Review: Ladies of the Wood
- Claus Drexel signs his name to a sociological, humanist and intimate documentary which lends a voice to the transsexual sex workers of Paris’s Bois de Boulogne
"We each have our own destiny and if we’re born with an adverse fate, we have to make do." In the golden-brown light which illuminates the autumn leaves, on the edge of a lake where ducks and swans paddle peacefully across the water, a woman sings O fado de cada um. We’re in the Bois de Boulogne on the Parisian border, where German filmmaker Claus Drexel (who lives and works in France) decided to film, in his characteristic documentary style (face-on, with a camera positioned at the same height as the women who divulge their lives), a gallery of individuals who inhabit the margins: sex workers - transvestites or transsexuals - who have made the Wood their second home and have turned their profession (which is often, though not always, resorted to in the wake of agonising adversity) into a space where the rules of this relatively united tribe prevail. It’s a form of cinéma verité composed of highly intimate portraits, blending pride and despair, which dives deep below the surface of its protagonists’ vulnerability to make Ladies of the Wood - unveiled in a world premiere within the national competition hosted by FIPADOC (unspooling online this week) - the worthy successor of both Au bord du monde [+see also:
film profile] (which graced Cannes’ 2013 ACID selection) and America [+see also:
film profile] (nominated for the Best Documentary César in 2019).
Geneviève, Floria, Isidro, Judith, Juliette, Kimberley, Luciana, Lydia, Mélina, Mylène, Florence, Paola, Pirina, Prya, Raquel, Vicky, Yohanni and Samantha: enshrined in the film by way of skilfully smooth crosscut editing and interspersed with beautiful atmospheric shots of the Wood (both in the daylight and at night, courtesy of Drexel’s talented director of photography Sylvain Leser), their stories come together to paint a highly revealing and intensely human portrait of the practice of prostitution: how did they end up here (from Peru, Portugal, the West Indies, Brazil, the future development zone of Notre-Dame-des-Landes or elsewhere; from a job as a sales assistant or in a retirement home)? How did they find their place in this very particular community? Where do they carry out their duties (in a van, in a tent or behind a tree)? Who are their clients? What are the risks, the emotions involved and the gains? What is the history of the location? What administrative changes have they seen? What particular form do their private lives take, etc.?
An especially vast array of characters emerges (revealing playful fantasies and professional pride, poignant sadness and a sense of self-sacrifice for the rest of the family, trauma-fuelled drifting and sensory disconnection), characters who are often united by one powerful common feature which isn’t entirely unconnected to their presence in the Wood: transsexuality. Theirs is a desire to be something other than the gender they were born with, a longing which has led to a conflictual relationship with a normality-obsessed society ("that’s life, we have to accept ourselves for who we are and fight") and an intensely personal relationship with their bodies.
The figures and faces of these women are filmed and examined with kindness but not indulgence by Claus Drexel, allowing for the natural emergence of the many deep and powerful emotions which rage unseen beneath their thickened shells, worn as protection against the challenging day-to-day lives experienced by these beauties of the Wood; a wood which seemingly belongs to them and them alone (only very occasionally do we see riding school horses and police officers on bikes entering the frame, besides clients’ cars, of course), as extraordinary yet infinitely human characters, inhabiting a world which sits halfway between cutting edge modernity and a fairy tale floating outside of time.
(Translated from French)
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