Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience starts off icy and severe. When Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) returns from New York to attend the funeral of her father, a revered Orthodox rabbi in London, she receives a frosty welcome from her erstwhile community — including (and especially) her childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams), who is now married to Ronit’s cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). There are intimations of past impropriety on Ronit’s part, having led to her ostracization from the community, and insinuations of a difficult history between her and Esti that has now rendered their interactions strained.
This is all relayed obliquely, through uneasy silences and furtive glances, until the two of them stroll through the late rabbi’s house and Ronit turns on the radio. The Cure’s “Lovesong” starts playing (“You make me feel like I am home again / You make me feel like I am whole again”), and the two women — Esti in the foreground, Ronit in the background — begin bobbing their heads in spontaneous symmetry. It’s a beautiful syncing together of souls, and despite the obvious contrivance of the moment, it unleashes Ronit and Esti’s simmering desires and repressed intimacy into the film like a long-overdue exhale. The simple, powerful sensuality of that moment stuck with me long after the film, even more so than the frenzied kissing and kinky sex that follows it.
All of Disobedience is like this moment: precise and calculated almost to a fault, and yet incredibly effective (and affecting) thanks to the director’s genuine artistry. Lelio directs his first English-language feature with same tight yet effortless control over form that made his A Fantastic Woman (2017) an Oscar-winner. He stages each shot in complex and evocative layers, shooting from angles that pull at the edges of the image, warping it in tandem with the characters’ imploding lives. In a composition that recalls A Fantastic Woman’s iconic use of mirrors, Esti, having just kissed Ronit, stands naked in her bathroom facing the suspicious Dovid, whose face is diminished and inverted in the small makeup mirror behind her. The hint of uncanny in these visuals is exacerbated by Matthew Herbert’s hypnotic, orchestral score, which reminded me, curiously, of Lucrecia Martel’s recently-released Zama. In both films, rich and discordant audioscapes expand — rather than simply translate — the inner lives of the characters, opening up new emotional possibilities through inventive arrangements of sound.
Compared to the meticulousness Lelio affords to form, there’s something a bit schematic about his characters. This is especially true of Ronit, whose personality is established with the few broad strokes of an opening montage. She receives news of her father’s death while taking portraits of a tattooed man in New York, and then deals with the grief by ice-skating alone in a tearful daze, smoking, drinking and having sex with a stranger in a bathroom stall. Even after her arrival in London, her “disobedience” is much too predictable — she wears a tight leather skirt to a Sabbath dinner and disrupts the gathering by announcing her dislike for the institution of marriage. She feels less like a person and more like a symbolic Cool Girl, intended simply to trigger Esti’s rebellion.
And yet, as the film proceeds, even the thinness of Ronit’s character reveals itself to be an intentional element in Lelio’s web of text and subtext. Despite Weisz’s sheer magnetism, Esti, and not Ronit, is the centrepiece of the film. Esti is introduced as a baggy-eyed, sheitel-wearing schoolteacher who has dutiful sex with her husband every Friday evening. Given the vivacity we’ve come to expect of Rachel McAdams on screen, Esti’s subduedness feels especially jarring and tragic. But as she slowly opens up, she emerges as much less passive than the people around her — including Ronit — believe her to be. She’s not a pathetic and lovesick figure coaxed out of the closet by the Manic-Pixie Ronit; rather, she willingly invites Ronit into her life, desiring the disruption she knows her former lover, in all her predictable tropiness, will bring. Esti plunges herself into the terrifying uncertain place between obedience and disobedience, and it is her courage to stay there — to be defiantly out-of-sync — that powers Lelio’s arresting film.
Devika Girish (@devikagirgayi) is as a freelance film critic. She writes for Film Comment, Village Voice, Reverse Shot and MUBI’s Notebook, among others. She grew up in India, studied film and critical theory at Brown University and will soon start a Master’s in Specialized Journalism at the University of Southern California.