Girls gone not too wild in ‘Disobedience’

There’s just something about lesbians.

Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams get close in ‘Disobedience' (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams get close in ‘Disobedience'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There’s just something about lesbians.
When I was working at the New York Post, producers used to send videocassettes of indie movies to critics and whenever I reviewed a movie about lesbians, half the guys in the office always wanted to borrow the cassette when I was done.
So I was aware of a certain anticipation ahead of Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience, which is based on Naomi Alderman’s novel about a lesbian love affair in London’s ultra-Orthodox community. But if those guys from the Post see this film, they’ll be a bit disappointed. There are a couple of big love scenes, and they’re fairly hot, at least when compared to the temperature of the rest of the film, which is hovering at zero.
But the whole enterprise suffers from what I call “Bergman-itis,” as in Ingmar Bergman. Just as in his most pretentious films, everyone here is pinched, pale and constrained. It’s in color, but it’s that washed-out kind of color that is almost black and white, and everyone wears black most of the time anyway. It’s possible that the ultra-Orthodox community in London is far quieter than haredi neighborhoods I’ve seen in Brooklyn and Jerusalem, but I’d imagine there is still a certain bustle, with voices raised in argument from time to time, and the sound of children playing in the street.
In Disobedience, everyone speaks softly, almost in a whisper, as if they were praying. A lot of filmmakers get into this kind of style when they make a film about the ultra-Orthodox, and Lelio, who directed the Oscar-winning and much more fun A Fantastic Woman, is not Jewish and may have seen this approach as being respectful. I imagine it’s meant to emphasize the solemnity of the two female friends’ forbidden passion, which is supposed to be taking place in the middle of a bloodless, passionless vacuum. That’s the director’s choice, but it doesn’t make for riveting viewing.
The movie opens with Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) collapsing as he is making a speech to his rapt disciples in his London shul about the freedom to choose between desire and duty. The scene shifts to New York, where his daughter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a trendy photographer, gets a call telling her he is dead. In order to drive home the point that she is secular and has totally abandoned her roots, once she gets the bad news, she has a drink at a bar, has sex with a male stranger in the bar bathroom and goes ice skating.
Got it: She’s no longer part of the fold, but has strong feelings about this loss.
Next, she heads to London, where her cousin Dovid (sexy Alessandro Nivola, cast very much against type as a nerd), her father’s most faithful disciple and her close childhood friend, welcomes her to the shiva. It turns out he is married to their other best friend, Esti (Rachel McAdams, who looks surprisingly comfortable in her wig but whose British accent comes and goes), who soon starts exchanging meaningful looks with Ronit. As Ronit reacquaints herself with her family, whom she hasn’t seen for decades, it becomes clear that it wasn’t only her decision to rebel against her father that has kept her away. Before you can say, “She must have had a passionate affair with Esti,” the two are going at it again, while Dovid, who pretty much guesses what is going on, waits on the sidelines, fuming.
The movie’s plot turns on whether Esti, who conveniently is childless, will stay in her marriage with Dovid, whose sexual urges disgust her, or whether she will return to New York with Ronit. But there’s a piece missing in the movie’s conception of Ronit. If her life in New York as a freelance photographer is so great, why does the visit make her so glum, even before she reignites her conflicted love affair with Esti? Why wouldn’t she just hug her aunts, nod at her uncles, eat some challah and head back to the Big Apple as quickly as possible? Ronit is tormented, but it’s hard to understand exactly what she is struggling with. There isn’t really enough chemistry between her and Esti to make is seem plausible that they have been pining for each other for decades and the fact that her initial response to her father’s death is to have sex with a stranger and go ice skating alone rather than call a friend seems to suggest all is not well. But we never find out what is really troubling her.
It doesn’t help the film that the get-ups the movie gives Esti look weirdly reminiscent of the uniforms forced on the fertile sex slaves in The Handmaid’s Tale. That may well be exactly the way people dress in this community in London, but about halfway through, I started thinking subversive thoughts about a character putting on a colorful print blouse.
Weisz and McAdams, usually very lively actresses, don’t seem to be having much fun here, even when they’re in bed.
If this theme – a lesbian love affair in the ultra-Orthodox world – is your cup of tea, I recommend Avi Nesher’s 2007 film, The Secrets, for a much more engaging look at the topic.
With Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola.
Hebrew title: She’Ahava Nafshi. 114 minutes. In English with Hebrew subtitles.