Transfixed is an atypical love story. Set in Toronto, Canada, Alon Kol’s film is a documentary about Martine Stonehouse, a trans activist, and her fiance John Gelmone. Both have Asperger’s Syndrome (John also has Tourette’s), and Martine has been a leading voice within Ontario to reinstate government-funded coverage for gender reassignment surgery. The couple have been together for years but have never been intimate with each other, as John, who identifies as a straight male, was not comfortable with Martine’s body until she had her surgery. Since the Ontario government would not cover the surgery, Martine was caught between a rock and a hard place, unable to fund the operation herself. Rather than internalize her struggle, Martine helped lead the fight for change, and thanks to her work, she helped save lives. But now is the time to fight for her own body and relationship.
The crux of Transfixed is the relationship between Martine and John, informed largely by Asperger’s. Early in the film, they discuss the struggles with social interactions, including a conversion which is integral coming from their perspective. There is a certain bluntness to their interactions, and rather than adjust or skirt around issues, they face them head on — for better or for worse.
There is a difficulty early on coming to terms with John’s insistence of Martine’s surgery, even when two doctors tell her the operation is risky because of her weight. While John has stood by Martine’s side for years, he grows increasingly impatient with her body, as he cannot cross the threshold of sexual intimacy until she has a vagina. John’s insistence lacks a certain empathy, and perhaps unduly devalues Martine’s self-esteem. There are moments in the film where the woman feels notably defeated, trapped by the body she does not identify with. It is clear that through Martine’s interactions with the world (interpersonally and via activism), she has always put others before herself, and now that she has an opportunity, she’s not even fully sure she’s doing it for the right reasons.
Yet, in spite of this, John and Martine grow. They evolve, they compromise and they adapt. This is not a story about easy decisions and easy solutions, but rather how sharing your life together is not about satiation but transformation. John, in particular, experiences some huge revelations over the course of Martine’s surgery, as he comes to terms with some of his selfish desires and realizes that the surgery was perhaps not worth risking her life.
Transfixed appeals to our hunger for personal growth, as both Martine and John change throughout the film. The journey they undertake together offers personal fulfillment, even in the face of challenge. The film reveals the importance of communication in love, but perhaps even more, the importance of empathy and understanding. Transfixed is a small film with modest aspirations, and it does not necessarily transcend that, as it satisfies on an emotional and storytelling level (and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing). This is not a story that would benefit from overt flourishes or conceptualism, it works on its own.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the former film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.