That Moment is Burned Into My Brain: Looking at Looking in Monica

photo: IFC Films

i.

In the beginning, Monica’s eyes are covered. Andrea Pallaoro’s film opens with a shot of his title character (Trace Lysette) in a tanning booth, disposable metallic Wink-Ease ovals protecting her vision. The lights go out and she removes the coverings one by one, but before she opens her eyes, the film cuts. Now she’s walking, her face turned away from the camera, fiery orange hair her defining feature. Throughout the first part of the film, Pallaoro shoots her nearly from behind, or in sunglasses, or shielded behind a beaded curtain. This is Monica, but she’s not quite ready to be seen.

Tensions of looking and being looked at permeate the film. Monica is a trans woman, and shortly after we meet her, she gets a phone call from back home. She left as a teenager and never looked back, but her mother is unwell. If Monica is ever to make amends, now is the time. They haven’t seen one another since Monica was a teenager—read: before her transition—and now Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson) has a brain tumor. It causes confusion, pain, and memory problems. As a result, when Monica enters her childhood home and is introduced as a woman who will be staying for a while to help with Eugenia’s care, the older woman barely even looks up. There is hardly an acknowledgment that she has a new helper, let alone any recognition of the fact that the helper is the child she once drove to a bus stop and condemned to years of pain and rejection. This is Eugenia, and she’s not quite ready to see.

“She’s lucky to have you,” the kindly home-care nurse Leticia (Adriana Barraza) says. Monica answers, “She doesn’t know who I am.” 

ii.

My mother used to tell me that when she got old, she would come and live in my basement so that I could care for her the way she once cared for me. (It’s unclear what happened to my father in this scenario.) I would always protest in that little-kid way, telling her that I wanted to grow up and have my own life, so she’d just have to start making other arrangements, sorry. I worried for another reason, too. I knew then that I was gay, and I knew my mother was probably going to have an issue with that. How could I tell her that I couldn’t let her plan on living in my basement, because I wasn’t sure she’d want anything to do with who I was going to be as an adult?

Eventually, as a kid growing up in the closet, you learn to put certain things away until you have to confront them. Obviously my mother did not need to make elder-care arrangements then, so away that potential mutual hurt went, filed away for another day. In the decades since, I’ve come out, and we fought, and we’ve healed. Not everyone gets that lucky. Still, the old pain is always there, tucked away, and I feel it all over again watching Monica. The film knows that a queer childhood home still holds that memory of what it was like to grow up molded by the potential for future pain. Monica uses that setting to extreme claustrophobic effect.

iii.

Pallaoro achieves that claustrophobia by shooting the film nearly square, with a 1.2:1 aspect ratio. He’s described that aspect ratio in various interviews as “very similar to the aspect ratio of portraits,” a tool he uses to help highlight the face in close-up. As a result, even when characters are looking at one another, there is often only room in the frame for one person at a time. Instead of the frame allowing us to look where we want, to follow eyelines from seer to seen, we instead are locked in on one person, looking at them as they look. Or, more often, as they don’t.

Monica is a slow, careful film, one that trusts the audience to interpret the expressions of its actors rather than feeding us meaning through dialogue and plot. Its shots are artfully arranged, always aesthetically pleasing to look at, and both Clarkson and Lysette communicate a world of interiority. There’s a staggering emotional intimacy in every small gesture. Sometimes, the meaning is quite obvious, as when Genie holds up a hand mirror and Patricia Clarkson’s reflection obscures Trace Lysette’s face. Sometimes it’s less clear—but no less interesting—as when three balloons float against a dark forest. Monica asks us always to think about what the image composition is telling us, and it’s a revealing exercise.

Those close-ups are the real attraction. Béla Balázs wrote about the “polyphonic play of features” made possible by the filmic close-up, a moment where the camera allows us to read many things happening at once beneath the surface of a face. “The appearance on the same face of contradictory expressions …” Balazs explains, “… in a sort of physiognomic chord a variety of feelings, passions and thoughts are synthesized in the play of the features as an adequate expression of the multiplicity of the human soul.”

Pallaoro knows this, too; he’s called this “the ability [of cinema] to photograph the thoughts and emotions of a character.” That doesn’t work, though, if you don’t have actors who can pull it off. Luckily, Pallaoro does; both Clarkson and Lysette are utterly transfixing on screen. By blocking and revealing their eyes and eyelines at strategic moments, Pallaoro invites us to contemplate what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, and how it relates to what they see and “see” at any given moment.

