Velvet Coat going Varsity (plus some thoughts on “Io e Lei”)

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Not really dealing down the level of gay here, Jane Dean. – Alessia Barela in “Io e Lei”.

Should you watch this movie? That depends. (extensive spoilers after the cut)

In short: Don’t watch this movie if you did not like “The Kids Are All Right”.

If you want your queer movies to be falling-for-each other rom-coms: this is not it. If you want to look at Barela playing queer: be alerted to the fact that she has only about half a dozen scenes in the entire movie and is a side character (a side character in very gay outfits, and with a very gay haircut (I did not include a shot from the back, but the 1990s send their, admittedly more fashionable, regards)).

If you will, as a rule, reject storylines that involve cheating, particularly one partner cheating with a man: don’t watch this movie.

If you are tired of movies that use “being out/not being out” as a central story drive, don’t watch it.

If you watch movies for love scenes: don’t watch this one.

“Io e Lei” hits a lot of tropes, and some of them, clumsily so (and the subplot about the queer  Filippino housekeeper feels appropriating and carelessly gayphobic in the end, with Marina commmenting “What a waste!” when it comes to the young stud the housekeeper is dating – or did I miss the point?). But looking at the political context and drive it has, I still enjoyed it. That may be because I’ve lived there for a while and am invested in these particular ongoing LGBT and feminist struggles. At some moments, I was aching for the protagonists because those were experiences of a specifically Italian kind that even I am familiar with – just because I am a queer woman who happened to live there for a bit.

Imagine a country where only last month a civil union law could finally pass (which of course does NOT include rights to adoption). Seen through that lens, this is a movie that goes to great lengths to make lesbians appear unthreatening and relatable (one core element being to largely desexualize them).

We’ve got the Smoldering Brunette Of A Certain Age, called Marina (…is there a law that they always have to be called Marina? …or Maca?) a former-actress-turned-catering-service-boss, who is out. She lives with her partner of five years (and, of course, the obligatory cat), the Nice-White-Shirts-Yet-Somewhat-Reserved Federica, an architect who is out as little as possible, and who also falls into the “I’m not a lesbian, I just fell in love with you” range of the queerness spectrum (because calling her “bi” or “pan” would have been too threatening, I gather). Federica is divorced from a husband who remarried half his age and keeps belittling her queerness, and she is mother to a college-age son.

Marina is thinking about another movie stint, Federica feels threatened by the press attention that might bring. Partly in reaction to that, Federica falls into an affair with an old acquaintance, Marco, who suddenly crosses her path again. She was once attracted to him, whe she was single and he was not, but did not act on it then: now they do (you only ever see them buttoning up shirts, though: there are no love scenes in this movie, unless you count getting up early to buy coffee to make your partner breakfast in bed, which kind of does count for me, but I love my coffee).
Probably in an attempt to market the movie to a straight mainstream audience, that affair gets more visbility than the romance (not the relationship) between Marina and Federica. That predominance irked me more than the actual affair, which is tightly linked to internalized homophobia.

Fittingly, it is in facing how her queerness is being ridiculed and brushed aside, that Federica finally realizes that it is her own internalized shame that has propelled her to leave a relationship in which she was happy, and in that realization, she finds the courage to finally fight for it (the ending may feel a bit sloppy, but I have had enough dead lesbians for this season. “Alive, happy and together” is already a plus point, no matter the details).

Marina, earlier, discovers the affair and the two try to patch things up, but Federica feels stifled by Marina’s jealously – who feels rejected both as a person and as a lesbian – so she she asks for a break (and then continues the affair with her man friend, so if that is a trope you cannot deal with, be warned again).

They break up, with a passionately hurting Marina (and in this context, passion is suddenly allowed to her) struggling to move on, and a searching, always somewhat detached, Federica trying to sort through her issues.

Here, the movie does a nice framing of romance in posing Federica as sexually involved with a man, but at the same time making the central question not about sex, but about sharing life with someone, which is precisely the being-gay-is-not-just-whom-you-sleep-with rhetoric that oftentimes still matters on a political level.

This is not a movie for queer ladies, but about queer ladies, for straight folks – to promote acceptance, and legal change.
In this spirit, “Io e Lei” offers many moments – some more subtle, some rather ham-handed – that address invisibility, homophobia, internalized shame, outing and being outed, social roles and expectations placed on women (in Italy, but also at large), the access to and governing of language (e.g. that blunt moment in front of the cinema), and the dominance of heteronormative patterns. And as much as one grows impatent with Federica’s hesitancy, it (still) needs to be addressed.

