Monday, July 17, 2017

Gypsy's Jean Holloway at the Top of Maslow's Hierarchy

All drama is conflict; without conflict, you have no action. Without action, you have no character. Without character, you have no story. And without story, you have no screenplay.” 
~Syd Field, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting

The new Netflix 10-episode series “Gypsy,” released on June 30th, has been widely panned, though some reviews have exhibited mercy and a few have even been relatively positiveLike any movie or TV series, it’s only as good as the script. Many critics have savaged the show for its snail pace (with one critic suggesting that you need only watch episodes 1, 7 and 10 to get the full picture, and another critic suggesting that half-hour episodes would've been more palatable). But I think the pace is just fine. When the story-telling is slower and more deliberate, you feel more like you’re a fly-on-the-wall, silently observing the characters, discerning subtle character insights. This is especially true when the characters are engaging and compelling, and you have a keen interest in how they live and what choices they make. When you’re a fly-on-wall, there are mundane actions and boring dialog to endure, but that’s part of what makes the tone feel more realistic.

What’s unforgivable, though, are the clichés in the script. Phrases like “mother knows best” and “you can’t judge a book by its cover” are cringe-inducing, especially when said phrases are exchanged between the two female lead characters as they engage in flirtatious behavior. If ever a script could have benefited from a script doctor, this is a shining example. That's the extent of my negative criticism, though. Despite the clichés in some of the dialog, the show has artistic and thematic merit, particularly because it ruminates on the two key common afflictions of modern day life in first world countries.

A script does more than set the pace and define the dialog. The other key function of the script is to lay out the character trajectory (or, as Christopher Moltisanti of The Sopranos so endearingly refers to it with his New Jersey accent, the “arc”). The lead character’s arc is alluring as an anti-hero model. Jean Holloway, a therapist based in Manhattan, is enduring a typical mid-life crisis made worse by her impulsiveness and her ethical lapses. 

What’s evident in the beginning is that Jean’s arc is of the “first world problems” genre. Initially, on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious conflict for Jean to resolve, other than a somewhat prickly (and arguably typical) relationship with her mother. Her husband Michael, a successful attorney, is devoted and genuine; their sex life (always a good barometer of a relationship) is robust and thriving. She and Michael have a darling nine-year daughter named Dolly with tom boy-like characteristics. They live in a splendid home in Fairfield County, Connecticut, one of the wealthiest suburbs in the U.S., enjoying lives among the 1% (even if it does involve obligatory social engagements with narrow-minded neighbors).  

Conflict Driven by Affliction

Jean’s primary conflict is slowly bubbling under the surface. She suffers from the two key components of any modern-day mid-life crisis in developed countries:
  • Mid-life reflection on significant life choices and the resulting trajectory of one’s life
  • Boredom with a settled, routine life (the Jack Nicholson “what if this is as good as it gets?” question)
These afflictions are atop Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, characterized as “self-actualization.” All of Jean’s fundamental needs are taken care of; she is wrestling with the pinnacle of the hierarchy, self-actualization. Who am I, how did I get here, and how should I act now?

At the top of the pyramid, self-actualization is comprised of the following characteristics:
  • Morality
  • Creativity
  • Spontaneity
  • Problem solving
  • Lack of prejudice
  • Acceptance of facts

Morality and Problem Solving

Jean engages in highly questionable behaviors as a therapist; chief among them, violating personal boundaries in the context of a professional relationship with her clients. In one case, she casually befriends the daughter of a client at a beauty salon. Both the client and her daughter are completely oblivious that Jean has covertly inserted herself into these women’s lives; it’s highly unethical behavior. 

From Jean’s perspective, she is engaged in problem solving; the mother and daughter are at an impasse in their relationship, and Jean is frustrated by the lack of significant progress. Jean exploits the insight gained during therapy sessions to directly influence the trajectory of these women’s lives. This exploitation clearly exhibits Jean’s sociopathic tendencies, and yet there’s an angle that she’s not really breaking the rules, she’s simply “just trying to help.”  But there’s a reason why professionals are trained to respect the confidentiality of their sessions with clients. By not doing so, Jean is living by her own set of rules, pushing the boundaries of the end justifying the means.

Spontaneity and Creativity

The most profound blurring of boundaries occurs with Jean’s client named Sam. Sam is a young man struggling with the effects of a difficult break-up with a young woman named Sidney. Throughout multiple therapy sessions, it emerges that Sam has had a highly co-dependent and combustible relationship with Sidney (involving matching tattoos, no less). 

Jean seems unable to maintain a healthy professional distance between herself and Sam’s descriptions of his relationship with Sidney. The more Sam reveals, the more intrigued Jean becomes; she eventually commits another egregious ethical lapse and introduces herself to Sidney at her workplace (a local coffee shop called “The Rabbit Hole”). She introduces herself to Sidney with a false name, setting the stage to interact with Sidney as an alternate persona, thus laying the foundation for a mountain of lies.

From the initial meeting at the coffee shop, the primary trajectory of Jean’s character is established. “Diane” (Jean’s alter-ego) and Sidney play a highly flirtatious game of cat-and-mouse throughout the first six episodes, mired in a “will they or won’t they?” framework, until episode seven’s consummation. There's fierce anticipation mixed in with subtle nervousness, as Sidney takes Jean by the hand as they abruptly leave the bar for her apartment. 

The pre-coital game of "Truth or Dare" is a potentially disturbing foreshadow of season two, as Sidney asks an exceedingly dark question, "If you were going to kill someone, how would you do it?" Jean's answer is not grisly but is disturbing none-the-less; she doesn't flinch at the question and recounts how she would exploit the victim's weakness by getting to know them. After "Truth or Dare," a bit of dancing to this superb groovesome toking and the requisite pizza and licorice, it's time for bed. 

