Exposure and Ecstasy:
An Interview with Sebastián Lelio
By Demitra Kampakis
Fresh off his Academy Award for A Fantastic Woman, Chilean-born director Sebastián Lelio returns with Disobedience, a stirring, slow-simmering portrait of two women living on the fringes of their Orthodox Jewish community in London. As with A Fantastic Woman and his earlier Gloria, Lelio casts his deeply empathetic gaze on the conflicted interior lives of his female protagonists, while continuing to thematically probe the contours of faith, free will, love, loss, and sexuality. The film centers on childhood friends Ronit (Rachel Weisz), Esti (Rachel McAdams), and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who are forced to confront the limitations of their faith when Ronit—a secular New York photographer—returns to her hometown following the death of her beloved and respected rabbi father. Ronit is reunited with her former secret lover Esti, and it isn’t long before the two women rekindle their passionate romance.
Ronit’s modern feminist sensibilities awaken long-suppressed curiosities and desires within Esti, forcing her to reckon with the traditional path she chose for herself—which includes an obligatory marriage to Dovid and being subject to the strict, sexist doctrine of her Orthodox faith. Beautifully illustrating Esti’s placid, monotonous life through a muted visual palette, Lelio creates a multifaceted and nuanced depiction of the ways grief and death are inextricably linked to the profound sense of loneliness and alienation one experiences amidst the claustrophobic confines of a deeply conservative society.
Earlier this month, I had the chance to interview Lelio following the film’s premiere at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, and our conversation ranged from philosophical musings on society and self-identity, to the film’s already famous spit scene.
Reverse Shot: Disobedience occupies a very specific cultural milieu. What made you want to adapt Naomi Alderman’s novel? Were you familiar with the religious nuances of Orthodox Judaism prior to filming?
Sebastián Lelio: I really loved the unique love triangle at the heart of the story, and the idea that these people have known each other since early childhood and are somehow destined to be together, either physically or spiritually. I just felt very connected to these characters and this idea of people living their life together. Someone pitched it to me before I read the novel, and I was drawn to these confused and vibrant human beings just trying to do their best as they operate in an oppressive context where there are very fixed conceptions of the world. So this idea of what’s fixed in the background and vibrant in the foreground was very appealing to me—and the fact that Rachel Weisz was not only going to produce but also play Ronit was a big factor.
RS: You’ve previously said that you try to avoid having society be the “antagonistic force” in your films because you want that force to exist within the characters themselves. Do you think that having a character at odds with social expectations is the most effective way to explore their inner psyche, as with Marina in A Fantastic Woman?
SL: Not necessarily, but it is definitely something I strive towards. When you put pressure on these characters, it shows you what they’re really made of. The same is true for A Fantastic Woman and Gloria—the idea of a rebel is very attractive to me. Even when they’re doing the wrong things for the right reasons, I love the idea of these characters somehow defying the status quo, and having to wait to pay the price for becoming who they are. I connect with that.
RS: Those complicated layers of human emotion and behavior come through when Dovid learns of Esti and Ronit’s romantic rekindling. We see a conflicted man at odds with himself finally reach a point of acceptance—which he expresses through that three-way hug. Given the significance of any physical contact with a non-spouse in Orthodox Judaism, that moment was very moving.
SL: I understand this as a triangular story; we spend time with not only Ronit and Esti, but Dovid as well. We follow him alone and get to know him, and the camera is always on at least one of them in every frame. Even when we are watching other characters from across a table, we are doing it from one of their bodies. This strategy works through insistence, where you stay there until the spectator ends up seeing the world through their eyes and feeling it through their skin. The narrative’s triangular structure makes us think that Dovid will have lesser importance, so I really like the way he becomes more relevant to the equation, to the point where he literally takes over the climax. Nowadays, being a good man is almost an act of rebellion, and that’s what Dovid is. He’s a good guy, a very masculine and spiritual person, which I found fascinating because I’m not sure we see that too often in films.
RS: Dovid’s emotional trajectory certainly endears audiences to him.
SL: We hear these complaints about unfair and inadequate female representation in movies—but in many ways, this limited representation can apply to men as well. What I mean by that is, there is a weak representation of femininity in film, but that’s also true for femininity in men. That’s what I like about Dovid; that in the face of a big dilemma that requires him to react in a short amount of time, his solution still comes from a place that’s cohesive with his level of spirituality.
RS: Are you interested in making more films that focus on these social standards of masculinity, and the internal conflicts that can result as one navigates them?
SL: [laughs] Yeah, I believe in expanding and growing and exploring. I happened to have made my last three films almost solely centered on female characters, but I hope I have the chance to make more. Who knows what the future will bring? I’m just interested in people.
RS: You say that social conflict allows us to truly see what a character is made of— and this idea of being stripped bare applies both figuratively and literally. I’m brought back to the multiple scenes where Esti undresses for various reasons—and a similar moment plays out in A Fantastic Woman, where Marina undresses in front of a doctor for an unnecessary and humiliating exam.