Sometimes, he frames characters with their back to the camera, and we have to imagine what their expressions might be. That’s the case when Monica finally tells her brother Paul (Joshua Close) about the day she left home. “‘I can no longer be your mother.’ That’s what she said to me,” Monica reflects. “That moment is burned in my brain.” We can imagine the whole traumatic scene playing out for ourselves, and we know how Monica feels about it because of how she carries herself in each moment of the film. It’s been a long time, but god, how it still hurts.

When the characters do discuss their feelings in dialogue, there are still many layers of meaning to sift through. Feeling powerless against her illness, Genie tells her daughter, “I never thought I would be this burden on anybody’s life.” We can easily think of children as a burden on their parents, and it’s clear that Genie means she doesn’t like the fact that people now have to care for her the way she once cared for others. In a way, though, aren’t parents always a burden on the lives of their children? That formative rejection is everything. It’s not just Eugenia’s  current physical ailment; her psychic, emotional presence has always loomed large over everything Monica has experienced in the intervening decades.

“Are you happy?” her brother asks, unsure how to talk to his sister, specifically, about what she’s been through since they were kids. “Most days,” she answers.

iv.

Monica didn’t just bring me back to my own childhood home; it brought me back to my mother’s. Right around when I saw the film, my mother’s parents both became ill. My grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and spent weeks in the hospital; left alone at home for the first time in decades, my grandfather quickly declined. This year I saw my mother caring for her parents toward the end of their lives, watching from afar as she planned doctors’ visits and home nurses, meticulously tracked cancer marker numbers, and kept on top of their medication schedules. My folks live about an hour from my grandparents’ house, so my mother returned to her own childhood home for days at a time, living in the basement and caring for her mother… almost the inverse of what she once told me we’ll do when she gets old. .

My grandmother recovered; my grandfather did not. Like Eugenia in Monica, he did not want to be a burden at the end of his life, and he refused several treatments that would’ve been necessary to prolong his time here. This year I felt my family learn the same thing Monica finds out in the film: at the end, the past falls away, and all that matters is showing up.

v.

Monica spends much of the movie wondering if her mother knows who she is. One night, after she’s left home to have a night at a bar—after she’s had sex with a man in a truck and dealt with her car breaking down on the drive home—Monica crawls into Eugenia’s bed and cradles her. Pallaoro shoots the scene in shadow, so we can’t see either woman’s face. We don’t know if Eugenia is awake as Monica whimpers, “Mom, it’s me.”

The next morning, Eugenia’s eyes are open first. Does she know? Did she hear? As her home nurse brings breakfast and then backs out of the room upon seeing the women in bed, Genie gently closes her eyes, pretending to still be asleep. Whether she knows Monica is her daughter or not, this simple act of pretending not to see allows Monica the privacy of slipping out of the room. Whether or not Genie knows, she’s still showing her daughter a touching kindness.

Monica is so self-conscious about the night before that she tries to leave. She tells her disappointed brother that she needs to go, packs up her car, and heads out of town. Before she gets very far, she turns back around, crying. Now is not the time to give up, not when her mother needs her. Not when they might be headed for a breakthrough.

It finally happens in the bath. The sequence is entirely wordless and is composed of only two shots, but for me, it’s the most transcendent cinematic moment of the year.

First: a close-up on Monica as she washes her mother. Her eyes are downcast, as they almost always are. We sense that she’s giving her mother privacy even as she cares for her, gently massaging her, probably with a washcloth, but not really looking as the camera isn’t yet looking. Then Eugenia reaches up into the frame and touches her arm, and for the first time Monica realizes she’s being looked at. We can’t see Eugenia’s expression yet, but we sense that Monica has finally met her eyes. The women stare at one another, the edges of Monica’s mouth tugging into a self-conscious smile that’s gone as quickly as it appeared. Something’s happening, we see her realize, and she holds the gaze.