The sex scenes in "Gypsy" aren’t gratuitous. The evening at Sidney's apartment is a manifestation of Sidney’s successful seduction of “Diane,” and of Jean’s roguish deception. Jean even has the audacity to tell Sidney that the reason she "broke up" with Michael was because of Sidney (or, because of what Sidney represents). The fabricated tales just keep getting spun, burying unsuspecting Sidney in a trough of lies. Perhaps Jean's story portends an ominous event later.

Sidney's lust shines through the entire interaction. Is Sidney's lust for Jean largely driven by the mystery that she has not yet untangled (but longs to)? Or is the sexual attraction more layered than that? Like any fledgling sexual relationship, it's nuanced and complex for both parties. Jean studies herself in the mirror the following morning and doesn't seem to like what she sees. Though we don't know what she's thinking, it's likely that the weight of her deception is starting to intrude on the ecstasy of the fantasy.

Jean’s relationship with Sidney is spontaneous, precisely in contrast with the established routine of her daily life. It provides her with a new layer of sexual experimentation and excitement, not only because Sidney is strikingly gorgeous and charismatic (and 20 years her junior), but because Sidney is a woman. A sexual relationship with a woman is exactly the kind of spice that Jean thinks she needs to abate the monotony of her marriage. But Sidney is alluring to her for other reasons; Jean sees characteristics of herself in Sidney, such as a devil-may-care attitude, a defiance of societal norms and an enviable lust for life. Jean is also intrigued by Sidney’s creativity as a singer in a local indie band. 

In Sidney, Jean is able to assuage the longing for an alternate life she may have had, had she chosen to forgo the traditional trajectory of career and family. At the same time, Jean chides Sidney for failing to create a “back-up plan" and become “an adult” with “responsibilities.” This chiding secretly comforts Jean for choosing the traditional path (though Sidney is none the wiser, because of course she doesn’t know the real Jean). Sidney, poor darling, perceives Jean as “unencumbered” and can’t understand why Jean is concerned with the traditional trappings of career and family.  

The grand irony is that Jean pursues Sidney in an attempt to escape from her encumbrances.  

Acceptance of Facts

Jean is not able to accept the facts of her circumstances, and therein lies her core conflict. Instead of accepting the fact that even the most fortunate among us suffer periods of boredom with routine, she remains unsatisfied. She indulges her impulse to retreat into sexual fantasy, setting up a dangerous artifice of lies as an alternate persona. Jean is in a place in life where she doesn't want to accept the facts as they are; and maybe that's ok. Maybe she is rebelling against all of the facts she has earnestly accepted all of her adult life. 

Without any kind of visible moral quandary, she engages Sidney in a relationship and doesn’t seem to consider the consequences that will likely crush Sidney when the artifice collapses. Or, instead of crushing Sidney, perhaps the revelation will only further compel Sidney to up the ante and engage deeper with Jean. 

It's not at all clear how Sidney will react when the facts do eventually emerge. We don’t yet know the price that Jean will pay for failing to accept the facts; season two will illuminate the situation. At this stage of the story, Jean has a long way to go to reach self-actualization, and there's a strong possibility that she'll leave a trail of heartache in her wake. There is a fierce strand of irony throughout Jean's engagement with Sidney; while she is presenting a false narrative to Sidney, she is simultaneously wrestling with true and very potent feelings that are driving her to explore her suppressed sexuality. 

What will be the cost of her identity exploration? Will she lose her husband? Will she disengage from her family? Will she further delve into her sexual relationship with Sidney? How does an intense extra-marital sexual relationship fit within Jean's personal and public persona? What is Jean's "plan" for her engagement with Sidney; is it deeper than infatuation and experimentation? What constitutes a fulfilling and satisfying sexual relationship and how does it contribute to identity? We NEED SEASON TWO to further explore these real questions of mid-life female identity in the public and private domain.

Note: On August 11, Netflix announced it was cancelling Gypsy after one season.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The “Radical” Notion that Women Are People: Feminism and the Exuberant Fan Base of the Portland Thorns

The Portland Thorns continue to rock the sports world by drawing thousands of exuberant fans to its cathedral of soccer, Providence Park. Every match draws a packed house of rabid enthusiasts from all walks of life. There have been ruminations in the national press about why the Portland Thorns have such a dedicated following. A recent article in Washington Post hits several key points about Portland’s rich soccer tradition, its historic urban venue, and its first class organization.

Fans begin filing into Providence Park for a Portland Thorns match, 2017.
(photo: S. Leritz-Higgins)

Fans like No Other Place in the World

Beyond the region’s soccer tradition, its desirable urban venue, and its top-quality organization, why are the Thorns so popular? There are two key constituencies that comprise the incomparable fan base:
  • Young female athletes (and their families)
  • The LGBTQ community (and their families)
Young girls are able to attend a match and envision themselves on the pitch, fostering dreams that earlier generations couldn’t even conceive of. Young boys have always had role models in professional team sports, but only recently have role models emerged for young girls. But other NWSL cities with larger populations undoubtedly have young female athletes, but don’t have anything comparable to the Thorns fan base.

The other key constituency is the LGBTQ community. Portland is widely regarded as one of the nation’s most progressive cities; it has a substantial LGBTQ community, many of whom are loyal die-hard sports fans, particularly for women’s team sports. So while you are guaranteed to see young children and teenagers at Thorns matches, you are equally guaranteed to see LGBTQ community members and their families, fostering the varied party-like atmosphere at Providence Park. For the LGBTQ community, Thorns matches give a voice to a historically marginalized community, and provide the community with a vibrant public sphere of positive expression.

