...Chloë Sevigny in Boys Don't Cry (1999)
approximately 45 minutes and 5 seconds
roughly 38% of film's total running time
The romantic tragedy of Boys Don't Cry begins, as many such tales often do, when the boy sees the girl from across a crowded room.
The boy, in this case, is Brandon Teena, a transman who finds himself in a small Nebraska town "passing" as male in ways that affirm and thrill his sense of himself. The girl is Chloë Sevigny's Lana, a not unpretty young woman who likes the reflection of herself she sees in Brandon's eyes.
The film builds its central romance upon the charge of this mutual gaze. Brandon wants to be the kind of guy that a girl like Lana would find appealing. Meanwhile, Lana likes the ways she feels when Brandon looks at her.
Sevigny builds Lana as the kind of girl who has, by necessity, become accustomed to masculine attention, both welcome and unwelcome. Sevigny shows how Lana has learned to maneuver the limited power provided by her status as a desired object. Sevigny's Lana wheedles drinks and smokes and praise from guys. Sevigny's Lana also seems to appreciate, and fear, the limits of this "power." She bridles and bristles under the watchful, predatory eye of John (Peter Sarsgaard in a thoughtfully but fearsomely sleazoid turn). But Sevigny's Lana is caught short by Brandon, about the subtle difference in Brandon's gaze. In short, Sevigny's Lana likes the way that Brandon looks at her and that, in turn, causes Lana to start to like Brandon.
The charge of these mutually thrilling looks egg both Brandon and Lana to do things they might not otherwise do, adding to the thrill of the connection. As Brandon settles into the idea of living as a male in Lana's life, Lana's giddy at the thought that Brandon might be her key to additional new experiences -- of life and of herself.
Brandon certainly introduces Lana into a new experience of erotic pleasure. In one of the film's pivotal sequences, Sevigny's Lana experiences (and then re-experiences, through the comforting refraction of erotic memory) on one of the more spectacular female orgasms ever depicted in a mainstream film. This sequence -- which Sevigny depicts without vanity -- makes physically literal the core metaphor of Brandon's appeal to Lana: he makes her feel things she's never felt before.
But it's precisely this newness of sensation that ultimately pitches the romantic reverie toward romantic tragedy. As Brandon's secrets and deceptions unfurl, Sevigny's Lana encounters a difficult challenge: should she trust what she knows? or what she feels?
Swank's Brandon sees Lana as the embodiment of a lifelong dream fulfilled. In contrast, Sevigny's Lana discovers in Brandon a powerful fantasy she never knew she had, one that she's not yet entirely sure that she wants. This discrepancy -- Brandon finally realizing the selfhood he's long sought; Lana encountering entirely new dimensions to her experience of self -- rapidly becomes a chasm between the two lovers, with tragic results.
The historical circumstances of the true life story present a particular challenge to both Sevigny and Peirce. In death, Brandon became an icon; in life, Lana remains an enigma. Brandon's story hurtles in a doomed trajectory; Lana's feints and weaves with ambiguity and contradiction.
Sevigny's Lana is almost a different person from scene to scene, her fragmented malleability a stark contrast to Brandon's quickening clarity. For her part as an actress, Sevigny contributes a vivid commitment to each scene, permitting each glimpse of Lana to be as distinct as the next. Peirce utilizes this aspect of Sevigny's performance well as one plausible explanation for the events and circumstances depicted in the film. Yet, even as the actress digs deep to make each moment as human and real as possible, I'm not convinced that Sevigny tethers these moments to a core for the character that remains legible from scene to scene.
Thus, I end up feeling that, while Sevigny's often excellent "in the moment," I remain unconvinced that she's as excellent "in the character." A hazard of the role, perhaps, but one that's as much an opportunity as a burden for an actress at the edges.