Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Movie Review: Elena Undone

The first thing one notices about the “gay and lesbian movie with a strong female lead” (thanks “streaming video service” recommendations!) Elena Undone is that it doesn’t look like it was made with a camcorder. This is never a given with lesbian* movies that aren't produced by major studios and intended for general audiences.

The second thing one notices is well… okay. I need to be upfront here. Many times, when I turn on smaller budget lesbian films, I’m multi-tasking. That’s how low my expectations are. It’s kind of a test, really. If it can capture my interest, then it’s probably worth watching. If not, then I guess it’s kind of bad. (Yep, this test is similar in its unfairness to Corey Haim's driving test in the '80s movie License To Drive, where his tester throws the clipboard out the window and places a coffee cup on the dashboard. If the cup tips over while Corey is driving, he fails. If it doesn't, he passes. I have simply been let down too many times to give obscure lesbian movies my full, fair, and immediate undivided attention).

So, my point is that by the time Elena Undone sucked me in, I wasn’t always sure who all of the characters were or what was going on. First, there is Elena, naturally. She is a woman of Indian descent, and a photographer, who is married to a white Christian pastor dude who happens to give lots of sermons about how homosexuality and gay people are evil.

Now, early on, the movie had a scene of Elena and Christian Pastor Husband having sex and, without getting graphic, I’ll just say that Elena mostly looked… bored during it all. I readily recognized this scene as “foreshadowing.” In movies about women about to embark on a (spoiler alert!) “lifestyle change,” it’s a pretty common trope to depict Women Not At All Enjoying Sex With Their Male Partners. Naturally, I then began anticipating the contrasting Soft And Sensuous Sapphic Love Scene that was sure to eventually follow.

Anyway, Elena and her husband have a teenaged son. I’m not sure what his name is (see above, regarding multi-tasking), but he’s sweet and cute in a moppy-headed Brian Krakow sort of way, so in my head I just call him Krakow. He has a girlfriend who is also sweet and cute and they seem to maybe live together in Krakow’s parent’s home or something? I don’t know. Is that what Christians do? In any event, the two are very close, relatively open-minded (compared to the pastor dad), and I think we’re supposed to see them as “soul mates.”

Then, there is Peyton.

Peyton is a lesbian writer and we know she's a lesbian right away because of her butch name. Okay, I'm kidding. Sort of. Anyway, Peyton is a writer whose mother recently died and who also recently got out of a long-term relationship with a woman. She also walks a sexy androgynous line and bears a slight resemblance to Lucy Lawless which for many lesbians (and by “many” I mean me) automatically improves a movie by like 4 points on a 1-10 scale.

Peyton also has a best friend. I don’t remember her name, but her purpose really does seem to be that of Promiscuous Smart-Ass Lesbian Best Friend. Which would maybe be offensive in a non-lesbian movie in which she was the only lesbian depicted, but I think the representation is okay if the movie has other lesbians? I’m also confused by her accent because sometimes she seems British and then, like, sometimes it seems like she forgets that she’s British and starts talking in some sort of American accent.

Anyway, I still generally like her character though. Who doesn’t need a friend in life who will tell you to (spoiler alert!) totally go for that hot guy or gal who is already partnered and then subsequently ask you what the hell you were thinking by getting involved with that hot guy or gal who is already partnered?

So, by the time I got into this movie, Elena and Peyton have just met. Peyton seems to be interviewing Elena for some sort of photography project. Like I said, I’m not down with all the details here. But, to be fair (to me, anyway), I don’t think the details are super important. What matters is that Elena and Peyton now have a reason to start spending time together and getting to know one another.

(spoiler alert for major plot points)

Things progress as they sometimes do when an Attractive Straight Lady About To Embark On A “Lifestyle Change” Befriends An Attractive Lesbian. By which I mean, during their “photography sessions,” Elena begins asking Peyton questions about how she knew she was a lesbian, she confides in Peyton that she married early mostly to rebel against her father, and she begins viewing her pastor husband’s anti-gay preachings with a more critical eye.