The Radical Notion that Women Are People

Feminism broadly defines the core values of the Portland Thorns fan base. Why feminism? The term has baggage, and its definition is fraught with generational differences and a range of personal experiences. My interpretation of feminism is the idea of equal personhood for women and girls; that women and girls should have equal access to opportunity and to pursuing their dreams, and that this opportunity and dream-seeking can result in a viable career. It’s a cliché, but the simple bumper-sticker definition of feminism is spot-on: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

What would that mean in the soccer world, if women are people? It would manifest as the Portland Thorns.

Title IX: Where’ve You Been All My Life?

When I was growing up in Spokane, Washington in the 1970s, soccer was emerging as a popular sport. Even though the historic Education Amendments of 1972 had included Title IX (a portion of the law that was designed to prohibit gender discrimination in public schools), girls did not immediately get equal opportunity to participate in organized sports. As recently as 2014 and 2016, here in the Portland Metro area, there are alleged violations of public schools not abiding by the letter or the spirit of the law. 

Recollections of Playing Soccer as a Young Girl

When I was in elementary school, I’d wanted to play soccer. The school didn’t have any organized sports. The only recreational league I could join was co-ed. And so I joined a U9 co-ed team. I loved the sky blue jerseys and the feeling of booting the ball. I loved waking up on Saturday morning looking forward to a match. I loved beating another girl to the ball. I loved my black-and-white Puma cleats so much that I wore them to school (ill-advised, but I wasn’t taking them off; it was undoubtedly a fetching look, me in my skirt, knee-high socks and cleats). I loved my Hungarian soccer coach. I can’t remember his name, but I can see him in my mind; a towering lanky figure, his thick accent, his thinning sandy blonde hair, his bellowing but hoarse voice. His daughter was my age and was also on the team. She was, however, preoccupied by her nail polish, her pony tail, and ensuring that her socks were adequately pulled up; she couldn’t give a whiff about playing soccer.

The coach’s daughter and I were among the few girls on the team. I was not a particularly talented athlete, but I so thoroughly enjoyed running around on the pitch and soaking up the energy of the game. Despite my lack of athletic prowess, I do have one cherished memory of playing soccer as a girl; it’s one of my most vivid childhood memories. I usually played fullback, but during this one particular match in which we were leading by several goals, the coach put me in as a striker. I was disoriented at first but was eager to give it a try. I can recall the memory in slow motion, as I was served the ball close to the near post and then punched it in the back of the net (and somehow was not called off sides). I turned to the sidelines to see my coach erupt in joy. He motioned me over to the sidelines and I ran towards him. When I reached him, he put his arm around my shoulder and bent down to my ear and kept saying something over and over, though I don’t recall what. I do recall his sparkling eyes and his irrepressible grin with a missing front tooth. My mother was on the sidelines too, jumping up and down and yelping in hysteria. It is not hyperbole to say that this is one of the most thrilling moments I can remember as a young girl. There is a certain matchless thrill in the game of soccer when the ball hits the back of the net (as long as it’s your team scoring).

What’s Feminism Got to Do With It?

When I reflect back on my experiences as a young soccer player in the 1970s, I think of a lot of untapped potential for me and many other girls of my generation, a lot of “what ifs?” What if I’d been able to train with the same dedicated coach every year? (I’d had the Hungarian coach for only one remarkable season, and subsequently had several rather dismal coaches that sapped my enthusiasm.)  What if I’d had role models to admire and idolize? What if I’d been able to see women play professionally at a local stadium? What if girls had all the same opportunities to play soccer as the boys? What if young girls believed that they could pursue soccer as a profession?

The Portland Thorns are a manifestation of the feminist ideal: that women are people and ought to have the same opportunities to thrive and earn a living in a dynamic professional sports league with a lively and dedicated fan base. The NWSL is now in its fifth year and has surpassed all other attempts of a viable women’s professional soccer league. It is a testament to the profound effect of title IX (even though it’s taken decades to come to fruition, and the Portland Thorns organization is thus far an anomalous manifestation compared to other teams in the league).

Of course, as far as we’ve come since the 1970s, there are still substantial inequalities and barriers that inhibit full personhood for women on the pitch. Though I don’t know the specific numbers, I imagine that the salaries for players and staff in the NWSL are substantially lower than those in the MLS. We know that the USWNT recently put up a fight to get closer to the USMNT’s compensation framework. There have also been controversies about women being forced to play on substandard artificial turf, while men are not subjected to such conditions and instead enjoy real grass on the pitch. While a handful of NWSL superstars likely have fat endorsement contracts, the majority likely do not (and even for the ones who do, the contracts likely pale in comparison to their male counterparts).

Speaking as a season ticket holder since the inaugural season, I can vouch for the unique and committed ideal held by Portland Thorns fans: that we are feminists in the true sense of the word. We are thrilled to see women living up to their potential, and will continue to wholeheartedly support them, the coaching staff, the broader organization, and the NWSL. We’re also looking forward to seeing the other NWSL cities catch up, and for the league to continue to thrive and expand. Whatever the fate of the NWSL, we should all appreciate the Portland Thorns as THE football club that gave women the opportunity to truly tap their potential on the pitch. The fans are RCTID (Rose City ‘til I Die), though in this particular context, the Thorns are emblematic of the Rose City. 

Not one to shrink from a contest, midfielder Lindsey Horan goes up against three opponents in a 2016 match. (photo: S. Leritz-Higgins)

Ever the dominant striker, Nadia Nadim threatens to stride right past the goal keeper in a 2016 match. (photo: S. Leritz-Higgins)

Celeste Boureille surveys the pitch and finds an option during a match in 2016. (photo: S. Leritz-Higgins)

French superstar Amandine Henry stakes her position and surveys the pitch during a match in 2016. (photo: S. Leritz-Higgins)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Did Nurse Jackie Die?

