‘Phoenix’: The Best Imitation of Myself

She first sees herself in a shard of broken glass, laid so perfectly amid the rubble of a bombed-out concert hall that it might have been placed there for her, for this moment. She’s shocked, she jolts, she steps back, and then she stares. She stares at this face that isn’t hers, this person she can’t possibly be. Her eyes widen, her mouth opens a little, the mute horror in her mind slowly beginning to clarify. She has to be this person now. Later, she insistently points at an old photograph of herself. “This is me,” she exclaims. And later still, defeated: “I no longer exist.”

In the late spring of 2015, the words “Am I trans?” first crossed my mind. My diary entries from that summer are frantic, terrified, furious. I wrote about how it couldn’t be true, how it had to be true, how much I wanted to kill myself, how sad it was that I never would, that I’d never do anything, or be anything, or be anyone. I was reckoning, for the first time, with the idea that I had a self. For years I stuck my self in a deep dark hole in my mind, never to be looked upon, certainly not to be examined. I didn’t live at the bottom of this pit. I lived up at the top. I lived in my performance.

I was good at performing. I was funny, likable, a good hang. I got good at saying what people wanted to hear. I could be whatever the people around me wanted me to be, without them having to tell me. I wouldn’t have called myself manipulative. After all, to whose benefit was it? They were happy, and I was safe. I thought I was safer outside of my own head than in it. And all the while, this gnawing sadness I couldn’t explain. I talked to so many therapists, but what was I supposed to say? I had no words for the real reason I felt the way I did.

In 2015 I realized I was trans. In 2016 I told myself I wasn’t. In 2019 I came out. In December of 2015, I saw Phoenix. I sat in my university library and looked into a reflective shard of glass.

Nelly Lenz (played in the decade’s best film performance by Nina Hoss) has barely survived the Holocaust. The severe disfigurement to her face requires plastic surgery to give her a new one. She is given a face that isn’t hers. She seeks out her gentile husband Johnny, despite her friend’s warnings that he betrayed her to the Nazis. When she finds him, he recognizes her, and doesn’t. She looks just like his dead wife, he says. Perhaps she could pretend to be her, so that he can collect her inheritance. He could teach her how to walk and talk and write and act like Nelly. She accepts, not just because she wants to be with him. More than that, she wants to be herself. She wants someone to tell her who she is, because she can’t see it in herself.

It’s what I was so desperate for. To be told I was trans by someone else, to be led by the hand into a new identity, a new self. I didn’t have a self before. I only had a performance. I needed someone to tell me who I was, because I didn’t have the fortitude to tell it to myself. What if I was wrong? What if this isn’t who I am? I needed to be recognized from the outside by someone who knew better. You can never see yourself except in pictures and reflections. And if I knew nothing else, I knew that the person I saw in the mirror wasn’t me.

Nelly smiles when Johnny compliments how well her handwriting matches up with his wife’s. When the whole world sees someone else, it’s nice to be seen for who you really are. She’s shocked when Johnny critiques the way she walks. “Nelly didn’t walk like that, it’s all wrong.” She second-guesses herself. She doesn’t think of the fact that her tentative stumbling comes from her continued recovery from the violence of the concentration camps. She thinks only of how he sees her, and how she can better be the version of herself that he remembers. She spares no thought to how she sees herself.

What Phoenix ends up saying, and what I was too scared to recognize at the time, is that you can’t let someone else dictate who you are. To open yourself up to that is to give yourself over to the whims of people who despise you. “I’m not a Jew,” Nelly insists. Her friend Lene retorts, “You are, whether you like it or not.” The Nazis certainly marked her as one. She bears that mark on the inside of her forearm. I often think about how close I brushed against the rhetoric of TERFs and transphobes, people who would have looked at a suffering, closeted girl and told her she was just a confused, disgusting boy. I think about how narrowly I avoided buying into ideas created by people who would sooner see me dead than happy. It’s only when Nelly finally sees in Johnny that past betrayal, that desire for her to disappear, that she finds the courage to reveal herself to him. It takes her a matter of seconds to quite literally find her voice in the film’s final scene. It took me another four years.

