Lizzi Sandell on Sebastián Lelio’s ‘Disobedience‘ (2017)
DISOBEDIENCE IS, IF NOTHING ELSE, THEMATICALLY UNIQUE. It tells the story of an illicit lesbian affair that takes place amidst an Orthodox Jewish community. This double gimmick, combined with two superstar female leads (the famous Rachels: Weisz and McAdams) and a director coming off an Oscar win (Sebastián Lelio with last year’s A Fantastic Woman / Una mujer fantástica) gives a promise of memorability that the film does not quite fulfil.
Weisz co-produced the film, optioning the eponymous 2006 novel by Naomi Alderman and bringing on (decidedly gentile, but who’s complaining?) Canadian actress McAdams to co-star. Weisz, who grew up Jewish around the North London shooting location, returns to her roots to play the figurative snake in this semitic Garden of Eden.
Ronit Krushka (Weisz) has successfully detached from her Orthodox roots, moving to New York City to become a photographer under the anglicised nom de plume “Roni Curtis.” When her father, a celebrated rabbi (or “rav”), collapses and dies mid-sermon, no one thinks to tell his only daughter, until she receives a mysterious phone call.
Appearing to chew this knowledge over, Ronit kills time with some decidedly secular activities: going on a date, having sex in a bar bathroom, and even (bizarrely) ice skating solo before eventually deciding to fly home. When she arrives, her reception is frosty; family members and old friends alike greet her primly with the traditional shiva mourning greeting, “May you live a long life,” which seems, in this case, to cover all manner of passive-aggressive sins.
Embraced dispassionately by childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), now a pious man and budding rav himself, Ronit is surprised to learn that he has married their mutual friend Esti (McAdams). Esti has committed to the “frum” (devout) lifestyle—wifely duties, wig, and all—despite her lesbianism being an open secret in the community.
But with Ronit’s return, Esti’s patina of satisfaction crumbles. It soon becomes clear that Esti and Ronit share an intense romantic history that both women have sought to leave behind, albeit in divergent ways. Esti and Dovid’s marriage, predicated on his piety and dominion of brooding, stable masculinity, is undermined by Ronit’s chaotic influence in this just-so community.
The Cure’s “Lovesong,” with the evocative lyrics, “Whenever I’m alone with you/You make me feel like I am home again (…) Whenever I’m alone with you/You make me feel like I am young again” makes for an appropriate soundtrack as the women rekindle their romance. They first kiss among the stuffy setting of Ronit’s late father’s house, surrounded by dark wood, heavy fabrics, and a portrait of the rav himself. (There is irony in the fact that, walking in on them having sex as teenagers, the rav cried, “HaShem strike me dead!”)
This irreverent streak continues when the women check into a hotel room to make love, and traditional religious items—Esti’s wig and buttoned-crotch leotard—are emphasised, incorporated (or implicated) into the erotic act. The sex itself is impassioned and impactful, while showing little skin: a subtle and sensual rebellion against the oppression of their upbringing, away from prying eyes.
Then something else happens. Mid-coital, Ronit spits into Esti’s mouth, in an audacious act of simulated female ejaculate. The act is both unexpected and unlike other sapphic, more-is-more sex scenes in comparable contemporary films. This externalisation of female desire is enough to perforate the placid surface of the film, which perhaps over-commits to its sombre mood and aesthetic.
While accomplished cinematographer (This is England; The King’s Speech; Room, et al) Danny Cohen’s washed-out palette honours the solidity of religious seriousness, it also facilitates the film’s failure to penetrate emotionally. One might imagine the contrast between homosexual romance and ultra-conservative religion to be sufficiently salacious, but somehow, the stakes don’t feel particularly high.
Perhaps Lelio doesn’t give enough credence to the frum lifestyle to make the conflict feel credible. His perspective is so secular that the tension, and some of the eroticism to boot, is lost. Orthodoxy, like the film itself, is beautiful in its solemnity but fatally claustrophobic. The entire filmic world seems to be sitting shiva.
Although reaching for a post-mortem connection with her father and dealing with issues of duty and family, Ronit seems otherwise immune to what she left behind. At most, she appears put-out by her elimination from her father’s will and legacy. Even her romantic attachment to Esti could be described as take-it-or-leave-it. Similarly but inversely, Dovid is on the righteous path and will not err, his stasis leaving little room for a satisfying story arc.
Esti surely has the most to lose. However, not only do we know she is a lesbian, everyone else knows too, which takes the sting out of the social consequence of her transgression. The negotiation then becomes a matter of whether or not she will find away to live authentically while still honouring her, presumably heartfelt, faith. Despite Dovid looking quite hunky in his Orthodox garb, no reasonable viewer would expect Esti to stay within the confines of a community that dictates she have compulsory Friday night sex with him. Her leaving seems almost inevitable.
The religious community begins and ends distant, disapproving, but dedicated to civility. Ronit, Esti, and Dovid, being old friends, are thoroughly reasonable and invested in one another’s well-being. The result is somewhat flaccid, in contrast to the thrilling erectness in the spitting scene. The spit remains the only glimmer of impact in a film that insists on existing, quite literally, in life’s grey areas.
Release: November 30, 2018