For all of you rabid devotees of the TV series Nurse Jackie (initially shown on Showtime and then released to Netlfix), the nagging question remains: did Jackie die in the series finale? The last episode is ambiguous; Jackie is seen barely conscious on the ER floor, attended by a swarm of panicked colleagues. Let’s take a look at some of the clues in the final episode to discern whether Jackie did indeed shuffle off this mortal coil, or whether she survived a heroin overdose.

Dr. O’Hara: Jackie Loses the Loyal, Devoted Friend

As the darling two-year-old boy shuffles down the aisle at church to ask Jackie to join him for lunch, we suspect we’re about to see two friends reunite. Indeed, after a two-year absence, Dr. O’Hara has returned from London to attend Fi’s first communion ceremony. The doctor and Jackie are delighted to see one another, as they had a genuinely heart-felt friendship. O’Hara confesses to Jackie that leaving New York was like “shedding a skin,” perhaps a not-so-subtle reference to her friendship with Jackie. The implication is that maintaining a friendship with a drug addict is fraught with vicissitudes; all the   devotion and camaraderie, combined with the unease of mistrust and worry. It doesn’t take long for O’Hara to realize that Jackie is still abusing drugs. When O’Hara confronts her, it evokes all the desperation of a long-devoted friend calling out a drug addict. Jackie knows she’s been snagged. She is burdened by the knowledge that O’Hara will likely distance herself once again. Losing O’Hara is the first crushing blow that tilts Jackie towards her fate.

Nurse Zoey: Jackie Loses the Loyal, Devoted Protégé

Of all the fraught relationships throughout the series, Zoey’s relationship with Jackie is perhaps the most complex. Zoey arrives as a naïve yet earnest and devoted protégé, eager to sharpen her skills and become an excellent nurse. She idolizes Jackie from day one. By putting her on a pedestal, Zoey’s rose-colored glasses inhibit her from recognizing the true Jackie. Eventually, Zoey is unable to ignore Jackie’s drug addiction. She grapples with the fact that maintaining a relationship with a drug addict is an endeavor in futility and frustration. Zoey realizes that she must distance herself from Jackie. On the eve of All Saints’s closure, Zoey confesses to Jackie that she has decided not to follow her to Bellevue. “You’re like a daughter to me,” Jackie tells her, pushing Zoey further into despair at the thought of distancing herself. “I have to make my own mistakes,” Zoey tentatively tells Jackie. Sensing yet another desertion by a loved one, Jackie suffers another crushing blow, further fostering her fate.

Eddy: Jackie’s Fiancé Remains Loyal

Eddy is the classic “enabler” for Jackie, always there for her, time after time, regardless of her selfish, drug-fueled behavior. Jackie perceives him as her “rock,” though in many ways he is her crutch. When Eddy gets caught selling prescription drugs to a pill mill, he tells Jackie that he may have to serve time in prison, but hey, “what’s one year when we have our whole lives together.” Eddy had the chance to plea bargain a deal, but he refuses to do so because it may have exposed Jackie. This revelation is an ironic blow to Jackie; she realizes that Eddy’s sacrifices are limitless, but that his sacrifices only serve to foster her drug addiction. Jackie makes the crushing realization that she will never be free from drugs as long as Eddy is around.

Dr. Prince: Jackie’s Lesson in Hopelessness

Dr. Prince’s brain tumor is quickly robbing him of his mental capacities. In a scene of tender devotion, Jackie comforts Dr. Prince as he succumbs to his illness. Dr. Prince mistakenly believes Jackie to be one of his ex-wives, discussing child custody arrangements with her. Jackie kindly plays along, not wanting to confuse the doctor. For Jackie, Dr. Prince’s condition is a symbol of the bleakness of life. Here is a wonderful, optimistic, kind human being, a doctor at the prime of his life, suffering from the ultimate catastrophe: a life cut short by merciless disease. Jackie seems to believe that if life can take down a man like Dr. Prince, there’s not much hope for the rest of us.  

So, Did She Die?

Jackie’s fate is sealed by a combination of subtle desertion, boundless devotion and bleak hopelessness. Zoey and O’Hara desert Jackie, fueling her fear of loneliness and abandonment. Eddy remains devoted, but ironically, this sends her to the depths of despair. Dr. Prince symbolizes the random mercilessness of life, pushing Jackie to deep despair. When Jackie discovers the three hits of heroin in an ex-patient’s pocket, she sees it as her opportunity to get off the merry-go-round. At this stage of her drug addiction, she is too far gone to even consider the consequences of abandoning her two daughters. She snorts the heroin like a beleaguered addict, succumbing to the inevitable, almost gladly accepting her fate.

So, yes, I think she did die. (Only Edie Falco, in yet another masterful performance, could convey such powerful subtlety in the heroin overdose scene.) The state of her relationships in the final episode offer illuminating clues that suggest her demise.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Dear Abby Wambach,

Dear Abby,

You recently appeared in a commercial for Gatorade, imploring us to forget you. You want us to forget your name. Forget your number. Forget you ever existed. You want us to forget the medals you’ve won. Forget the records you’ve broken. And forget the sacrifices you’ve made to achieve unprecedented greatness.

Well, Abby, I’m sorry. I’m sorry to break this to you. We will not grant your request; not now, and not ever. We’re not going to forget you, and here’s why:

In any movement that takes us to places we’ve never been, we remember the trailblazers. We exalt the pioneers, the ones who pave the way for the rest of us. We glorify those with the courage and audacity to challenge the status quo. We idolize those who splash water on the faces of those naysayers who said “you can’t.” We acknowledge the guts and determination that compels the rest of us to push beyond every conceivable boundary.