What I enjoyed about the movie, social justice impetus aside – other than being a sucker for 40+ actresses, particularly when they are Italian -,  was the depiction of the queer female relationship as a gently bickering day-to-day that we rarely get to see in more dramatic or rom-com plots. Granted, you could argue that it also results in de-sexing them, but I’m here for women in their 40s/50s borrowing each other’s glasses to read the morning paper over breakfast in bed (#lifegoals). The chemistry between them is an effortless simmer, with Sabrina Ferilli’s Marina as the more outgoing of the two being very easily appealing also to straight audiences, I imagine. And having two older leads really is a gift.

Another layer is the class difference between Marina’s blue-collar family (who are hilariously awful, especially her mother) that seem to inspire Marina’s hands-on mentality (and occasional speech patterns), and Federica’s bourgeois-academic, more implicitly homophobic background.
And another thing – also something tied to acting (and life?) experience – is the way those two (opposite Sabrina Ferilli: Margherita Buy) navigate through heartbreak and jealousy and inscecurities in very small, yet poignant, expressions. When Marina finds the incriminating text on Federica’s cell phone, or when she opens the door to Federica in the end, the way her face slowly falls apart is more succinct than most of the break-up dialog surrounding it. Likewise, Federica’s frazzled pain, and the struggle against ingrained patterns next to someone more brash in their demeanor, is well depicted. Independent from the narrative, I simply enjoyed the performances of these two.

And, yes, Alessia Barela in a sharp queer barista outfit including details like silver rings and leather bracelets, and a haircut that couldn’t scream “dyke” any louder if you shaved it into those undercut sides, adds some very enjoyable lesbian street cred to all this, even though Barela’s character does not move past “queer sidekick best friend”.

 PS.
The only jarringly untrue bit in this movie – really, how did you miss this trope, “Io e Lei”? – happens when a recently broken-up Federica, who is, for a few nights, sleeping in her son’s apartment, which he shares with a flew flatmates, meets up bleary-eyed with her son in the kitchen late at night: she cannot sleep because the co-eds next door keep getting it on. Even through this conversation, they are starting up again, and Federica leaves with an exasperated “But – again? That is impossible! Impossible!!”.

Apart from this bit framing older women (well, have your pick in whether you want to call 50 “old”) as less interested in sex, which is problematic in its own way, this made me guffaw.
Because what would have been much more lesbi-honest (though not as unthreatening), would have been Federica saying “Again?! – Wait, are those two girls?” or “It’s unfair that their backs won’t be hurting as much after a night like this!”
That, or Federica needs to have a word (or not words, precisely) and then some with Marina upon their reunion. Perhaps that is why they don’t leave the elevator in the last shot, or at least that’s what my first reading of that lingering shot was.

8 thoughts on “Velvet Coat going Varsity (plus some thoughts on “Io e Lei”)”

    1. true! And congrats on a beautiful and poingant triple post on the subject!

      (Io e Lei is still doing the festival circuit, though the DVD is apparently out in Europe – it was in cinemas in Eruope in autumn of 2015)

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  1. Thanks for this comprehensive review which also gives us an insight to the Italian society with regard to the LGBT situation. I found your text really interesting because of the different perspectives you give on how the story could be approached. The “Ms. Barela, happy ending and morning coffee” combo is of course a great plus to the story. 😉

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    1. There are things I would find more problematic if the movie were American, or Spanish or Dutch! E.g. the betrayed lesbian taking back the unfaithful partner relatively easily smacks off “she should be happy that she gets anyone at all because she is not normal”, which is of course horrible, but in the Italian context, I find a movie with two A-Listers and a lesbian happy ending far more significant.

      Something else I very much appreciate: the amount of sheer blouses/white shirts/pajama tops, leather, and boots.
      And the fact that Marina, when newly single again, is allowed a flirt with a younger film press relation who is clearly very, very smitten with her.

      I’ll probably come up with more details as I keep thinking about it. Also, my new Dorothy-Zbornak-deadpan-tone reply to a guy saying something stupidly chauvinist shall for the foreseeable future be “…just carry the roastbeef”.
      There is one scene in which Federica, who has brought Marco to a dinner at the apartment of her ex-husband – Sergio – and his new wife, where Marco is immediately treated and accepted as the “new boyfriend”, is alone in the kitchen with her husband, getting the dinner out of the oven.
      Sergio tells her he feels a bit jealous of Marco. Federica asks if in all those years, he never felt jealous of Marina, and Sergio (the actor really does a fantastic job in making him an absolutely guileless, jovial jerk) says, No – because Marina is a woman, and that’s not a rival, no competition. If anything, it’s a turn-on.
      And Federica just gives him a look that says “I won’t even try to correct you since you clearly will never get it,” and says “Just carry out the roastbeef” in a tone that could peel the paint off the wall. (five minutes later, she leaves the dinner and returns to Marina for good).

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