Elisa y Marcela review – same-sex marriage drained of passion

Isabel Coixet transforms the real-life story of two Spanish women who married in 1901 into a bafflingly joyless affair

Writer-director Isabel Coixet has taken a real-life love story from 20th-century LGBT Spanish history and turned it into something bafflingly passionless, joyless and excessively tasteful, an anti-alchemy assisted by stately monochrome photography that makes every frame look like a postcard from an art shop.

Coixet also has a supercilious habit of concluding scenes on an “iris out” transition, a dwindling circular window on one character, as in a silent movie – an apparently playful touch out of sorts with the heavy-footed seriousness of what has gone before. And the film is lumbered with two very torpid and undynamic performances.

Torpid … Natalia de Molina and Greta Fernandez in Elisa y Marcela.
Torpid … Natalia de Molina and Greta Fernandez in Elisa y Marcela. Photograph: Quim Vives/EPA

Elisa Sánchez Loriga (played by Natalia De Molina) and Marcela Graciela Ibeas (Greta Fernandez) were two women who got married in 1901 in Spain, with Elisa pretending to be a man. When the imposture was exposed, there was scandal and salacious press outrage; the couple fled to Portugal planning to emigrate to South America, though the wedding was never actually annulled.

There are suggestions that Marcela may have had a child, something that Coixet interestingly builds into her drama: a heterosexual encounter planned to create a pregnancy that would (she hoped) allay the suspicions of the baying witch-hunt mob, demanding to know if her “husband” is actually a woman. But it leads only to heartache and a terrible dilemma.

Coixet seems oppressively concerned to create something tragic and yet inspirational, a love story that demonstrates the mean-mindedness of the time but also the couple’s courage and defiance. It leads to a tonal paralysis. Coixet stays away from any hints of humour and subversive energy that might have made the story genuinely defiant. The performances of De Molina and Fernandez are self-conscious and subdued and the sex scenes between them are created in line with a kind of modern Hays code of softcore erotica that is at all times concerned not to offend.

The film is idealistically conceived in setting out to retell a story that had been erased from the history of sexuality. The energy and flair was, however, missing.


Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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