Women Who Dare – Disobedience Is The Must See Lesbian Film Of The Year
As seen in our Spring issue!
The tagline for the excellent new film Disobedience is “Love is an act of defiance”—but it’s fair to say that the idea of women working together in the film industry these days is equally defiant. Disobedience, an intelligent and complex feature film, is produced by the actor Rachel Weisz, with Rachel McAdams as her co-star. While McAdams has shared her account of being a victim of sexual harassment at the hands of film director James Toback—an account which helped contribute to the groundswell of the #MeToo movement—it’s important not to view Hollywood’s actresses as merely players in a narrative of victimization. Equal if not more powerful is the narrative of women spearheading creative projects that empower them as talented players in an industry that often stacks the odds against them.
So it’s a real pleasure to watch Disobedience—starring McAdams as a deceptively transgressive character, and Weisz as the catalyst for her transgression. The film is a miracle of sorts—that such a high-profile actor was attracted to a project that is quietly sombre, complex, and that resonantly reframes the way in which we see women as architects of their own freedom is a welcome offering.
Disobedience is based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, in which Ronit Krushka, a single Manhattan photographer, learns that her estranged father, a Godlike rabbi in the London Orthodox Jewish community in which she was raised, has suddenly died. Ronit goes home to pay her respects, for the first time in years, and rekindles her traumatic relationship with the community that shunned her for a grave misdemeanour: a forbidden lesbian affair with her best friend Esti. But what does Ronit ultimately want—aside from reconnecting with her cousin Dovid, who is also Esti’s husband? Is she probing a possible inheritance, or impossibly seeking posthumous love and forgiveness from her father? As it turns out, the one inheritance Ronit is bequeathed is her mother’s Shabbat candlesticks, but what she actually gains is the passionate rekindling of her affair with Esti—an affair that finally undoes the women’s oppression by the community that stifles them.
When I ask Weisz how the project came to her she corrects me gently. “Actually, the project didn’t come to me, I found it. I was looking for good a role for me, and a role for another woman, and I suppose it was natural to choose a story about a lesbian relationship. I read Naomi Alderman’s book and I optioned it and then I took it to Film4.”
Weisz’s choice of project seems both selfless and insightful. The relationship between Ronit and Esti—two atypical women on the fringes of minority cultures—has arguably not been seen onscreen before. Weisz is mesmerizing as Ronit, a New York City photographer who is more in command of her photographic subjects than she is of herself. She is known for capturing urban subcultures and beautiful eccentrics, but her talent for finding beauty in unexpected places masks her unresolved grief. When she discovers her father has died she gets drunk and has sex with a stranger, then goes ice-skating. Weisz, a talented performer whose face can mercurially reconfigure itself from smouldering beauty to deep sorrow, has perfect chemistry with McAdams, who plays a timid and quietly distressed teacher in a Jewish girls‘ school. While Esti likes her job and finds authority in it, she is moments away from a nervous breakdown, exacerbated by her persistent feeings for Ronit, which simmer beneath the surface of duty. The tension is palpable. When Esti lights the candles for Shabbat, Ronit looks as though she is being pulled magnetically to her. At Shabbat dinner when Ronit is asked why her professional name is Ronnie Curtis and not Ronit Krushka, Esti interjects, “Women change their names every day. They take their husbands’ names and their own history is gone.”
Two women together can challenge the cultural order. Weisz looks at McAdams with penetrating longing, a keen sense of recognition, and with a desire that is as much about selfhood as it is about sex. Weisz agrees that establishing a non-male gaze was vital to the film. “It’s really fascinating talking about the male gaze,” she says, “because men do see women in a certain way, and women do often look at other women as though they’re seeing them through the eyes of men. So it’s really important that we see Ronit looking at Esti—as a woman looking at another woman, and seeing her just as that—a woman who returns her gaze as well.”
It’s not that men are necessarily the problem, says Weisz. “The problem is in the way that stories are told.” While the director, Sebastián Lelio, is a straight man, “there’s something different about Sebastián, and about the way he sees things, that I don’t feel oppressed by,” says Weisz. She extends that collaborative compliment to her co-star, Alessandro Nivola, who plays Dovid, and while he is the heir to Ronit’s religious figurehead father, in a way, he also helps deliver his wife’s freedom when she makes it clear to him that there is no other way for her to live.
