“Spiteful words can hurt your feelings but silence breaks your heart”, wrote English author C. S. Lewis. These words resonate with Andrea Pallaoro’s striking third feature, Monica (2022). Trans actor Trace Lysette plays the titular character, a trans webcam performer who returns home and tries to reconnect with her ailing mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson).
Monica is a deeply intuitive film that embraces the messiness of life. Pallaoro offsets this with an aesthetic inventiveness, showing his command of the filmmaking craft as a storyteller and artist. The way he marries the emotion of his character’s journey with the visual aesthetic elevates the film, especially how Monica is framed by the camera.
In the opening scenes, she faces the camera in the tanning booth, and in an uncomfortable encounter with a stranger, who uses motor metaphors to hit on her, the camera’s view remains unobstructed. However, once the plot begins to unfold, it’s as if Pallaoro and his cinematographer, Katelin Arizmendi, become coy.
Taking a phone call in her apartment, the camera observes her from a distance, obstructed by the French window doors separating the two rooms. It’s not only a spatial but an aesthetic distance that Pallaoro and Arizmendi orchestrate.
They don’t feel compelled to frame the character or the action. Instead, they honour film as an extension of painting by seeking an image. In one scene, Monica is on the open road, and they refuse to make her the subject of the camera’s gaze. The image is in two halves – her hair blowing in the wind and the passing landscape. This approach bleeds into other scenes, where Monica and the characters don’t fit into the frame.
The cinematography and editing combined evoke the impression that Pallaoro is a painter as much as a filmmaker, using a camera instead of a canvas, paints, and brushes. The noticeable lack of edits emphasises this. The director prefers to keep the camera still and utilise single takes. This not only helps to complement the self-reflective nature of the story but bridges the visual mediums of cinema and painting.
The marriage of emotion and aesthetics echoes the ghosts of cinema’s past, but it doesn’t compromise Pallaoro’s voice. The spirit of Michelangelo Antonioni and his non-intrusive observational approach obviously influence Monica’s cinematography and storytelling.
Pallaoro understands the value of liberating the form from conformity. Not only is the spirit of Antonioni present, but the cinematography carries with it the traditions of consciously expressive and creative art house cinema. Unlike the more extreme works by directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Monica‘s moments are more fleeting.
Monica is not the type of film that talks at the audience. Pallaoro and his co-writer Orlando Tirado show an appreciation that we live inside of our minds, sharing only so much of ourselves. We spend much of our lives with our internal thoughts, trying to make sense of ourselves, the world, and the people around us. Monica is a reflection of these two lives, partly concealed by a visual and narrative silence through a lack of expositional verbiage and unobtrusive, stylised cinematography.
Pallaoro invites us to spend time with Monica, and by the end of the film, she retains a degree of mystery, even if she emotionally and physically bares herself on screen. We watch her turn a trick with a virtual client before she’s interrupted by her mother crying out. We watch and listen to intimate conversations, watch her lie next to her mother, and comfort her, which contrasts with an intense moment where she and a stranger intensely fuck.
As to the messiness of life, Monica needs something from her mother to help resolve the past. She cannot control the choices of others, only her own actions and words, and often we must accept that we might never find closure or healing.
Eugenia’s dementia means it’s now impossible for Paul, his wife Laura (Emily Browning), and long-time family friend Leticia (Adriana Barraza), to tell Eugenia that her estranged child has returned home. The silence that began as a choice is now dictated by circumstance.
It’s the loneliness of being forced to resolve the hurt caused by another that is difficult and, for some, impossible. Throughout the film, we sense a hole in Monica that might slowly shrink as she reconnects with her family, but it’s a process that outlives the film.
Pallaoro and Tirado convey a genuine sensitivity by neither surrendering to sentimentality nor the need for emotional closure. Instead, they honour Monica’s journey – it might be learning to live with the wounds of the past instead of fully healing or resolving her angst.
There’s a beautiful moment that authentically captures the torment of emotional pain. It’s a moment many who have suffered from depression, anxiety, or trauma will recognise: the explosion of despair and pain. Monica’s hurt as she screams is visceral. Some will sense that familiar yearning for peace, healing, and powerlessness, and the exhaustion from living with the pain.
Monica is an emotionally compelling story beautifully crafted by Pallaoro and Tirado around the relationship between words and silence. It reflects on how pain evolves, from the original words or actions to the silence and distance that hurts us more. Complemented by an artful and meaningful visual aesthetic, the film beautifully captures how life is a juxtaposition of pleasure and pain. Monica is neither cynical nor optimistic. It tries to be honest.