Whatever you think Disobedience is, it’s going to surprise you. Like the body of an old lover, under your hands again after many years, it’s familiar, yet surpassingly strange. It makes use of some of queer cinema’s most shopworn tropes, but brings them to adulthood, stripped of their fairytale illusions about themselves. (That’s not a slight on fairy tales, of course. There is a place for both.)
Our story begins, not with its two female leads, but in the intransigently male space of an Orthodox synagogue in London, where an old and venerable rabbi gives a moving sermon on the subject of choice, god’s great gift and burden to humans. This first scene tells us from the start that Disobedience will have a different stance on religion than most of the queer female films that have come before it. Whereas organized religion is usually depicted a tool of the patriarchal oppressors, to which queerness is the rebellion, Disobedience is much more ambivalent about the Judaism it depicts (another notable exception is The Secrets, which also concerns a devoutyl Jewish community). At times this religion acts as a forbidding barrier between meaningful relationships, and between individuals and freedom, but at other moments its rituals and mysteries offer a communion with the divine as holy as sex. (If you’re unfamiliar with Orthodox communities, I highly recommend preparing for Disobedience by watching One of Us, a Netflix documentary which depicts how insular those communities can be, and how profoundly difficult it is for people who wish to leave them.)
At any rate, immediately after finishing his sermon, the rabbi drops dead, and shortly after that, his estranged daughter, Ronit hears of his passing. Ronit (Rachel Weisz, whose face is the best illustration of what Keats meant when he said that truth and beauty were the same thing) is working as a photographer in New York, a profession that both permits her to live a freewheeling lifestyle and keeps her at a camera lens’ remove from the secular society to which she can never fully belong. Upon hearing the news of her father’s death she gets joylessly drunk, has apparently anonymous sex with a man in a bathroom stall, and hits the local skating rink (thus deposing A Charlie Brown Christmas as the world’s most depressing depiction of ice skating).
After that, Ronit hops on a plane and travels to London for the funeral, where she is greeted by her father’s protege and surrogate son, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). The community is scandalized by her return, which they make clear by wishing her a long life, an expression that rivals the Southern “bless your heart” for threadbare passive-aggressiveness. Ronit, for her part, makes it clear the feeling is mutual, by refusing to have babies or wear a wig. (I have no wish to turn this into a theological debate, but I will say that I reject any god that would deprive the world of Rachel Weisz’s natural hair.)
Ronit and Dovid, it transpires, were once two parts of an inseparable triumvirate, and the third, of course, is Esti (Rachel McAdams, who has been inexcusably shortchanged and underestimated by Hollywood for being TOO BEAUTIFUL). Dovid and Esti are married, news which Ronit greets with poorly-disguised shock. Most of the three characters’ history goes unspoken, but you can feel it in the careful way they move around each other, like they share a collective injury.
Despite this awkwardness, Dovid and Esti insist Ronit stays with them for the week, while she sorts out her late father’s affairs. My favorite scene in the whole first third of the movie occurs with Ronit, alone in her attic room, looking as though she is being physically crushed by her surroundings, made a child again in the way that homecomings can do to everyone.
But from there, the movie pulls off one of its big surprises; it shifts focus from the restless, inconstant Ronit to Esti, whose choice is not yet made. It’s Esti, we learn, who first kissed Ronit when they were adolescents, and Esti who admits that she has only ever desired women. It’s heartbreaking, yet McAdams’ performance doesn’t ask for your pity but your respect, because her devotion to her husband, career, community, and home, are all real. They have weight. But The Rachels? The Rachels have magic. And it wouldn’t be much of a movie if Esti didn’t choose the magic. But the operative word here is “choose.” Esti crosses a room for that magic, in a scene that makes my heart race every time I watch it.
The movie skips over the usual trope of an affair conducted in secret, because Roni and Esti are almost immediately found out, due to some really amateurish secret rendezvous locations. (A floodlit tennis court! A public park!)
LESBIAN DAY OF VISIBILITY DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE INVISIBLE ALL THE OTHER DAYS.
Despite the chorus of people shout-singing “TRADITION” at them, Ronit and Esti still manage to steal away and take Rachel McAdams’ wig off.
A lot of ink has already been spilled about this sex scene, most of it focused on the mechanics of how it was filmed, and on the alleged limitations of straight directors and actors in imagining lesbian sex.
Here’s my take on that: In our current moment, every film released will inevitably be labeled problematic in some way, and that’s part of the reason I usually wait at least five years after a movie’s release to write a Sapphic Cinema about it. I’m interested in the long view, and a film’s overall place in the canon once the dust has settled. That being said, my personal reaction to the sex scene was positive, because even the choices I found odd seemed driven by emotion in a way that felt truthful. Ronit and Esti don’t manage to take off all their clothes, but it doesn’t seem prudish so much as desperate and hurried. They exchange saliva, and it’s weird, but couples are fucking weird! I have had odd physical rituals specific to all my long-term relationships, and I bet you have too, although I don’t want to share mine nor hear yours.
At the end of the day, I would rather see a lesbian sex scene that tries something new than one that repeats the familiar formula of:
- Mysterious handsy stuff in which the actors are plainly unclear about what they’re supposed to be indicating is going on down there.
- Someone’s head disappears under the covers.
- Cries of ecstasy.
There are cries of ecstasy, of course, but once they’re over, Ronit and Esti have to go back to being grownups, which isn’t so much a denial of magic as figuring out where it fits into one’s life.
Needless to say, there are complications, some of which stem from the fact that neither Ronit nor Esti are angels. I think that notion, that our queerness functions as a shining armor of righteousness, may the hardest thing we have to sacrifice in watching our genre come to maturity. Because YES, women loving each other is a powerful act of defiance in this man’s world. Love the liberating sword is the most foundational story we have, which is why we keep coming back to it. But it only stays fresh and potent if we can acknowledge that women are capable of betrayal and weakness even as we love.
In the end, neither Dovid’s religion, nor Esti’s love, nor Ronit’s freedom are the panaceas they promise to be. They all fall frustratingly short during the times when you need them most. Which is why knowing when to stick with them, and when to move on to something new, even knowing it won’t be the end-all be-all either, is the biggest choice of adulthood.
You want to know if this story has a happy ending. Of course you do. It’s a perfectly understandable desire, and that craving for predictability is why there will always be a place in our canon for fairytales. But I’m going to let you be surprised by this one and not tell you the ending, though I will tell you the very last scene. Ronit goes to her father’s grave. She is dressed in black, the tombs are grey; the whole film has the weary palette of winter. But the last thing we see is the grass growing out of the freshly-tilled earth, and the grass is the pale green of spring.
Sex Scenes: One. Three if you count the straight ones. But one.
Quality of sex scenes: The movie could also be called Wet Hot British Winter
Eventual fate of central couple: No spoilers but if you ask me in private I will tell you my DEEPLY-HELD BELIEFS ON THE SUBJECT.