'Elisa & Marcela' ('Elisa y Marcela'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
All message, no feeling.

Isabel Coixet's romantic drama about Spain's first same-sex marriage in 1901 bowed in competition in Berlin.

Given the historical landmark at the center of Elisa & Marcela — the first real-life same-sex marriage in conservative, Catholic Spain in 1901 — it might seem trivial to quibble about its inaccurate period details, such as how newspapers didn’t normally run photographs on their front pages. It’s typical, however, of the way Catalan filmmaker Isabel Coixet’s latest offering reworks an early 20th century story into a plodding, protracted melodrama where provincial folk speak, behave and act like their 21st century counterparts.

One could argue that this is exactly what the famously political Coixet is trying to say, and that Elisa & Marcela is meant to be an allegory about the dangerously medieval attitudes still harbored against gay people around the world today. But that’s where the problem lies. Wanting to make a point, the filmmaker has delivered a piece devoid of the emotional nuances that made Brokeback Mountain or Carol, to cite two seminal same-sex love stories, such gripping and heartbreaking viewing.

This film makes Coixet's previous outing, the English-language The Bookshop, look more sophisticated and complex in comparison — at least that pic effectively conveyed the stifling social climate of a small English town in the 1950s. Rather than providing a layered take on social norms dictating people’s thinking a century ago, Coixet resorts to period-drama pastiche; not content with shooting the film entirely in black-and-white, she indulges in gratuitous iris shots and awkwardly integrated newsreel footage.

While one can’t fault the director’s fight for what’s right — Coixet also heads a film crew in which women fill most of the leading jobs — Elisa & Marcela offers a much less convincing cinematic experience than its socially conscious heart. Still, following its bow in Berlin competition, the Netflix-backed film should sail through the festival circuit and sell well as a small-screen title on the strength of its subject matter.

The story opens in Argentina in 1925. A young woman travels by train and horse-drawn carriage to a remote house, where she is met by its silver-haired owner, Marcela. Seated outside after a meal, the older woman begins to tell her guest her own personal story, which begins in the northwestern Spanish city of La Coruna in 1898.

Then a newcomer to a convent school, Marcela (Greta Fernandez) meets senior student Elisa (Natalia de Molina), a rebellious girl who describes their nun-run institution as a “harem” and claims she doesn’t believe in God or religion. Cue onscreen shortcuts providing a foreshadowing of things to come, as teachers are heard force-feeding Christian family values even in language and history classes.

As if on fast-forward, the two girls quickly fall for each other without much ado. When Marcela’s sharp-eyed father (Francesc Orella) spots their subtle expressions of affection, he tries to stop the girls from seeing each other. Unable to snip their growing bonds, he finally sends Marcela to another school in Madrid.

The story picks up three years later, when Elisa has become a teacher in a small village outside La Coruna. Having finished her studies in Madrid, Marcela appears at Elisa’s school, and their reunion quickly explodes into protracted, passionate lovemaking. Up to this point, Coixet has kept the imagery simple and on a tight leash, but the sex scenes are excessively stylized — one particular session is filmed first with a handheld camera, then in slow-motion, while another involves a bizarre round of petting involving an octopus (really) Marcela was fixing for dinner. From this point on, the movie takes on a wobbly tone and coloring.

Marginalized by the local community, the couple decide to make a last bid for happiness. Elisa leaves the village and Marcela gets herself pregnant by a local man; Elisa then returns under the false identity of Marcela’s cousin from England and asks for her hand. Having fooled the priest into presiding over their nuptials, they find the neighbors less gullible. Violence and exile in Portugal ensue, leading to a grand finale which explains the identity of the young woman visiting Marcela in Argentina at the beginning of the film.

Sadly for a story so fraught with desire and violence, Elisa & Marcela is painfully lacking in frisson and danger. Despite competent performances from her two young stars, Coixet fails to inject the girls’ relationship with complexity, tension and conflict. In the end, they are ciphers in a message-driven movie, which is made worse by contrived one-liners and gestures. An example is the scene in which Marcela’s mother admits to her daughter how she reads books on the sly, and then pulls one (by legendary Spanish feminist novelist Emilia Pardo Bazan) from under her dress; meant to illustrate the oppression her generation is placed under, it comes off as simply bizarre. How disappointing that one of the most radical chapters in the history of gay rights is turned into such middling fare.

Production companies: Rodar y Rodar, Legal Zenit TV, La Nube Películas
Cast: Natalia de Molina, Greta Fernández
Director-screenwriter: Isabel Coixet
Producers: Joaquín Padró, Mar Targarona, Zaza Ceballos, José Carmona
Director of photography: Jennifer Cox
Production designer: Silvia Steinbrecht
Costume designer: Mercè Paloma
Music: Sofia Oriana
Editing: Bernat Aragonés
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Film Factory

In Spanish
113 minutes