by Laura Winnick

On “Disobedience:” Threesomes, Friendship and Queer Families

 Although Director Sebastian Lilio’s recent film Disobedience is about a forbidden lesbian love between Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Ronit (Rachel Weisz), the most compelling scenes are when the characters are either in solitude, or united as a threesome with Dovit Esti’s husband (Alessandro Nivola),

This oddity might be because Esti and Ronit’s queer coupling is so unrealistic; their sex, for all of the constraints they face in their frum Orthodox community, is lustless: a sequential love-making performed while the two women remain halfway-clothed. Oddly enough, the Forward published a takedown of the film by an Orthodox woman, claiming that she is sick of being fetishized. But this piece notably omits of the word queer, and similarly sidesteps any discussion of what is also fundamentally fetishized in the film: lesbian sex.

The much-discussed sex scene falls flat. When Ronit and Esti are finally alone in a secluded hotel room, the first covering removed is Esti’s wig, an act which is reflected in a type of naked desire from Rachel McAdams. Except: the two basically keep their clothes on for the rest of the hookup, as the camera makes calculated cuts. In what feels like a “How To Have Lesbian Sex” guide, ejaculation is symbolized when Esti spits into Ronit’s mouth, too forced to be erotic, especially given the mood-killing classical music soundtrack.

The tension never fully crackles between Esti and Ronit, despite the high stakes of repression’s stronghold on the Orthodox community, despite the narrative arc of separation and reunion, despite the strong performances.

But there is another tension in the film worth exploring. The film is a story of expedition, as it follows Ronit’s return to a London Orthodox community after the death of her father, a venerable rabbi, from whom Ronit was estranged. She arrives in London from New York, and is surprised to find Dovit, her former best friend, married to Esti, her former forbidden love.

Weisz’s most enticing acting is when she is alone, scenes that offer entrances into her complex internal emotional landscape as she travels or is carried from place to place: on the plane, in the taxi. Weisz displays a plaintive quality; the choices she has made for her life perhaps still unsettle her.

Even more revealing are the scenes that feature the three childhood companions. In the first moment when the three are alone, Ronit attempts to open up a shared space of vulnerability between them, asking: “Is it good? To be married?” Esti is almost unable to answer, while Dovit smiles, responding positively. Here is where we find the tension that is absent in the queer coupling: the ripeness of what is unsaid, what is implicit, what is offered, what is refused. Ronit seeks a vulnerability that neither Dovit nor Esti can offer her, and it is in this tripling that we see how no one can fully satisfy each other’s longing.

Perhaps this is what Lilio wants us to pay attention to the entire time —the unit as trio instead of dueling duoes. In fact, the film begins with a trifecta framework. The first scene of the London Orthodox community is in synagogue, Ronit’s father giving his last sermon on the Torah’s three archetypes: angel, beast, and human. He muses on free will; humans “hang suspended between angel and beast; we must choose the tangled life.” 

The plot triangulates from there; the camera offering windows into moments when each Ronit, Dovid, and Esti reveal themselves to be, in turns, angel, beast, human. In one of the tensest scenes, the three light Shabbat candles, and McAdams (after butchering the Hebrew prayer) exchanges loaded looks with both Weisz and Nivola. Here is the tension, at last. A domestic family Jewish ritual that explodes with the pressure of a tangled friendship-romance-romance.

Later, when Ronit attempts to extricate herself from the tangles she has made for Esti (members of their community catch the two kissing at night), she shares at the dinner table that she will be leaving before her father’s funeral ceremony. The domestic family scene is again disrupted: and we see Dovit at his most beast-like, cruel, rabid: asking Esti if she’ll go with Ronit.

At the film’s climax when Esti asks Dovit for freedom, it is, again, a trilateral interaction. This exchange swells too; instead of what is unsaid, we are finally given what is said; Dovit silences Ronit; Esti maintains that she wants to raise her child in a world of choice, instead of religious obligation. This interaction has all the magnetism that is missing between Esti and Ronit: devotion offered, deferred, unrequited. So why do the scenes of the three of them crackle so beautifully when the queer coupling fizzles? Despite critics’ emphasis on the sex scenes, perhaps what the film really spotlights is friendship. We see how the easy, angelic intimacy of our younger lives gets shattered, not just by communal and religious  repression, but also by that beast, desire, which brings with it exclusion, taboo, unspoken needs, anger and loss. The scenes that offer us access to the trio’s friendship–or perhaps, even, into their thwarted queer family–are the ones that showcase the rawest emotions, the best exchanges.

The most embodied and evocative shot of the film occurs after Dovit has given an attempt at a eulogy for the rabbi —ultimately publicly refusing to step into his role as successor —claiming, “I do not have enough understanding.”

When Esti meets him outside after he has fled the bimah, they embrace; Ronit appears in the background, and, miraculously, Dovit opens his arms to her, too.  As the three friends hug, Ronit and Esti’s hands meet around Dovit’s back, holding one another, clutching, in carnal grip. It is this meeting of flesh-on-flesh-on-flesh that is most provocative; the threesome: part angel, part beast, tangled human.


© 2011 Lilith Magazine