The gay subculture of 80s West Berlin is at the heart of Ronald M. Schernikau’s book So schön (So beautiful), a detailed annotation of the lives and relationships of four gay men living in the city. Politics and philosophy are embedded in the narration, as it was common in the writer’s works. Adapting Schernikau’s book to our times, director Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli embraces inclusivity with her new film, So Pretty, to reflect a new and more diverse group of queer people.
Revolving around two couples living in New York City, the film briefly presents each of them before delving deep into their daily, artistic life. So Pretty opens on Tonia (Rovinelli), a transgender visual artist who’s welcomed to the city by her boyfriend Franz (Thomas Love). The two settle with Paul (Edem Dela-Seshie), whose girlfriend Erika (Rachika Samarth), a transwoman and artist, hangs around the flat with some other friends. Alternating between readings of Schernikau’s book and fragments of their everyday lives, the film follows the evolution of their relationships while they put together a new exhibition inspired by the German author.
Given So Pretty’s overtly intimate nature, there’s a moment of raw honesty that sums up the tensions boiling under its surface. While sitting on a park bench, Tonia eventually opens up to Erika: “I’m losing track of the way other people see me,” she says. Tonia’s a fierce, transgender young woman, who — for a moment — loosens her grip on the armour she wears on a daily basis. Protesting against rampant fascism on the streets of America, languidly reading excerpts from Schernikau’s novella (while in an embrace with her lover Franz) and talking politics and art with her close-knit group of friends are everything that makes Tonia a woman. However, although invisible to strangers, there are still frictions and insecurities gnawing at the longed-for cocoon of oneness she had achieved.
Similarly, Tonia and her friends live in a secluded utopia almost unspoiled by external interferences. Whoever gravitates towards it incarnates the same ideologies and live by them. Fluidity is key in this community. Transcending the boundaries of gender, they all have a carefree approach to sex, too. Relationships are constantly built but never broken off, as if the ultimate, unconscious goal would be shaping a proto-communist space that thrives on love and acceptance. As with every dream, though, reality eventually barges in when, during a protest, Paul is left wounded by the police and the safe space is irreparably threatened.
Interwoven with readings from the German novella, the main narrative thread is contaminated. As an innocent act, reading becomes a powerful weapon when all the characters start enacting those same words they felt inspired by. As a consequence, fiction and reality intermingle in a fluid vortex of reciprocal contamination, reaching a climactic point during the last, soothing scene at the exhibition. Whereas it’s clear that all the cross-references and ambiguities were building up to this moment, the art installation is also the stage for the characters to reclaim themselves. As soon as their masks are discarded and all the fictional layers are dropped, it’s their bare souls to be exposed.
Anything but a crowd-pleaser, So Pretty might work wonders in the indie circuit. Although it may have benefitted from a more cohesive structure than the juxtaposition of moments unfolding back and forth in the film’s timeline, Rovinelli’s feature has such a gentle touch, especially when showing the intimate parenthesis of love. The director’s gaze is never sexually-loaded, but it rather caresses the naked bodies with the sole intent of offering crucial and much-needed representation. Tip-toeing on the smudged edges between fiction and documentary, So Pretty is an experiment in means of representation and ultimately a tender ode to an unjustly forgotten author.
Ren Scateni (@whateverren) is a film critic based in Edinburgh. She regularly contributes to Take One and other Italian publications. She’s a Japanese cinema enthusiast and usually ends up watching all the East-Asian films screening at festivals.