We don’t see what happens to Nelly after she fades into a bright white blur, but I know. I know that for her, and for me, the performance never ends. She and I must spend the rest of our lives playing ourselves for people who do not recognize us by sight or sound. Nelly practices her walk, I learn to train my voice. Nelly wears old clothes, I buy new ones. I shave my legs and torso and arms and back and face, I painstakingly fight to be free of these little daggers poking out of every inch of my skin. Nelly points at the photograph. “That is me. That is me.” To be trans is to perform for the benefit of others, to know that even the most well-meaning people are only humoring you. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe the self is the performance. Maybe who you are is what you show to other people. I don’t need to be recognized by other people anymore. That anxiety is behind me. If I’m performing, the only audience is myself. As Nelly sings in her true voice, she closes her eyes. No one else is there. It’s only me.

Ko-Fi Request: Truth and Performance in ‘Gone Girl’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

He just can’t help himself. He’s up on a stage, the crowd below, fighting for his attention. Camera shutters snap and flashes pop. All eyes are on him. What is he supposed to do? His face breaks into a wide, charming, movie star grin. He’s already forgotten that he’s standing next to a missing poster for his wife, her huge smiling face looming behind him like a sarcastic rebuke of his own. The cops in the room roll their eyes. How could he be so stupid, giving himself away like that?

And he is giving himself away, but not in the way they think.

From the very first trailer, we already had Gone Girl’s most compelling image. An innocent man accidentally playing the part of a guilty one, simply because he can’t stop himself from enjoying the spotlight. Gone Girl is all about playing roles, and how much of a person’s “true self” is reflected in the way they choose to fulfill or refute societal expectations.

Let’s look at the first of the two people in the shot described above. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is interesting in how uninteresting he seems. Director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn give us a series of red herrings based on his behavior. His wife has disappeared and everything he does makes him seem like a sociopath. He just can’t seem to perform the anguish and despair that one would expect from a man in his position. His inability to act the way he’s expected to act makes him seem guilty.

Nick is a man incapable of performing. This, Gone Girl suggests, is his Achilles’ heel in a world where people must perform to survive. Our true selves are sick, deranged, violent, capricious. They must be papered over with recognizable cliche. It’s a cynical worldview, but a compelling one.

Nick’s failure with his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), was a failure to treat her with humanity and dignity, a failure to listen and respond to her needs, a failure to be a good husband or even a good person. But to Amy’s mind, this is merely a failure to play the role of a good husband. To Amy, everything is performance, everything is untruth. This is the way of the world, and she expects him to conform to it.

Amy, as opposed to Nick, is a natural performer. She learned it at a young age, growing up with parents who wrote a series of children’s books about a character based on her. She came of age alongside an ink twin, an improvement on her in every way. She was taught to not be herself, to be better than herself. She learned that the self is an inconvenient truth, but that there’s a way to circumvent it.

She’s such a master performer that she’s able to both convincingly frame Nick for her murder and later take it back and construct an entirely different fiction where he’s innocent. She filled a diary full of fake entries painting Nick as an abusive loose cannon, weaving a narrative that could only end with him killing her. And then she came up with a new ending and somehow managed to make it fit.

Near the end of the film, once Amy has returned home and Nick knows the truth of what she did, she confronts him in private, away from the prying eyes of the press. She insists that he start pretending to be a happy husband by her side, blackmailing him into performing for the first time in his life. Of course, she has to perform too, lest her secrets come out. Amy think that the two of them can work as a couple, provided they continue the charade. She has absolute faith in the power of performance. The film ends with uncertainty over how long this arrangement can last. Amy can lie forever, but can Nick? Does Amy even think she’s lying? Or do they live in a world without any truth, without true selfhood? Perhaps all they can do is perform, and live up to the expectations of others. Perhaps that’s all any of us can do.