In his English-language debut, Sebastián Lelio makes his idea of ‘Carol.’
Chilean director Sebastián Lelio upped the value of his name earlier this year when A Fantastic Woman took home an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and his latest project digs for further acclaim, but this time in English. He is joined in this project by Rachel Weisz, on board as star and producer, and Disobedience takes both to an Orthodox community in the north London suburb of Hendon, in an adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s debut novel of the same name. (Alderman’s name will be familiar to fans of her middlebrow hit novel, The Power.)
The movie’s first third, however, plays out more like a curious companion piece to his recent Oscar-winner. A hero announces herself (Ronit Krushka, played by Weisz) by appearing next to the less savvy (here, religious conservatives instead of outright bigots) and, like Daniela Vega’s Marina, Ronit’s desire is truncated into something superficially unobjectionable, namely being allowed to mourn for someone important to her. Lelio gets things going at a brisker pace, with Ronit’s father dropping dead in the movie’s first scene after delivering a religious monologue about free will in the guise of telling the story of creation.
The monologue becomes important, or at least more important than the atmospheric vérité yarns that Lelio is given to throwing in his movies. Ronit’s father is not merely another nobody with an anonymous family, but a prominent rabbi and his death is an event for an entire community. This largely serves to Ronit’s annoyance, as she left that community for a life photographing tattooed hunks in Brooklyn and considers the intrusion a bit much. In one scene, she chases away young devotees paying their respects, waving them off like a flock of unwelcome pigeons, yelling “It’s my dad.” The community she left is similarly unsure what to do with her, as they had already collectively decided that they were perfectly fine with never seeing her again and didn’t even bother to directly notify her of her father’s death. The deceased father appears to have agreed with this indifference, having written his daughter out of his will.
Free will and decision-making become important elsewhere, as Ronit, unsure of what else to do, resumes an old affair with an old friend, who is now a young rabbi’s wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams). Esti, in turn, takes this as a cue to begins to no longer want to be with this rabbi, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who also happens to be Ronit’s cousin. The religious life suits the superstar McAdams strangely: in a large sheitel, her face is deliberately buried, and this gives her license to speak in a forced, self-serious cant, the smallest pieces of conversation feel like an acting school improvisation. Nivola is more interesting to watch, a man comfortably in power slowly losing his grip, but Lelio shoots him with too much seriousness. Before giving an important speech, he mugs behind artful glass, as if posing for a Criterion DVD cover.
McAdams’s very visible sheitel, which conveniently plays into mass audience’s career-long fascination with her hair, represents most of Lelio’s interest in Orthodox Judaism. The faith serves as a backdrop against which a collective, if vaguely-defined, discomfort with same-sex attraction can be realistically staged in the recognizable present day, but Esti’s marriage and established life with a prominent public figure feels like the more arresting roadblock, straight or gay. Lelio does away with it, however, in a lingering shot of Esti having sex with Dovid and looking very unhappy. After having sex once with Ronit, less unhappy, she begins to ask her husband to “give me my freedom.” The phrase feels ambiguous: is she merely asking for a get, the technical custom in a Jewish marriage where a husband must approve of a divorce before his wife can have another Jewish marriage, or for acceptance of her newly presented sexual identity? If the latter, being chill with your new fling is a weird thing to ask or expect from somebody you’re unamicably divorcing. Like Ronit’s bisexuality, more arrestingly explored in Alderman’s novel, this isn’t something that Lelio is very interested in and Dovid’s acceptance occurs very unambiguously in the form of a strange, literal, group hug of all interested parties.
The scene feels precise, another lingering shot drenched in meaning that begs to be contemplated. It ties together what is a very novelistic love triangle but Lelio appears uninterested in using that set-up to depict desire. It is made clear that Ronit and Esti already were attracted to each other in their shared youth, but the length of time Lelio takes to get around to it prevents the plot device from saving anyone any time. When they finally do smash, which they do in the movie once, Lelio appears suddenly interested in what’s going on. Excitingly taking off her religious garb, Esti leaps onto Ronit’s body like a desert wanderer happening upon an oasis. She begins licking Esti’s face. Later, Weisz’s saliva begins dripping into McAdams’s mouth. One imagines critics campily calling this “hot” or sincerely calling it “passionate,” or even a scene of “hot passion” but Lelio’s set up is too crisp and perfectly rehearsed to feel kinky and too absurd to feel naturalistic. Instead, it feels very extra, enacted to satisfy our gaze.
A recent publicity selling point—that Lelio cut down the number of orgasms on display in the almost two-hour drama to avoid comparison with Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour—suggests only a self-aware canniness. The scene’s euphoric point, that orgasm equals romance, equals liberation, is not particularly nuanced (the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend musical sequence “The Buzzing From The Bathroom” at least has fun with it) and positions Ronit, now very much a sexual tourist from Brooklyn, as a heroic liberator, which feels both presumptuous and boring. Bereft of anything to say, the perfectly shot scene becomes pornographic, an ultimately artless sequence signifying nothing.
A more interesting question is why. In his recent series of movies depicting what are often called “unconventional” women, Lelio has chosen to arm them with a kind of ordinariness that renders their identities pat. This has ranged from an older woman trying to find companionship (2013’s Gloria), a transwoman mourning her dead boyfriend (A Fantastic Woman) and, now, a woman sleeping with an old flame. A feeling of transgressiveness is both vital and banal to these stories. A viewer interested in a movie taking on same-sex courtship would do better to watch Miguel Arteta’s Duck Butter, which hits theaters the same weekend as Disobedience. In it, Arteta and Alia Shawkat, who co-wrote the script, use the formalities of sex and intimacy to make a physical argument for the limitation of desire and articulate a world beyond the cutaway. It is gritty, like its title, and it is unafraid of investigating the kind of conventional romance that a director like Lelio takes for granted and has nothing to say about.
But we do like people who call themselves unconventional, and it’s not particularly surprising that Lelio’s first movie aimed at American audiences is his version of Carol. Some consider Todd Haynes’s popular movie to be one of the best films of this century so far, and Lelio has made this movie for them, hoping to pass off a hurried facsimile as the real thing. But his product, with its palate of sleek greys illuminated by arthouse natural light, brings to mind, instead, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey, a movie that, at any rate, was more honest about its intentions and keen disinterest in investigating its subject matter. Disobedience is made to be liked and its desperation reveals imaginative bankruptcy. If I wanted to be liked as much as it does, I would break down the movie’s final scene and talk about how McAdams’s passionate chase to catch romantic resolution, this drawn-out thing where Esti runs after Ronit’s car after much-pained thinking about it, ultimately becoming a parody of Carol’s final obstacle course of anguish, perfectly depicts her rejection of the patriarchal chains so depicted, very relevant etc., etc., etc. It doesn’t do that at all, but I’m sure Lelio would like it to be that way.