Andrea Pallaoro on Thinking Outside the Box in “Monica”

It can be read as a blessing in disguise that Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson) cannot recognize Monica (Trace Lysette) upon her return to the family compound in “Monica,” bound to turn her away if she did when the only thing more cancerous than the disease that eats away at her mind is what’s been gnawing at her soul since casting away her child after coming out as transgender. When it’s Laura (Emily Browning), the wife of Eugenia’s other child Paul (Joshua Close), who calls Monica back to Cincinnati when it appears the matriarch is nearing her final days, needing a full-time caregiver when her longtime aide Leticia (Adrianna Barraza) starts inching out the door, it’s clear not even poor health will bring Eugenia around, too hazy now to show acceptance but likely unwilling if she weren’t.

Andrea Pallaoro’s tremendous third feature considers a chance for the two to connect, even if one of them won’t ever to be able to forget the past. The sensitive drama is a spiritual follow-up to his 2017 character study “Hannah,” which saw Charlotte Rampling had to consider a life without her husband after he begins to serve a prison sentence, and “Monica” grapples with how its lead has put a life together without much family to speak of, still knowing that they remain out there in the world. When Eugenia can appreciate the person Monica is now while being blissfully unaware of just how selfless it is for her to help around the house and with unbecoming chores like helping her in and out of the bathtub, it is bittersweet at best when while it could be said she’s responsible for the person Monica’s become and should be proud of, though only because she made her life so much harder than it needed to be.

Pallaoro and “Swallow” cinematographer Kaitlyn Arizmendi brilliantly use a boxy frame to show Monica’s cloistered experience, returning to the house she grew up in as the person she was always meant to be, yet still having to hide a bit so as not to upset her mother in her fragile health, and as she deals with a family she feels she’s still out of place in and attempts to tie together loose ends of a relationship with a former partner no longer willing to return her calls, the feeling of isolation can border the frame, but with a deeply affecting turn from Lysette at the center, it is bound to open up perspective for others. Following its premiere last fall at the Venice Film Festival, “Monica” is rolling into theaters this week and Pallaoro spoke about what keeps attracting him to the theme of abandonment and a potential third film along those lines as well as finding the right actress and location to make “Monica” as powerful as it is and the film’s evocative cinematography.

This continues a thread that began with your previous film “Hannah” – did you know you’d make a thematic follow-up?

Yes, I think I had the desire to tell this story even when I was writing “Hannah,” and I knew the themes that I was grappling with in “Hannah,” needed much more time, so I wanted to explore them through different characters. I felt this theme of abandonment [with its] traumas and consequences and complexities, and the lengths that we go through in order to heal those wounds plays such an important role in defining who we are. It’s so inherently human and something that we all experience in one way or another and can connect to, so I set out to explore these three different characters, centering around this theme and there will be a third chapter that’s [now] in development. It’s still in the writing phase, but that will come eventually.

I’m excited for it, and even though this experience is universal, what was it like to put a trans character at the center?

In fact, the character of Monica is inspired by a very dear friend of mine and since the beginning, I knew that I wouldn’t consider making this film without a trans lead. That was always a crucial component for me, and then finding the person that could embody this character and bring it to life was the most consequential choice in realizing this film. Because of that, I was very, very careful in selecting and committing to that collaboration. I saw over 30 candidates for the role and it’s a process that lasted over a year. When I met Trace, I really felt that I knew I had found the person to do this with and [at the time] the character was different — on the page, [Monica] was much older than her, so it was a character that didn’t really fit her completely. But I connected so much to her potential as an actress and also the passion and unwavering determination that she had to tell this story that I was like, “Let’s go, I found you.”

I’ve heard the casting search was international, which made me wonder did casting Trace lead to setting this in the U.S. or was that already the plan?

I’ve been living in the U.S. for many years now, I moved here when I was 17 years old, so I felt that dichotomy that there is between living in a city like Los Angeles and a smaller town in Ohio was something that was important to this story, and I wanted to preserve that. I never thought of making it outside of the U.S. [though] I find it to be a very universal story [even though] the actual characteristics of the dynamic are very, very American as well.

It’s an amazing house you find in Cincinnati.

It’s true. During the location scout, that was the first house that we saw and my director of photography, my production designer and I were so confident that that was the house, but then of course we had such a long list of properties that we had to see that were scheduled, so for the next two days we just kept looking at properties, but we knew that we had found that house and I feel like it served our purpose so well.

There’s a remarkable scene set in the empty pool outside where Monica and her brother are reconnecting and you see the dynamics of their relationship emerge just from how the camera moves around them. What was it like blocking that?

Like many scenes in the film, I wanted that to be shot in a single take and I didn’t want the interruption of editing to affect it because editing is a marvelous tool to foster emotion and meaning, but I didn’t want to interrupt that conversation in any way. And I wanted for it to play within the boundaries of what we were experiencing in front of us, and I knew thatalso movement was going to play a very important part as well and the choreography was something that we really found together, both with the performers, Trace and Josh, but also with my director of photography Kate Arizmendi.

Did the camera style come to mind immediately? One of the reasons I found that so moving is because you’re able to see 360 around the space where so much of the film is locked off because of that Academy ratio framing.

Yes, because the relationship between what is inside of the frame and what is outside of the frame is a very, very important aspect in the cinematic language. It contributes a sense of tension and anxiety and suffocation the spectator feels, and that’s a very important way to get inside the character of Monica. We chose to compose our images with this very square-like aspect ratio of 1.2 to 1, which is very unusual, to prioritize the body and the face over the landscape, and also to enhance the sense of co-dependence that two or more bodies within the same frame can confer. Every choice that we made aesthetically really was to allow the spectator to get to know Monica within that sensation of claustrophobia and anxiety and tension that these boundaries create.

Once you get the actors together, were there relationship dynamics that might’ve been different than what you initially foresaw?

That’s actually the most exciting part of directing, I think. It’s when you know you get so surprised and amazed by what your collaborators present you with and what they offer you. In this film, there have been so many moments where that happened, like the bathtub scene [which is] such a beautiful moment in which my expectations were surpassed. I will never forget that because it’s one of those [scenes] where everyone in the crew was hypnotized by what we were watching and we all cried together as we experienced it. It was a very cathartic moment and Trace [gives] a fearless performance, and Patricia [Clarkson] and Adriana [Barraza] and Emily [Browning] and Josh, what they were able to bring to the table with their passion and their commitment to the project, I’m so grateful.

When there’s a sense of discovery about each of the characters throughout, is that a tough thing to protect, whether in the script process or even the edit about how much information an audience needs?

I am very drawn to that type of cinema that doesn’t tell you what to think and feel, but it actually protects the mystery of the characters, and what you choose to reveal and what you choose to keep from a spectator and does not rely on exposition, but capitalizes on the non-verbal allows a spectator to penetrate the emotional and psychological world of a character, sensorially really more than intellectually. Because of all these things, that type of storytelling comes very natural to me to allow the spectator to connect the dots themselves and I find that freedom is very important in just finding a way to learn about yourself [because] that to me is the most beautiful thing that cinema can do.

What’s it been like seeing people’s reactions to this?

It’s been exhausting, physically speaking, but also incredibly exciting and very emotional to share something that you’ve worked so much for so many years on with the world at large. To meet spectators from all over the world and that dialogue is definitely something that I treasure, and I’m very, very excited to continue.

“Monica” opens on May 12th in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre and New York at the IFC Center.

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