Monday, June 4, 2018

Girls, Interrupted

Year: 2018
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola 
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As a gay person, you get pretty used to any major motion picture with gay protagonists being arty awards bait that shows you how Important and Tragic your life is. The straights of the world can see themselves in blockbusters ranging from Titanic to Indiana Jones to Bee Movie, but we're stuck with stuff like Milk (dead gay guy), Brokeback Mountain (dead gay guy featuring sad closeted gay guy), Moonlight (sad closeted gay guy). Sure you get your Priscilla, Queen of the Deserts and your To Wong Foos and whatnot, but let's just say gay movies with happy endings don't have a lot of crossover with worldwide audiences.

It's even worse for lesbians. Because women are so rarely protagonists in mainstream movies, the percentage of gay ones is even lower. But the truly crappy thing is that these movies rarely even commit. Because lesbianism is only important to mainstream culture as it relates to men's interest in it, almost every big lesbian movie has its main character sleep with a man, either primarily or sometimes even exclusively. This might be a shock to you, but this is not how lesbians work. (This is not to discount that there are bisexual people and characters out there - but I dare you to find a single known movie where a lesbian actually only sleeps with women)

Disobedience was always going to be about what it's like to be gay in a straight world. It was never going to be a fun romp about two Rachels cavorting through a field of flowers. But it's maybe the worst example of a straight person (in this case, director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio) making a queer story I've ever seen.

But more on that later, after we've finished spitting into each other's mouths. You know, like lesbians do.

Disobedience wants to have its cake and eat it too, so in addition to being a lesbian movie, it is also an orthodox Jewish movie. When her father, a beloved London rabbi, passes away, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns to her childhood home for the first time in over a decade. While she's there, she discovers that her two best friends got married without telling her: Esti (Rachel McAdams) is a schoolteacher and David (Alessandro Nivola, who we just saw in 1999's Mansfield Park) is a rabbi protege of her father's.

Over the course of her stay, the ladies ignite a physical passion that has lain dormant for many years, while Esti chafes against the rules and expectations of her culture. They make out sometimes, but mostly they walk together, heels clicking against the pavement in front of grey, dreary skies. Yadda yadda, Oscar stuff.

This screenshot and the previous one are like an hour apart.

So yes, both characters sleep with men (even the unmarried one, in a scene that has so little to do with the rest of the film that even the soundtrack is intrusively different) in this film, but that's just the tip of the faux-prestige lesbian iceberg. Of course, there's also the complete misunderstanding of lesbian sex that I alluded to earlier, compounded with completely inscrutable shooting and editing that obliterates any hope of eroticism. But let me ask you this: Do you think a lesbian filmmaker would give the film's most crucial narrative arc to Alessandro Nivola?

Look, I can admit the dude looks sexy serving orthodox bearded realness, and he is certainly allowed to have a fleshed-out, rounded character, but the movie almost exclusively traffics in how he's feeling about everything. Esti's role is too subdued and frequently offscreen to draw any real impact from, and Ronit is flat as a board, trapped playing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl part in her own film. She's somehow both the lead and the character who dips in to shake things up and learn nothing from experience. 

I'm honestly surprised THEY didn't sleep together at any point.

Disobedience fails as a lesbian movie, but it also fails as a movie in general, so I guess at least that's fair. Nearly every element competes for the title of Worst Thing in the Movie: The cinematography is drab and oppressively grey, an effect it was certainly going for, but one that in no way fits well with the intense tedium of the story (the Rachels don't have a moment alone together until maybe the hour mark). Then you have the production design, which presents us with interiors as varied and rich as a porno, and the score, which attempts to channel the orchestral grandeur of a John Williams with some supremely ill-timed flute trills that triumphantly clash with every scene they appear in.

Hmmm... This is usually the part in a negative review where I say something nice. I suppose I don't dislike any of the actors, but none of them have the strength to claw out from the deep well of milquetoast drudgery the film has tossed them into. And that spitting scene is certainly thrillingly bonkers, much like the peach sequence in last year's similarly dull prestige queer drama Call Me By Your Name. And there's a scene that uses my favorite Terrible Movie trope to predictably delightful effect (this being the fact that nobody in any movie ever gives the speech they were meant to give, and devolves into a monologue about the lessons they've learned that makes sense to the viewer but must be powerfully perplexing to anyone actually in the audience for the speech).

In short, Disobedience is a massive waste of a grossly extended amount of time. It doesn't breach the two hour mark thankfully, but it sure feels like it does. I'd call it boring as sin, but I wouldn't want to be respectful to Sin, which is something this movie should be full of and is sorely lacking.

TL;DR: Disobedience is a dreary, deeply unerotic slog.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1000


  1. I'm a lesbian and I don't agree with this review at all. First of all, it's not meant to be a happy go lucky lesbian film, it's aiming at showing how complicated it can be within an Orthodox Jewish community. Also, you can't necessarily blame the director for plot points because it was based on a book. As for the sex scene, it doesn't have to be erotic to be valid. Personally I loved the scene because it showed some things lesbians do in the bedroom that media doesn't always portray. You also have to remember that Ronit and Esti had been together before as kids so it wasn't like this was supposed to be a sensual first time lovemaking scene. It was mainly about Esti letting herself go. As for the sex with men, I see your concern but in this particular movie it makes sense. First of all, plenty of lesbians have slept with men at some point in their life for one reason or another. Sexual experience does not necessarily equal sexual orientation. Moving on, Esti is really the only one who says she's only into women. Esti having sex with men makes sense because it's complicated trying to fit into her role within the strict Orthodox Jewish community. As for Ronit, she never states that she's a lesbian, so what if she's bisexual? Even if she was a lesbian, plenty of lesbians go through periods of complex and complicated emotions and thoughts. It's completely valid in this movie to have them sleep with men and the way they were filmed made it obvious that the women were not fully into it, but that's the point. That happens to plenty of queer women! I think this movie was a great take on a new perspective that many people don't see, and it's a shame you don't see it that way.

    1. Hi! I want to say thank you for reading my review even though you disagreed with it!

      Obviously, I'm not a queer woman, so my perspective is less personal, but I'm certainly not trying to erase any queer woman's experience of sleeping with men. My main frustration is that a lot of mainstream queer movies foreground heterosexual intercourse to make it more palatable for audiences.

      Take Before the Fall, a gay reinterpretation of Pride and Prejudice I recently watched, where the ONLY sex scene is between a man and a woman, or Call Me By Your Name, where the most explicit sex scene is between Elio and a teen girl (or Elio and a peach), but it mostly fades to black when he's actually with Oliver.

      Sexuality is fluid, of course, but I just feel like the movies that do this aren't doing it to display that fact. They're doing it to water down the queerness of the story they're telling, and that's what's frustrating to me.

      I stand by my comments about the movie being shot and presented in a very drab way that didn't appeal to me, though I could understand its purpose. But I hope that maybe clears up what I was trying to say RE: the film's sexuality.

      Thank you again for reading and taking the time to share your perspective!