Anyway, in one pivotal scene, Krakow’s teenaged girlfriend informs Elena that snails can sleep for like 3 years, and isn’t it strange how a snail can sleep half it’s life away? That statement seems to resonate with Elena and before long Elena is having an affair with Peyton. (Cue the foreshadowed Soft And Sensuous Sapphic Love Scene, which as far as these things go are pretty good. And by "pretty good," I mean that at least they don't involve unidentifiable body parts being softly caressed in hazy candlelight.)

[Addendum: this part added after a re-watch] At one point, Elena comes over to Peyton's house while she is swimming, necessitating a quick wardrobe change. Just as a fun fact, "outfit montages" are one of my favorite television/movie tropes even though I know or care very little about fashion and hate shopping. Mostly, I identify with the frustration of it all and the desire for people to bring me outfits so I don't have to pick them out myself.

Typically, the pattern is like, [Puts on outfit] "No, this isn't quite right. [Changes clothes]. No, this getup is just silly. [Changes clothes]. No, this too is dissatisfying. [Changes clothes] Ah, now this is exactly what I've been looking for." [Salespeople and friends nod approvingly]

In Elena's Undone, the "outfit montage" is more like, "Hmmm, what is the most stereotypically dykey outfit I can possibly put on right now?" [Changes clothes] "No, this isn't quite it."[Changes clothes] "No, this isn't it either." [Changes into jeans, tucked-in tank-top, and a flannel cut-off shirt]. "Yes, now this will impress my Straight Lady Friend."

I will just say this: Peyton pulls it off and looks, um, very attractive. Gotta love a woman who's not afraid to butch out.  Elena apparently agrees and making out eventually ensues. [/addendum]

Now, in general, Elena and Peyton seem to be a good match and to have good chemistry. But, the thing about Elena is that, as Peyton comes to realize, she wants to have her, um, cake and eat it too. Despite being totally in love with Peyton and being totally unhappily married to her husband, she keeps them both hanging on. By escalating her relationship with Elena and withdrawing from her relationship with her husband she mostly takes the maybe-if-I-act-like-a-big-enough-asshole-my-partner-will-break-up-with-me approach to "breaking up with someone."

She stops kissing him, stops having sex with him, and basically ignores her husband without any sort of communication because she is so into her new romance. Now, Anti-Gay Pastor Husband is pretty much an asshole, so there is a certain karmic satisfaction in his wife leaving him for a woman. But, a person’s also an asshole if ze cheats on hir partner and cuts the partner out of hir emotional and sexual life without explanation.

A parent is also an asshole if one’s teenager finds proof of hir affair and the parent expects the child to keep it a secret from the other parent. Yeah, Elena does that too.

Now, I know these things are complicated. It wouldn’t be the easiest thing to tell one’s very vocally anti-gay spouse of like 15 years that one is having a gay affair with a gay gay GAY lover. And, it’s unclear as to whether Elena would have the means to support herself financially upon divorce- like maybe she was feeling financial pressure to U-haul it with Peyton before she was ready? Or, maybe she was worried what her parents and relatives would think. Maybe she was worried about her son.

So, you know, that she wouldn’t immediately tell her husband is somewhat believable and wouldn’t be out of character for Elena. The husband eventually finds out only because a meddling, anti-gay churchgoer sees Elena and Peyton kissing in the park and immediately goes and tells Pastor Husband.

In all, it was a good, enjoyable movie. It did have a happy ending, which for me, goes a long way in the genre. Even if the resolution is a bit too tidy.

Related: Bad Lesbian Movies

[* I use lesbian only here as opposed to "lesbian and bisexual" because it has been my TV and movie-watching experience that shows with self-described bisexual characters are even more rare than those with lesbian characters. Thus, for me to label this post as being about "lesbian and bisexual" movies seems inaccurate and, ironically, invisibilizing. Kind of like when certain magazines, blogs, and travel guides are labeled "gay and lesbian" even though they're obviously only targeted toward gay men.

None of the characters in this movie, to my knowledge, self-identify as bisexual. Elena, on the surface, seems to meet the definition of bisexual in that she was married to a man and then leaves him for a woman. But, throughout the movie she talks about how she never felt passion for her husband and maybe has never actually been in love with him, which suggests that maybe she’s actually a lesbian.

TL;DR version: I can't read character's minds to know what their sexual orientations are. Would it be that difficult for people to write characters who were bisexual or who said, "Hey, I think I'm bisexual."]

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