So, dear Abby, please embrace your immortality. Celebrate the medals you’ve won and the records you’ve broken. Most importantly, revel in the glory of how you have empowered girls and women to exploit the full potential of their humanity. We don’t have to forget you to carry on your legacy. We will succeed because you blazed the trail for us. You have lifted us up; we are standing on your shoulders.

Thank you, dear Abby. We will never forget you.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Blue is the Warmest Color: Comparing the Graphic Novel to the Film

Though it’s essentially a fool’s exercise to compare a film to the novel on which it’s based (because, of course, "the book is always better than the movie"), it can be interesting to observe the differences and consider how these differences affect the characters’ narrative arcs and themes. I’ll compare the film Blue is the Warmest Color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, to the graphic novel on which it is based. The novel was written and illustrated by Julie Maroh.

Film is a starkly different medium than a graphic novel. A film can’t contain all the narrative and descriptive aspects of a novel, simply due to the limitation of the typical 90 minute to 3-hour time span of a film.  A film director is faced with the challenge of deciding which narrative and descriptive aspects to include from the novel. Depending on the degree of creative license that the director applies, there may be substantial differences in the film’s action, character evolution, and themes.

What's in a Name?

There is an immediate indication that the film has some stark differences from the novel; the film has an alternate title, “La Vie d’Adele, Chapitres 1 & 2.” 

The alternate title alone contains a significant deviation from the novel; in the novel, the main character is named Clementine. The entire narrative arc is focused on Clementine. In the film, the main character is named Adele (the same name as the actor who portrays her). The director of the film, Abdellatif Kechiche, has said that it was sort of an organic choice; he often would roll the cameras informally, as the actors traveled to the set or dined together, and he captured a lot of footage with the actors using Adele’s name. He proposed to the actor, Adele Exarchopoulos, that the character’s name be changed from Clementine to Adele, and she had no objection. Perhaps Kechiche believed that changing the character’s name to the actor’s name would foster the realism of the film, which is clearly a key characteristic of the film. Kechiche is obsessed with realism as a style for films. "I don't want it to look like life," he says of cinema. "I want it to actually be life. Real moments of life, that's what I'm after." The significant name change is the first indication that Kechiche, while attributing the story line to the graphic novel, took the ultimate artistic license to modify the narrative to fit his vision, regardless of the deviations. 

Emma's Skepticism of Clementine/Adele's Identity

The deviations from the novel to the film pertain to the narrative arc and themes that the narrative arc evokes. Of course, the narrative arc in a novel is almost invariably richer and denser than a film’s, simply because of the medium itself. In the novel, a lot more happens in the narrative arc than happens in the film.  For example, early in the novel, Emma voices skepticism of Clementine’s identity as a lesbian. She tells Adele, “when you finally fall in love, that guy will be the luckiest man in the world.” 

Clementine pleads in silence, "you are that guy..."

Emma’s skepticism of Adele's identity isn’t revealed early in the film; it’s not until later in the film that Emma suspects that Adele harbors a debilitating and harmful sense of shame about loving a woman.

Clementine/Adele's Ambivalence About Her Identity

In both the novel and the film, the narrative arc depicts Clementine/Adele as conflicted and ambivalent about her sexual orientation. Clementine adamantly denies she’s a lesbian, as does Adele. Clementine/Adele is subject to homophobic vitriol.

Clearly, in both the novel and the film, Clementine/Adele wrestles with a duplicitous identity, fueled by her fierce longing for Emma, tempered by her deep ambivalence about what it means to be gay. In the novel, we perhaps get a clearer picture of just how fraught Clementine was with the implications of what it means to be gay, and her struggles with aligning her ferocious desire for Emma with her identity. Also in the novel, we get a very clear picture of how important it is for Emma to be "out"; she embraces the political and social aspects of being a lesbian. 

In contrast, Clementine/Adele doesn't see any compelling reason to live openly; she is haunted by internalized homophobia, and naively believes that "who she loves" doesn't have any social or political implications. In both the film and the novel, Clementine/Adele’s infidelity ultimately leads to the demise of her relationship with Emma. It's not entirely clear what fueled her infidelity (her anxiety about Emma’s distance; her shame over being a lesbian, etc.). In the novel, Emma is more overtly disappointed by Clementine’s inability to recognize the social and political aspects of identity.

Clementine/Adele's Friendship With Valentin

In the novel, the relationship between Clementine and her friend Valentin is deep and profound. This relationship is also showcased in the film, as we see Adele confiding in Valentin and leaning on him as a friend, particularly as she wrestles with the confounding feelings of her awakening sexuality. 

The novel exhibits additional tender acts of friendship and support between Clementine and Valentine. He consoles Clementine as she wrestles with what she perceives as the immorality of a woman loving a woman.

The friendship between Valentin and Clementine is critical for Clementine to feel comfortable enough to pursue her feelings for Emma. Whereas, in the film, Valentin’s role, while crucial, is somewhat diminished.

Emma's Relationship With Sabine

As is quite typical in a novel compared to its film, the novel often offers more "back story" that provides additional insights about a character. In the novel, we get a lot more back story about Emma’s relationship with Sabine. 

In the film, the character of Sabine doesn't cause much conflict between Emma and Adele. Adele briefly inquires about how long Emma's been seeing Sabine, but there's no implication of notable conflict. Whereas in the novel, Clementine and Adele carry on a large portion of their affair while Emma remains in a relationship with Sabine. This causes a great deal of conflict for Clementine; she feels as though she's waiting on the sidelines until Emma can make up her mind about whom she wants to be with. This conflict is completely absent from the film.