When I tell Weisz that I admire her choice of subject, especially at a time when Hollywood has sought refuge from identity politics in endless superhero franchises, she observes that those narratives can also offer powerful opportunities for women—it depends on how the story is told. “When you say comic books, though, I think of Wonder Woman, which I absolutely loved and felt so inspired by. I could really relate to her, as somebody who grew up as a tomboy in a certain environment and who wanted to get out and be active and do things. It’s not even really about diversity,” she says. “It’s about representation, and what a character is allowed to do in the story, and how our perception of that can change the culture.”
Weisz directs me to a speech by the actor Riz Ahmed, best known in Ameri ca for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, that he gave in the British Parliament last year. “The most fantastical and unrealistic stories can make the biggest impact,” says Ahmed. “But even in those stories, what people are looking for is the message that they belong. That they are part of something. That they are seen and heard, but despite—or perhaps because of the uniqueness of their experience—they are valued. They want to feel represented.” If they’re not represented, they’re pushed to the fringes, says Ahmed, where they act out. Neither Ronit nor Esti have been accepted by their community, and Ronit’s response is to cast herself even further out. Esti has lost herself in conformity and forces herself to be heterosexual, even though that’s bound to fail. Of course, when they meet again, their alienation ignites a powderkeg.
Weisz was especially taken with portraying the intersection of two minority communities: queer women and Orthodox Jews. “I’ve had very little to do with that world,” she admits, “but I have known and worked with gay people all my life and have many gay friends,” she says. When it came to casting her gay love interest, Weisz was thrilled to land Rachel McAdams, an actor with serious marquee pull who was committed enough to her craft to be drawn to shooting a small-budget drama in “rainy North London”—while wearing unflattering costumes and an Orthodox wig. But their chemistry is compelling and believable—Weisz’s more dominant Ronit plays off the repressed Esti who is gradually unraveled by her visiting friend. “I think Esti really is gay, and Ronit is probably bisexual,” says Weisz. “But she also tends to go with her feelings, and act on impulse.”
In one scene, when Ronit says, “Perhaps people should stop having so many children,” Esti stifles a smile. When one of the hosts observes that Ronit is not married and urges her to conform to the natural order, Ronit snaps, “Is that the way it should be or is that just institutional obligation?” Again, Esti looks smitten by Ronit, who is opinionated and liberated in a way that she longs to be. It was important to Weisz that the ecsalating relationship between the women was not handled voyeuristically, but critics have already focused on the sex scene as the centerpiece of the film, and I ask Weisz if she thinks that’s fair. “Are you referring to the scene where Ronit and Esti spit in each other’s mouths?” she asks frankly. Yes; what does she think that particular sexual gesture means?
“I’d rather not say,” she says, “or I’d prefer to hear what you think it means.”
I tell her I think it’s an exchange of bodily fluids that is also a metaphorical impregnation. Ronit has inseminated Esti with disobedience. It may turn out that she is pregnant with Dovid’s child—but Esti now has the strength to decide what to do with it, because of Ronit. “I’m not sure if I can say that’s absolutely what Sebastián [and the screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz] intended,” says Weisz. “I’d rather each viewer make up their mind about what it means, but I love your interpretation. It suggests that they have transformed each other.”
And this, ultimately, is what wom en can do for each other. The dearth of good roles—or opportunities—for women “is not even about age,” says Weisz. “It’s about gender. It’s ridiculous that we’re even having this conversation. It’s very strange that we talk about women as though we’re some obscure minority, when in fact we are half of the world’s population.” Weisz doesn’t have a mandate, but Disobedience is a powerful start, and highlights the rewards of women taking a more active role. Weisz relished her role as producer, which she describes as “the opposite of acting” and rather than waiting for a great script to come to her she found one for herself, and for a female co-star.
Esti and Ronit would approve.
Disobedience is released on April 27.