This post is a part of our New Voices Section.
Written by CJ Sheu.
Lesbian sexuality on the big screen can be a fraught endeavor. In an art form that has traditionally rendered the male gaze, it takes intentional distance from formal convention to keep the lens expressive of female desire. Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience (2017), and the work of its cinematographer, Danny Cohen, does this wonderfully. There is some nudity, to be sure, but it’s neither prurient nor pointedly avoided, but rather treated indifferently by the camera, a side-note to what it’s really focused on: lustful attention. The sex scene is sexy, even kinky in its feminist appropriation of projecting bodily fluids, but even sexier is when, as they get dressed, photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) asks and is allowed to photograph Esti (Rachel McAdams).
The two leads are excellent, and if McAdams outshines Weisz, it’s mostly to do with the script. Though the film introduces us to Ronit first, she’s merely an outsider, re-interloping in the Orthodox Jewish world that she left behind and that Esti still inhabits. To the extent that she’s the audience avatar, we’re meant to see this world through her eyes, and she herself becomes invisible. Esti, on the other hand, has her life turned upside down again, upsetting the groove she’d painstakingly reconciled herself to. That such strong interior work is done by McAdams, who’s previously been a bit of an enigma for how little interiority she’s usually asked to depict, is nothing short of a revelation. Her usual facade of niceness forms the perfect cover for the roiling emotions Esti must conceal. In contrast to the subtle performances, including that of Alessandro Nivola as Dovid, Esti’s conflicted husband, the film itself can sometimes seem rather blunt: When Dovid gets worked up, the film doesn’t trust in Nivola’s outstanding performance, instead using shaky camerawork to imbue it with false tumult; and the early use of the Song of Songs and The Cure’s “Lovesong” as foreshadowing is a bit on the nose.
David Ehrlich posits that Ronit and Esti are as if the same person split in two, or if I may put it another way, one person’s two possible lives. There’s a unique relationship between them that goes beyond chemistry—we might even call it alchemy—which is tied, not to the fact that their paths diverged, but to their different relations to this world known to them at one time or another as home. Esti, seemingly reconciled to her life, still harbors the fantasy of escape (either physically or emotionally), which is why she contacts Ronit; Ronit, ostensibly leading a life more authentic to her own self, is still drawn to the idea of home, which is why she returns to mourn her father. In a sense, then, tortured relations with home is the central theme of the film, and the romantic history between Ronit and Esti is but a catalyst, the premise setting the stage for a more complex exploration of this theme. This is the true significance of the ending sequence, which Ehrlich finds “listless.” This also explains why the film is so interested in the rekindling of their romance and not its origin.
The home in question is the world of Orthodox Judaism. The film has received much deserved praise for its accurate portrayal of this world, and in an era of resurging antisemitism such a feat should be loudly applauded. The use of haunting religious choral arrangements to set a solemn and slightly melancholy mood is especially powerful. But it struck me that the previous highly acclaimed film about homosexuality, Call Me by Your Name (2017), lacked such an antagonistic environment and was able to create tension merely by importing the assumed conventional opposition of family, friends, and society—only to see this tension magically evaporate due to the beliefs the film mandates for the family, as suggested by critics such as Richard Brody. Could Disobedience‘s apparent need for a more limiting environment reflect the lamentable degree to which female homosexual desire has been eclipsed by the male gaze?
It’s a rare film that can address three major themes with a single pared-down narrative, and even rarer when it features three stellar performances to boot.