Clementine/Adele's Alienation from Her Parents

One of the major incongruities between the novel and the film is how Adele/Clementine’s parents are portrayed. In both the novel and the film, Emma joins Adele/Clementine at her home for a casual dinner. 

Adele/Clementine presents Emma to her parents as her friend, helping her with her philosophy studies.  Her parents are perfectly cordial to Emma, but have no inkling of the true nature of the relationship between the two young women. Here’s where the plot diverges.  In the novel, the events after the dinner are traumatic. Emma sneaks downstairs to get a glass of milk and is discovered half naked by Adele/Clemetine’s mother. Her mother is aghast and her father erupts into a furious rage. 

Adele's father kicks both of them out of the house and tells Adele to never return. She becomes completely alienated from her family of origin, fostering the deep shame she feels as woman who loves a woman. Clementine suffers a devastating blow. This traumatic experience of familial separation is not depicted in the film.

Clementine's Death

The most egregious divergence between the novel and the film is the plot and its narrative arc. The graphic novel begins as Emma is reading Clementine’s diary. It gradually becomes clear that Clementine has died due to an incurable medical condition caused by drug abuse (on the surface). Of course, the root of her drug abuse is a broken heart after the demise of her relationship with Emma. She had left specific instructions that Emma must keep her diaries after her death. This plot vehicle is in contrast to the film, in which, although Adele is utterly devastated by the loss of her relationship with Emma, she walks away (rather than committing suicide, as is the implication in the novel). 

My own speculation is that Kechiche has fallen in love with this Adele character and couldn't bear the thought of the character's death. 

Chapters 3 & 4?

The fact that Adele walks away, combined with the alternate title of the film (“La Vie d’Adele”) fuels speculation that there could be a sequel to the film (chapters 3 & 4, etc.). Any sequel worth making must have all of the following components, so it’s extremely unlikely to ever get made:

  • A compelling narrative arc, driven by a conflict-oriented script that depicts genuine humanity in its characters
  • Alignment of stars, i.e.,
    • Willingness and commitment from key actors (namely, Adele Exarchopoulos)
    • Scheduling and availability of director (Abdellatif Kechiche) and other key actors
  • Funding/backing of a studio

What might the subsequent chapters of Adele’s life entail? Here are a couple of story lines, both in jest.

Script A

Having fully resolved her feelings for Emma, Adele moves to New York to leave her “old” life behind and start anew. She lands a job as a French teacher at a private school on the Upper East Side. She discovers in short order that she can’t afford to live in Manhattan, or Brooklyn, or anywhere even vaguely desirable, unless she rents a room and with a den of invariably annoying and emotionally unstable roommates. She wrestles with the stresses of entitled children, helicopter parents and demanding administrators at her school. She becomes seriously disillusioned with teaching and is less-than-enthralled by New York City on a severely limited budget. She tries dating men, but rather quickly assesses the dating pool as “all the good ones are either married or gay.” As fate would have it, just when she’s about to give up all hope, she runs into the Arabic actor she’d met at Emma’s party in Lille years before.  He of course is delighted to run into her, and she’s just glad to see a familiar face. They start dating, bemoaning how much they miss France. He proposes to her, they return to Lille, get married, and move to the same neighborhood as her parents. Adele’s parents like him. Adele still doesn’t like sex with men, but she embraces the compromise of an endearing friendship with a man she loves (platonically). They raise two children (a boy and a girl). All the while, she nurses an active fantasy life oriented around about Emma, and essentially drowns her subverted desire in alcohol, living as a functioning alcoholic. Conflicts abound, of all sorts; humorous, absurd, wrenching.

Script B

Adele moves to Paris, mostly to ensure she doesn’t run into Emma; she’s uncomfortable living in the same town as Emma in the role of Emma’s “Ex.” She can’t bear the thought of seeing Emma, knowing that there is no chance of reconciliation. She’s working as a teacher in Paris, but her life’s trajectory is essentially “stuck” because she’s unable to really move on from her break up with Emma. She carries on meaningless flings with strangers she meets at bars (men only). She starts to imagine she sees Emma everywhere; Emma still haunts her mind, day and night. Ironically, Emma’s art career takes off, and she starts spending more and more time in Paris. Adele sees Emma in Paris one evening and follows her into the hotel lobby. She gets into the elevator with Emma, just before the door closes. They’re both breathless with excitement and anticipation to see one another. Emma invites Adele to her room and they talk and flirt until dawn. They make plans to see one another that evening. Shortly after this encounter, they begin an affair (Emma’s family, Lise and Aud, are back in Lille). Adele plays the role of Emma’s mistress for several years, seeing her during her frequent trips to Paris. All is bliss until Adele, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with pushing 40 and her status as the mistress, confronts Emma and asks her to make a choice; her or Lise. Emma is distraught; she senses that her “have your cake and eat it too” life is coming to a close. Emma is fraught with anxiety and conflict; she doesn’t want to end her relationship with Lise, but Adele has reignited a passion in her that’s been dormant for years. Rather than choose, Emma proposes that all three of them live together as a family, ala menage a trois. Conflicts abound, of all sorts; humorous, absurd, wrenching.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Vulnerable Humanity of a Love Story

//Spoiler alert: the following reveals plot. 

The 2013 Palme d’Or-winning film La Vie d’Adele – Chapitres 1 & 2 (also known as Blue is the Warmest Color) has been critically acclaimed, and yet also criticized for inauthentic, highly stylized and voyeuristic sex scenes. I resolutely believe that director Abdellatif Kechiche and actors Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos earned the Palme d’Or, and it’s because of the great swaths of vulnerable humanity we get to see in the characters (few of which are exhibited in the sex scenes). These swaths of vulnerable humanity are what make the film so compelling and emotionally jolting.

