Dir: Sebastián Lelio. Screenplay: Sebastián Lelio, Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Based on Naomi Alderman’s 2007 novel of the same name.
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser, Bernice Stegers
114 mins, USA, 2018
Watched by: Sarah, HoneyBee, Michèle
I went to see Disobedience at the Watershed with elder daughter and oldest friend (I’ve just read Anna Burns’s Milkman, the funniest, darkest and most feminist novel ever, and am trying out her naming-style); younger daughter was busy that Saturday afternoon making Christmas wreaths and decorations, and I wasn’t entirely sure that mother-in-law would enjoy it.
The story kicks off when the Chief Rabbi of an Orthodox Jewish community in North London, having delivered a peroration on men and women being distinguished from angels and from beasts by their ability to make choices, keels over and dies. His daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz), an only child, now a fashionable portrait photographer in New York, returns to London for the funeral rituals. She has been estranged from her father and from the whole community ever since she left – or was expelled – when as a teenager she and her best friend Esti (Rachel McAdams) had a lesbian relationship.
She finds that Esti, once a disobedient rebel like herself, now wears the wig and fullcover-up clothes of an Orthodox wife, and is married, to Ronit’s astonishment, to their old mutual friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), one-time disciple and now spiritual heir of Ronit’s father.
HB says: Very funny in parts and excellently structured. But I needed more of the backstory for Ronit, Esti and Dovid; their interactions and conversations didn’t seem to reflect what we’re expected to believe was a past close and complex relationship.
The first half of the film is sharp, funny, unsettling. I was reminded of the portrayal of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Daniel Kokotajlo’s Apostasy: the same patriarchal laws, the same misogyny, the same complicity on the part of (most of) the women. (Bernice Stegers is good as a sympathetic older woman but the part is under-written.) Ronit has been disinherited both by her father (literally: he has left his house and goods to the synagogue) and by the community. They don’t much like her; they’d rather she wasn’t there at all. Lelio uses close-ups of faces and of stuffy over-furnished interiors, with almost minimal dialogue, to great comic effect.
Much to the disapproval of the elders and their wives Dovid invites Ronit to stay with him and Esti rather than book in to a hotel. The old attraction between the two women resurfaces …
So far so very enjoyable. Then, half-way through, the film takes a sudden swerve in direction, after a climactic (literally) scene between the two women when they repair to a hotel room to have sex.
Michèle Roberts says: The Hendon (north-west London) setting is beautifully captured in exterior shots of streets of Edwardian semis, and interiors of genteel, plush decor of brown sideboards and bad oil paintings. The love story is weakened by our being given no information about the women’s previous relationship, so that the sex scene, when it duly arrives, lacks depth and history and subjectivity and makes us feel like voyeurs, watching two beautiful women go at it pornographically rather than erotically.
When we were talking about it afterwards, Michèle and I puzzled over why the women kept their clothes on during this long-drawn-out heavily-panting, loudly-moaning and groaning sequence. Michèle: Is this how we’re meant to think lesbians have sex? Me: Or how Orthodox sex happens? But what was with the drooling, or spitting, into each other’s mouths, which puzzled us even more? ‘Spitting is a ‘thing’,’ HB told us. ‘A ‘thing’? Really?’ Michèle and I had never heard of it. Back in the day people used to exchange a mouthful of wine, or perhaps a mouthful of weed-smoke. But spit?? ‘A lesbian thing?’ we asked. No, not particularly, HB thought. I wondered whether possibly it was a ‘thing’ infiltrated from pornographic films into mainstream cinema and thus normalized. But what do I know?
And … sorry, here’s another complaint … what was with Ronit lighting up a cigarette after sex? A corny enough trope anyway, but smoking in a hotel room …? Earlier we had seen her lighting up inside Esti and Dovid’s kitchen, which struck me as pretty weird. For the last ten years this woman has been living in New York, surely the birthplace of the no-smoking-inside rule? (Regular readers of this blog may have noticed how annoyed I get by male directors making their female actors smoke in weird and unlikely ways – see for example Charlotte Rampling’s unconvincng smokes in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, or more recently Glenn Close in Bjorn Runge’s The Wife).
However and furthermore, besides keeping their clothes on, spitting in each other’s mouths, and inappropriate smoking, the main trouble with this sex/love scene is that we don’t have anything invested in the two characters. Did they really have a passionate teen affair? We aren’t shown it. Hmm. See comments above from HB and Michèle.
And so to the other road onto which this film veers … The second half of the film consists of a series of scenes of Richard Curtis-style schmaltz. There are a number of trips to and from Heathrow (despite being disinherited Ronit must have quite a bit of independent money considering how many taxis she takes); a series of showdowns between the three central characters in which their eyes brim with tears; much talk about freedom of choice; a surprise pregnancy; and a great big group hug outside the synagogue. Almost finally we see Esti running after the taxi at dawn for a final tearful goodbye kiss. And finally finally Ronit asks the taxi driver to take a little detour.
Oh my goodness, what a surprise, Ronit is taking a detour to the cemetery where her father has been buried. ‘I thought maybe she was going to dance on his grave,’ said HB. Alas, she did not.
On the way out of the Watershed we stopped to take a look at the audience comments pinned up on the review board. ‘Lesbians don’t spit in each other’s mouths. Yuk!’ said one of them. So there you have it.
I’m thinking now that maybe my mother-in-law would have enjoyed this film … Despite all the caveats above, we three certainly did.