My perspective on this film can only be limited – a gentile perspective – and I don’t claim to know everything about what this film represents for the Jewish community, or even what it means for lesbian women. That being said, the binary expectations, patriarchy, assumed heterosexuality and male/female reproduction within Hasidic Judaism as depicted within this film is gross to say the least: disempowering, a cage, lacking economic independence. It’s easy to see, especially in a situation in the UK where cis, binary, monogamous homosexuality seems to have a degree of greater acceptance (within heterosexual terms) that these confines don’t still exist. Homophobia is otherised: Israeli films like Eyes Wide Open (2009) and In Between (2016) depict the level of homophobia and ‘behind closed doors’ nature of Jewish communities in Jerusalem and Muslim communities in Tel Aviv, confrontational to Israel but foreign to a UK audience. Five decades on on from the underground relationships of films like Victim (1961), it’s easy to get a cute queer romcom with homophobia barely addressed, or on the other end of the spectrum, ‘bury your gays’ level of melodrama. But it’s helpful to be reminded that these barriers still exist: queer history and existence is still erased. It’s still taboo, against the norm, stereotyped, lesbian sexuality received through the male gaze as masturbation material, gross and an easy joke, not something to aim for. Faith communities, and people from different cultural backgrounds – despite the number of accepting, loving and queer people of different faiths and cultures that I’m friends with – have longstanding world views, whether in Eastern Europe or India or Russia or the Middle East – that cannot be erased, even when adapted into British culture, with too many existing institutional structures and shared beliefs to retreat easily.
There’s something sweet and depressing to this film – a teenage romance, where ‘experimentation’ is just a phase – attraction, desire, kissing in the park – that cannot last. And the reunion, years later, where everything and nothing has changed. This film dug up something important to me: what those first, queer kisses really are like, rejecting every homophobe that bullied you in high school, the memories of which still linger as moments of something special. Saying “fuck it” to society and straight couples and every parental suggestion.
Lelio even touches on the false idea of escape: move to New York, and the chemistry will continue, there will be no barriers from anybody. But it’s a false dream – without a visa or money for plane travel – that can never truly be achieved, no matter how much we want it to: a plot device deployed by soppy romantic comedies with a ‘happy ever after’. There’s a degree of acceptance that grows, but the final speech isn’t so much about queerness (though it is about the ability to disobey and the notion of free will) than a shift. The confines that tell women not to speak out – don’t confront patriarchy, don’t argue with the erasure of maiden names from a family’s history, don’t go outside a particular type of girl with a particular man with mediocre sex on the same day every week, the Torah, its surrounding interpretations and the community of Jews around it – as a way to survive. Don’t argue with bringing life into this world and raise a baby within heterosexual confines. These cannot be confronted overnight, but they can still be fought in small, interpersonal ways.
The freedom of escape is a thing of beauty – kissing intensely, taking a Tube into central London, holding hands, feeling the power of good, saliva mixing, wet fucking, hotel room love and embrace and passion and adoration and sex. But there must always be a home and a bed to return to. The film begins with absent chemistry, and bad, lame, tedious, boring sex scenes – before Lelio reveals their history and the true nature of things – the reasons behind resistance and the lack of mutual affection. It blossoms. Paranoia lingers: what happens if their queerness becomes known? The response to queer sexuality is not to embrace it, but bury it inside a loveless marriage, with no pesky hot queer women too busy having lame toilet sex with men on the other side of the globe to interfere. Removing a woman from the community is easier than dealing with these issues.
With the power of the film’s leads, this film easily becomes a ‘woman’s picture’ a la the 1940s and 50s, a male director dealing with patriarchal structures through the words upon the screenplay’s page. Though adapted from Naomi Alderman’s novel, Chilean-Argentine director Lelio isn’t approaching the film as Jewish or British or a woman, and one wonders, with the number of capable Jewish female directors out there, why the film isn’t exempt from the patriarchal structures of filmmaking. But we know why: with A Fantastic Woman, Gloria (2013) and it’s Americanised remake, Gloria Bell (2018), Lelio has been somewhat pigeonholed as a director who can achieve strong performances out of strong, atypical women outside of the norm.