First, I’ll state the obvious; of course the sex isn't "authentic." The sex scenes are subject to the director's stylistic predilections and the actors' interpretations. It is artistic cinema; why cling to the conceit that somehow the director and actors are obligated to portray a specific characterization of “authentic” sex? Art isn’t supposed to be so tyrannical or rigid, with a narrow definition of an “authentic” portrayal of human experience. Just like art, authenticity is subjective.

The Incongruity of Adele's Character

What's more interesting to me than a discussion of the “authenticity” of lesbian sex is the incongruity of some aspects of Adele's character, and how this incongruity manifests in the sex scenes. Early in the film, she's depicted with an intentional aura of authenticity; sprawled out on her bed, asleep like a child; leaning against the window, asleep on the train; a voracious eater (particularly fond of her father's bolognese and an occasional candy bar snuck from a box under the bed); earnestly curious about character studies in literature; tentatively fielding the attention of a teenage boy; spellbound by a spontaneous kiss on the lips by a female classmate. She is an insecure and genuine young woman, grappling with the confusion of hormones and sexual awakening.

It smacks of incongruity, then, to portray her initial forays into emotionally-fueled sex with another woman as so confident and self-assured. This is especially true considering that, even in early 21st century France (among the Western countries to recently legalize gay marriage), Adele's closeted gay relationship with Emma is imbued with the defiance of societal and familial norms of identity. Perhaps the sex scenes would have exuded a more genuine flavor by reflecting Adele's sexual inexperience and her insecurity with the idea of a lesbian identity.

A more congruent depiction of Adele's initial sexual interludes with Emma would depict awkward fumbling, nervousness, and a tentative apprehension about whether she's “doing it right.”  Instead, Kechiche infuses the sex scenes with a masterful idealization of tits and ass. The stylized showcase of two writhing beautiful women diminishes their humanity and fails to capture any sense of mystery or vulnerability. The only glimpse of vulnerable humanity in any of the sex scenes is exhibited by Adele, as her tear-soaked eyes reveal a subtle but genuine display of the emotions that fuel the sex.

Exhibitions of Vulnerable Humanity

There are four specific scenes that temper the idealistic portrayal of sex and infuse the women's relationship with a vulnerable humanity.

The "Pillow Talk" Scene

One such scene is the brief post-coital "pillow talk" scene that exhibits such tenderness between the women. Emma stares longingly at Adele and tells her that she's beautiful. They kid each other by espousing the virtues of studying "philosophy" with one another (an inside joke about the ruse they presented to Adele's parents). In a playful turn, Adele challenges Emma to rate her skills as a sexual partner. Emma takes the bait and assesses her skills as a "14" (where "15" is the highest mark, a nod to the grading conventions of French high schools). Emma teases her with a smile, claiming she's only a 14, because she "needs more practice." Adele earnestly and vulnerably replies that she "gives it all she's got." The two giggle and tease one another with such warmth. This brief exchange of humor and affection exhibits a sense of humanity that is conspicuously missing from the sex scenes. As an exhibition of humanity, the "pillow talk" scene portrays them as having a deep affection for one another. It also frames the sex scenes with a sense of Emma's sexual prowess (assuming the task of rating her partner's skills and asserting the need for "more practice"), and Adele's willingness as a lover to give her partner "all I've got."

The "Tell Me All About It, Girl!" Scene

Another scene that exhibits Adele's humanity is a minor scene that was not included in the final cut of the film, but is an outtake available on Youtube. In this darling scene, Adele reveals to one of her best friends (Valentin, a boy who attends her high school, who, not coincidentally, is openly gay) that she's had multiple Earth-shattering sexual encounters with "the girl with blue hair." She is timid and yet also eager to share the recent experiences that have rocked her world; and she does so after she swears him to secrecy. Adele's vulnerable humanity is captured in this confession laden with awkward glances, giggles and raised eyebrows. Both Adele and Valentin relish the details of her secret and somewhat taboo sexual experience (described by Adele as "as much rough as soft" and by Valentin as "the smell of fucking"). "That's bliss," Valentin surmises. The scene ends with another exhibition of Adele's vulnerable humanity, as she pronounces the need to shower before seeing Emma again. 

The "Break-Up" Scene

A major scene that especially renders vulnerable humanity is the devastating "break-up" scene, in which Emma accuses Adele of being unfaithful. A harrowing, crushing scene ensues. Both characters expose deep wells of pain, as exhibited by the harsh and insulting words, raised voices, shoves, slaps and slammed doors. Emma is wary of what she perceives as Adele's closeted identity, asking Adele about whether she's ashamed to be with a woman. Adele is desperate to fix the rudderless state of their current relationship, as she physically and emotionally clings to Emma. 

Emma is resolute that the relationship has run its course; Adele's infidelities are the final straw. Is Emma conveniently using Adele's casual infidelities to justify her own fledgling interest in a long-lost friend who also happens to be a painter? It's unclear; but what this scene does reveal is a huge swath of vulnerable humanity. Emma reckons with her anguish and forcefully rejects Adele, and Adele limps away in fraught bewilderment and utter devastation. This scene also represents the vulnerable humanity of the juxtaposition we often see in love stories; the culminating break-up, in contrast with the previous periods of intimacy, both twinged with their own distinct flavors of desperation. 

The "Reunited" Scene

In what is arguably the most emotionally resonant scene in the entire film, the women reunite at a restaurant several years after their tumultuous break-up. This scene renders vulnerable humanity that is just as ferocious as the break-up scene, with an equally desperate tone (but without the raised voices or insults). The scene is fraught with such profound longing that it's wrenching to watch.

