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Sebastian Lelio is celebrating his Oscar win for A Fantastic Woman, which took home the Oscar for best foreign language film in March, the only way he knows how — with the release of another film.
His new movie, Disobedience, which stars Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, centers on Ronit’s (Weisz’s) return to the London Orthodox Jewish community in which she was raised after the death of her rabbi father. There she reignites an old, clandestine relationship with Esti, her former friend who remained in the community after Ronit left.
Though their relationship unfurls quietly, one of the film’s most talked-about moments is an extended sex scene that centers on the two women’s faces.
Disobedience is Lelio’s second queer film after A Fantastic Woman, the latter of which follows a transgender Chilean woman named Marina (Daniela Vega) as she grieves the death of her boyfriend. The director, who hails from Chile and whose other films include 2013’s Gloria, talked to THR about the future of queer cinema and the role of the male gaze in staging a love story between women.
What first drew you to Disobedience?
I felt very attracted to this particular love triangle. I felt connected to [Ronit and Esti], I liked them. They are confused human beings trying to do their best and facing big dilemmas, and all that is happening in front of the backdrop of fixed conceptions of the world and ideas, and I supposed that interaction was going to generate the friction that I was interested to explore.
This is your first English-language feature. What drove you to do a film specifically in English?
Well, it happened naturally. After I made Gloria, my previous film, I was receiving offerings to direct in English, and I was reading scripts, and I was suddenly in this [position] that I never really planned. I was curious to see what’s possible to do. But I didn’t really connect with anything until I heard about this story. It felt challenging and urgent and contemporary and strangely familiar to me, even though I’m not Jewish or British. The idea of exploring the subject of duty against desire or individual’s freedom against community felt like my territory. And the idea of working with Rachel Weisz, who was always attached to the project, was very exciting and tempting as well.
You mentioned the film is urgent. Could you elaborate on that?
The idea of limits is something we are discussing nowadays in modern society. Which bodies are navigable, which relationships are possible to live, or who draws the line and which authority and why. I think that’s a very contemporary subject.
The sex scene in Disobedience has garnered a lot of attention. When you think of other female love stories from male directors, a lot of them have been critiqued in the past as exploiting the central relationship for the male gaze. How did you think about your role as a male filmmaker when creating that sex scene?
I was thinking about them, the characters. I was thinking of Ronit and Esti, and I was placing the camera for them as opposed to for me. That strategy of placing the camera for them is something I try to do in every scene, so I wasn’t changing anything. My approach didn’t change [for the sex scene]. You see it in some other scenes in the film, and it’s exactly the same morale.
When you’re filming, not everything is rational. But I really knew that this scene was part of the film that needed to be long, and that I really needed to get under their skin and get to feel what they were feeling. It was a challenge to make it erotic without using nudity.
That scene focuses a lot on their faces, and the spectator is invited to complete the scene, to fill the blanks, and to imagine what’s going on outside the frame, and I think that creates a very active participation of the spectator in the scene. I really wanted to find very specific actions for them to do that could express how their particular love manifested.
I storyboarded the entire scene, and I shared it with the two Rachels, and I explained the plan, and they really got it. They really understood the ideas behind it.
Where do you think queer cinema is headed? What do you hope is next?
More than thinking in those terms, I would say, what are the new spaces that contemporary narratives in cinema have conquered? Not only queer cinema, but what other areas that have been on the fringes of representation or narrative are becoming central? I think things are shifting and moving, and I don’t think that’s a phenomenon that belongs exclusively to queer cinema. I think it’s happening hopefully in cinema in general, sometimes slower than one would expect, but I have the feeling that things are starting to expand.
That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not thinking in queer cinema terms. I’m thinking just in narrative and what moves me.
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