Second: a close-up on Eugenia, looking up and into the light as she really sees her daughter for the first time. Her eyebrows move ever so slightly, briefly communicating something like amazement. Eugenia doesn’t need to say anything out loud, because Clarkson’s face says it all. Her ‘polyphonic play of features’ becomes a symphony, and in mere seconds we read on Eugenia’s face her crushing regret, and recognition, and awe, and acceptance—and her unconditional, pure, shining love. As she reaches up to touch her daughter’s face—this is her daughter!—Clarkson’s eyes catch the light, brimming with tears. Her mouth moves slightly, as though she’s about to speak but then realizes she doesn’t need to. She even almost laughs, almost, as though she can’t quite believe that it took her this long to realize who’s been caring for her. This is her daughter! Finally, she brings their faces close together, kissing, touching, forehead-to-forehead, finally seeing one another. Finally, for what might just be the first time in their lives. Finally.

Monica reaches up and cradles her mother’s face, too, and then it’s over.

The sequence lasts a bit more than a minute, but it contains a lifetime of emotion. Now that the emotional arc of the film has coalesced in this one sublime, cleansing sequence—a literal and emotional cleansing—the movie becomes rather elliptical. It grows hard to track how much time is passing, and Genie’s health rapidly declines. In Genie’s final appearance in the movie, Monica cuddles with her mother, and Pallaoro frames the shot so that Clarkson’s head is mostly out of frame. “There’s so much I want to tell you,” Monica says softly, but if she manages to break through the years of silent pain and talk to her mother about her life, we don’t see it happen. We don’t need to. We’ve seen that bathtub moment of pure, shining recognition, and that’s enough.

Instead, the end of the film shifts focus to the next generation. Monica has become close with her young nephew Brody (Graham Caldwell), recognizing a kinship in a sensitive young boy whose parents are already fretting about what a hard time he might have moving through the world. Brody has been selected to sing the national anthem at his school graduation ceremony, and the film ends on a shot of Monica, looking on with pride and encouragement as she listens to him sing.

It’s, I think, meant to be a hopeful note to end the film on. We watch Monica as she looks to the future, plainly hoping that the next generation of queer kids will have an easier time growing up than she did. It’s a difficult ending, though, in the context of this year. I first saw the film at the beginning of May; by June—Pride Month—the country was embroiled in various homophobic and transphobic controversies. Things felt different this year, as naked transphobia permeated discussions of whether drag queens should be allowed around children, and whether trans kids should be allowed to seek medical treatment, and whether Target selling Pride merch meant they were promoting Satanism, or something. Does simply acknowledging the existence of queer people—does being visibly queer around kids, or letting them look at rainbows—amount to ‘sexualizing’ them? What’s the danger in letting a kid look at a trans person?

In other words, things got ugly fast, and watching Monica again at the end of the year, it’s hard to see that ending as anything but a haunting reminder of just how quickly things can backslide.

Still, though, even if the wolves are once more at the door, we have each other. Just before the final sequence, Monica takes a moment to talk to her nephew before he goes onstage, and she hands him a small music box that she says has protected her throughout her life. “Listen. When you get on the stage, I want you to take a moment and think to yourself as you look at everybody, okay?” she tells him, highlighting one last time the importance of looking as a powerful act. “You say to yourself, ‘You lucky bastards, here I come.’ And you slay that stage,” she says, “and you make a moment.” It’s the first time she’s used anything approaching queer lingo around her family. Whatever small part of herself she’s still been hiding—whatever small fear she still has squirreled away for a later date—Monica is finally ready to not just let down her own guard, but to teach the next generation how to handle it too.

“That moment is burned into my brain,” Monica earlier told her brother, recalling the moment her mother sent her away. It’s impossible to undo that hurt, but the moment Eugenia looks at her daughter toward the end of her life, and finally sees her… that moment is burned into mine. It tells me that while the past may still affect us, grace is possible. It’s necessary, even.

We all have so much to learn from each other, and a moment like this—this cultural moment, this moment in the film, this moment in my family history—is the perfect time to recognize that. I learned about love and care while watching from afar as my mother cared for hers, and I learned about queer resilience, forgiveness, grace, and regret from watching Monica and Eugenia connect in that bathtub sequence. Trace Lysette is a perfect person to learn from, too; she’s a ballroom legend, a trans icon who’s finally been given a role deserving of her talents. Whether the end of the film is hopeful or haunting, the important thing is that we not be afraid to stare whatever’s coming right in the face, slay that stage, and make a moment.