It’s difficult to summon up the energy to begin writing about a film as painfully boring as Argentine director Sebastian Leilo’s Disobedience, a rare waste of two Rachels — McAdams and Weisz — in what seemed like a slam-dunk of a premise.
Leilo debuted this tale of forbidden love in London alongside his Oscar-winner A Fantastic Woman at TIFF last year, and there’s a reason why you’ve heard a ton about that film and very little about this one. Flatly photographed and awkwardly staged, you’ll need a few cups of coffee to get this one, and I heavily advise you to bring a friend along with you who can stir you from your frequent naps. And, I guess, if you’re morbid enough to check out this film just because it has a Cure needle-drop in it, that’s poorly used as well. Disobedience is just exhausting, full of the cliches of its high-minded forbearers (God help you if you use a classroom setting to drive home the thematics of your film ever again) and free of any and all innovation or deeper meaning.
Told slowly and painfully over the course of its two hours, the film chronicles the budding sexual relationship between two former childhood friends, forbidden in the Orthodox Jewish London community in which they grew up, whose friendship ended in tears after they were caught by a powerful figure in their community, who also just happened to be Weisz’s father. Weisz escapes for New York, where she became a photographer and flourishes, while McAdams settles for their third childhood friend (Alessandro Nivola) and marries him, further integrating herself into a community that doesn’t allow her to sexually express herself. When Weisz’s father dies, she rushes over to London and finds herself a pariah in the place she once called home. But McAdams begins to “act out” and attempts to revive their relationship, despite the constant prying eyes of the community and the objections of her husband, and it all culminates in a sex scene that you’ve probably read about in a dozen other reviews.
That scene is indicative of the movie’s larger problems, in that it seems not to understand on a physical level how human beings behave, and assumes that sanitized gonzo porn rawness — the smearing of bodily fluids across one’s face, dribbling spittle in your lover’s mouth — is a passible substitute for true passion. It isn’t as scandalous as it thinks that it is, at least to my eyes, and it comes across as deeply and nearly troublingly empty (Leilo claims he was attempting to make a lesbian sex scene free of the male gaze, emphasizing his actresses’ faces, but those touches betray his ambitions). Indeed, the only thing shocking about the scene is that Weisz is able to find a hotel room in London where she can smoke indoors.
The interpersonal conflicts are full of the same awkwardness as the sex, even if moments of life reveal themselves in a comedy-of-manners fashion during lengthy dinner sequences or the happy hidden couple sharing cigarettes on the street. The actors, as well, do a solid job in bringing these characters to life (McAdams especially, whose arc is one of the few interesting things in the film) but they’re let down by the limited imagination of the script they’re working from. London is all grimly gray in a cliched cinematic way, and in not a particularly realistic one, and Disobedience feels flat and monochromatic.
I can’t speak as to how accurately Leilo captured the community in which he’s set his film, but one imagines that they wouldn’t be happy being portrayed as the world’s most boring people, even despite the controversial aspects of this film’s premise. Menashe this isn’t.