SL: That’s a really interesting connection, and one I hadn’t made myself. There’s this idea that we need to create a persona in order to operate within society; one that’s very different than who we really are. So I’ve always loved this idea of characters hiding behind their different layers. In the case of Marina, it’s a slightly trickier situation because she has to get naked in order to be disguised—but it touches the same subject as you mention. And I’ve always thought of Disobedience as a film about layers: who these characters really are, and behind which masks are they hiding. Who is behind the wig, and who is behind the camera that Ronit carries around? I hope this film allows viewers to get close to that absolute nakedness, which I think really comes when the two women are making love in the hotel. It touches on something very intimate and real.
RS: Speaking of which, the moment when Ronit spits into Esti’s mouth was beautifully erotic, both for the characters and because the act is so real and human yet almost never shown in love scenes. It was quite refreshing and inspired. Why did you include that detail?
SL: You know, we live in a time when we’re overexposed to so many images when it comes to sex and porn. We’re becoming numb, and nothing can shock or affect us anymore. So how do you make an erotic scene that allows us to feel again—to feel the pain, the beauty, the urgency, the desperation, and the deep, animalistic but also spiritual connection between these two women? So I wanted to avoid nudity and instead concentrate on their faces, to really grasp what they’re feeling. By doing that, you generate a more active participation for the spectator; forcing them to fill in the gaps of what’s not in the frame. I storyboarded that entire scene and shared it with the two Rachels, and they immediately embraced it. They were brave and generous, and understood that in many ways this scene is the heart of the film—so it had to be long and very heartfelt. We couldn’t afford to be generic; we had to be hyper-specific.
RS: There’s a misconception that the Greek word ecstasy only means sexual climax or euphoria, but it literally means a sense of displacement, or of being driven out of one’s senses. All the pent-up emotions released in this scene made me think of that word—because here a beautiful pain in the women’s history adds a sense of wistful melancholy, anguish, and primal longing to their union—this idea of making up for lost time.
SL: Oh, yes. After the film’s Toronto premiere, I hadn’t seen it again until a few days ago—and because I’ve made another film since, I kind of went into my second viewing as a detached spectator. So when I was watching that scene again, I was so touched precisely because of those coexisting emotions. It’s liberating, it’s painful, it’s pleasurable, and it’s filled with longing—almost like watching a memory being born in front of your eyes.
RS: You certainly allow the scene room to breathe.
SL: I enjoy the feeling of being lost in a scene as a spectator, because when everything is too static, you feel like you’re watching a tutorial spoon-feed every sensation. I like when things are messier, and more sinuous because nothing is only about one thing. Unless you’re talking about poetry, words force you to name things as they are—but with cinematic language, you can really deal with several things at the same time and embrace that complexity. So I’m always surprised when films tend to simplify things so much and treat their audiences like little children, as opposed to people who are able to decode and experience that multifaceted complexity.
RS: You already knew Rachel Weisz would play Ronit before signing on, but what made you cast Rachel McAdams for the role of Esti? Did the three leads ever have a conversation with you about how they wanted to communicate the trio’s dynamic?
SL: I do believe that casting is an art [laughs]; it’s 80% of the challenge. And when you’re working with actors at this level, everything is held to an exquisite standard—and I always knew that the conversation between Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams was going to be memorable, sensual, strange, and unexpected.
RS: Can you talk a little bit about your approach to the film’s visual palette, which is more muted compared to A Fantastic Woman’s dynamic use of lights and saturated colors?
SL: With A Fantastic Woman, I was using color to make a political statement. I wanted the colors to be loud and flamboyant, because that’s not how transgender characters are usually filmed—they’re usually shot under the raw light of social realism. So I found that there was something almost subversive about filming Marina in that old-fashioned way, as if she were Jeanne Moreau. That’s why the film is so vibrant, alive and energetic. For Disobedience, our DP Danny Cohen grew up not far from where the story takes place, as did Rachel Weisz. Danny would tell me his memories from childhood, and from the way he spoke these memories were almost monotone and muted. I remember him telling me that there was a beauty in that ugliness, and I loved that because I think that really fits with the idea of Esti being in a place emotionally and physically where colors are no longer vibrant.
RS: Speaking of stylistic choices, the film’s discordant soundtrack was a delight. Why did you choose The Cure’s “Love Song” as the first credits track, and the song that plays on the radio at the moment the two women rekindle their attraction?
SL: I was looking for songs that could speak to these women’s past. I grew up listening to The Cure in Chile, so I wanted to pay homage to so many moments of musical joy that they’ve brought me—in a way that also provided some, hopefully, subtle backstory. It’s good to defeat expectations, and in many ways, playing a romantic punk rock song becomes even more spiritual than a religious one.
RS: In both this film and the last, the death of a character essentially propels the story forward. Do you think death and grief are fundamental to the ways you choose to explore love, loss, sexuality, and faith?
SL: I don’t know. [Pauses] I mean, the two films are dealing with the process of mourning, where the two main characters—Marina and Ronit—are somehow being prevented from saying a proper goodbye to their loved ones. And I have no idea why I made two films about that subject! [laughs] But it’s there. I don’t know, I can’t answer that—it belongs to a realm that’s not rational.
RS: Do you plan on returning to Chile in the future to make a film?
SL: I would love to, definitely. I’m currently editing [the remake of] Gloria there, even though I live in Berlin. But I would love to return at some point, if for no other reason than to show love for my home country.