet to suggest something else at the same time, but both young actors, under the surprisingly assured direction of Lucía Puenzo in her debut feature film, carry this off impressively with freshness and naturalism. The UK DVD release from Petit Péché is well up to their high standards, with an excellent transfer and interesting interview with the young cast.