The scene begins with both women glad to see one another. They immediately begin to catch up on each other's lives. Emma casually inquires about Adele's relationship status; first inquiring about whether she has a boyfriend ("nothing concrete"), then whether she has a girlfriend. Adele's compulsory heterosexuality is subtly implicit; of course she might have a boyfriend. Whether or not she has a girlfriend elicits a chuckle from Adele and a smile from Emma, as if to imply that Adele is not gay, she simply fell in love with Emma (who happens to be a woman). We see glimpses of Adele's ambivalence about a lesbian identity. Adele has no qualms about asking Emma about the quality of her sex life with her current partner; is it lousy, she wonders? Is it boring, she hopes out loud? Emma throws her a bone by assuring her that it's "not like with you."

The casual queries about their respective professional lives and relationships begin to unravel when Emma offers to give Adele one of her recent paintings. Instead of receiving a gift, Adele exhorts Emma to let her pay for it "in flesh and blood." Adele claims it was a "joke, a bad joke,"' but both characters sense the awkwardness. Adele eventually confesses that she's still in love with Emma; "I want you. All the time. No one else," Adele implores her. Her confession sparks a desperate seduction that manifests as a heated but brief sexual interlude (right there at the restaurant table). Despite her initial incapacity to halt the interlude, Emma asks Adele to stop and insists that they can't pursue it. Adele even refuses to believe it at first, asking her, "are you sure?" when Emma declines to pursue her.

Adele concedes, in an exhibition of her vulnerability, that her feelings for Emma are "beyond my control." She is compelled to confront Emma and asks her point blank whether she still loves her. Emma's nuanced answer is heart-wrenching; she shakes her head, but her tears, body language and facial expression contrarily depict an affliction similar to Adele's. Emma pops Adele's balloon, telling her that they can't see each other, yet assuring Adele that she has "infinite tenderness" for her. It's cold comfort to Adele, but she recognizes a need to not burden Emma with her emotional strife. In a piercingly ironic turn, Adele admits "sometimes I cry for no reason," and yet she is crying precisely because of a specific reason; her heart is shattered by the recognition that reconciliation is not in the cards. She attempts to get herself together, driven by a need to maintain the ruse of a broken romance that ends on a civilized note, clinging to any connection to this woman she loves so much.

This "reunited" scene exhibits an aspect that dooms many love affairs; the domesticity and logistics of everyday life (especially when said domesticity involves a gay relationship). Despite the history of a relationship, a persistent deep affection, and an evident sexual connection that hasn't waned, Emma is not going to sacrifice her current domestic arrangement (as imperfect as her current sexual relationship might be) to reunite with Adele in any capacity. One possible factor that compels Emma to this decision is Adele's ambivalence about a lesbian identity. Without a commitment to a lesbian identity, Emma recognizes that attempting to live a domestic life with Adele would be futile.

The Vulnerable Humanity of Identity

Throughout the film, we see Adele wrestle with a core contradiction of her identity. As her fledgling romance with Emma unfolds, she defiantly insists to her classmates at school (whom she would call her best friends; the attendees at her surprise 18th birthday party) that she is not a lesbian. Indeed, one might infer that she "doth protest too much." This scene exhibits the hostile nature of teen-age clans, especially when one member is perceived to be somehow "other" in terms of normative identities.

During a family dinner at Adele's parents' house, Adele and Emma are both complicit in a ruse to present themselves as friends instead of lovers (a ruse comprised of Emma's "boyfriend" who works in business). The ruse continues well into the evening, as the women retreat to Adele's childhood bedroom to indulge in a subdued sexual tryst, ensuring their moans of pleasure are not overheard by Adele's parents. Later in the film, we see Adele working as a teacher; she has decided not to reveal her relationship status (living with her lesbian lover) to her colleagues at the school. She remains closeted, despite an astonishingly intimate and emotionally-driven relationship with Emma.

And yet, Adele is clearly wrestling with the contradiction. There are two milieus in which she feels safe to publicly exhibit her relationship with Emma. One is the celebratory ambiance of the gay pride parade. I've attended dozens of gay pride parades since the early 1990s (including New York and San Francisco), and I can vouch for the liberating exuberance of these events. There is nothing quite like the public affirmation of exhibiting a non-normative relationship in such a positive environment. 

The other safe milieu for Adele is a party at her and Emma's home, celebrating Emma's artistic achievements. Though Adele feels safe in this environment (presented as Emma's muse and inspiration), this is where cracks in their relationship begin to emerge. Adele insists that she is content as Emma's muse and party hostess, but she is feeling adrift and inept in the company of Emma's colleagues and friends. Emma appreciates her earnestness, but she recognizes a growing chasm between the two of them in terms of artistic ambition. This chasm diminishes Emma's sexual desire for Adele. Of course, diminished sexual desire is the death knell of so many relationships, especially one in which the sexual passion was such a key aspect of the relationship's foundation. Adele's vulnerable humanity is exposed throughout the film, as she attempts to reconcile her explosive feelings of love and longing for Emma with societal and familial expectations of her.

Despite the criticism, Blue is the Warmest Color succeeds at exhibiting more than just stylized (and admittedly titillating) sexual encounters of young lovers in a modern-day love story. The tenderness and torments of passionate love, and the salient and profound questions of identity, are what imbue the movie with a vulnerable humanity. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos deliver consummate performances; they embody the characters of these women to the extent that we feel their universal vulnerable humanity. While both Seydoux and Exarchopoulos are immensely gifted actors, Exarchopoulos's talent is mind-boggling. I've never seen an actor with such emotional intelligence or a more refined capacity to render her character's truth (except for perhaps Meryl Streep, and that's not an overstated comparison). Given that Exarchopoulos is still in her early 20s, I expect to see great things from her upcoming catalog of performances; I don't expect that any role will ever quite match the emotional gravity of Adele Chapters 1 & 2.