At a moment when trans visibility is at an all-time high in the United States, a movie like “Lola Pater” seems as if it was made for Neanderthals — albeit, the kind of cavemen who aren’t completely put off by subtitles. Nadir Moknèche’s play-it-safe treatment of the subject follows a handsome French 25-year-old who goes looking for the Algerian father who walked out on his family when he was a baby, only to find in his place a belly-dancer named Lola. We’ve all been there — maybe not in real life, but a quarter-century after PBS aired “Tales of the City” is really too late to pretend like that twist is anything special in an of itself.
The novelty here, scant though it is, comes in watching the gorgeous French actress Fanny Ardant (already something of a gay hero for her César-winning performance in “Pédale douce”) playing a woman once named Farid Chekib, and from the added complication that the Arabic culture from which the characters hail makes it especially hard to accept such a transformation (although let’s be honest: anyone who comes through the process looking like Fanny Ardant has it better than most). That should be reason enough for older art-house crowds to embrace a movie that offers Ardant the chance to amplify her femininity, even as she plunges the deep misunderstood soul of her character. And in the unlikely event that you’ve never seen a movie about a woman born in a man’s body, this is a fine place to start.
The film is shot in extreme widescreen (a format that seldom adds to the compositions) and told primarily from the point of view of her son Zinedine, AKA Zino (Tewfik Jallab, a charismatic young actor recently seen in “La marche”), who’s seen burying his mother in the opening scenes. All this time, he’s been led to believe that his father was a deadbeat who abandoned them, though flashbacks and a series of never-delivered letters hint at the more complicated truth (the beautiful young man who plays Farid in these scenes is none other than the director himself).
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All these years without a father has hardened Zino, although he comes across reasonably well-adjusted: He’s in good shape, has a sexy French girlfriend (Lucie Debay), rides a motorcycle and tunes pianos for a living. The movie tends not to explain much, simply observing much of the time, which is how we find ourselves at Lola’s dance studio. Zino explains to her gay assistant (Bruno Sanches) that he’s looking for his father, never once suspecting that the lovely dance instructor is one and the same — which allows Lola in turn to exploit this misunderstanding until she’s ready to share her entire story.
Zino needs his father’s signature in order to claim his inheritance, and yet, that’s more complicated than you might think, considering that Farid, while not dead per se, no longer exists. The longer Lola goes allowing Zino to believe she’s his aunt, as opposed to his father, the worse it will be for both of them.
That makes for a mystery in which we already know the solution, so the suspense instead comes from wondering how it will be revealed. Unfortunately, every time the film has a choice to make, it goes with the most obvious solution, reducing what ought to be quite an exotic situation to a relatively predictable series of events. (When in doubt, Moknèche simply cuts to the housecat Zino’s late mother left behind, amusing itself alone or running along window ledges, and earns a fresh swell of goodwill from the audience.)
And yet, plot problems aside, “Lola Pater” does a beautiful job of conveying the full dimensionality of its characters — which, of course, is what it takes for outsiders to appreciate the complex journey of anyone who reinvents him/herself as radically as Farid does. And yet, that sensitivity extends even to the film’s supporting cast (especially Lola’s “lesbian” lover, the great, gravel-voiced Véronique Dumont, whose presence allows the movie to separate her trans journey from whatever further outrage homosexuality might incite).
Recently, American audiences have been offered many chances to identify with the process via film and TV, most exceptionally by Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” series, though “Lola Pater” touches on some of the same themes — namely, the challenge that family members face in processing the decision. When Zino discovers the truth, it means having to bury two parents: literally, in the case of his late mother, and metaphorically, when it comes to the father he never knew. But he has gained a second mother in the process, and with a too-easy melodramatic flourish, the movie offers him this happily-ever-after.