“Arthouse smut”, “soap-operatic performances” and “preposterous” are words and phrases that recur in reviews of Adore, the 2013 film directed by Anne Fontaine. The film, which premiered at Sundance, was perhaps expected to meet the requirements of a Sundance-worthy feature instead of a fun and frivolous romp through an atypical love square.
It’s difficult to reconcile my feelings about Adore. It contains at its root some fairly basic and uninspired dialogue, a cast of conventionally good looking white people and a meandering plot. Yet I hold onto the conviction that it is an important act in itself for a woman director to be making a film about women’s sexual desires.
I was asked by someone why it mattered if a film’s director was a woman. I have been asked this same question regarding books written by women. The idea being that any great artist can tell a “woman’s” story, regardless of whether they are one or not. I maintain that female authorship gives audiences a more complete worldview, not to mention speaks directly to women and their experiences. That’s not to say “women’s experiences” are uniform, which is why a diversity of women telling their stories is needed.
Women’s voices are perhaps more prevalent in what is typically referred to as “arthouse” or “foreign” cinema (as all films not made in English find themselves similarly lumped into this category). However the mainstream field is still largely dominated by male directors. Considering that the audience for these types of films far surpasses the audience for “arthouse” cinema, the picture that is being shown of women to society is consistently painted with a brush held by a man.
Where does Adore fit into the picture? I think it is a fun and entertaining story about relationships between men and women that has been critiqued as a film framed as “arthouse”. It’s a film you may watch on a lazy Sunday, a film to keep you occupied on a long-haul flight, a film you may admire for its ability to distract, for its frivolity. To me though, the film is not frivolous.
The story is adapted from a Doris Lessing novel, The Grandmothers. It focuses on an intense, lifelong friendship between nextdoor neighbors. Two women who’ve known each other their whole lives, who’ve cared for each other through marriage, birth, death, divorce. Friends who love each other so much they are able to navigate the unusual situation of a sexual relationship with the others’ son. It appears that the idea of these two young men becoming besotted with their much older neighbors is less offensive to critics than the idea that the two women wouldn’t catfight over it.
Given the examples of female friendship seen in mainstream, male-directed cinema, it is refreshing to see women not talking over the top of each other, shouting, being condescending to each other, competing, or any of the other common tropes assigned female characters. Recall the female friendships seen in shows such as Sex and the City, or the countless films where women are relegated to mother, child, love interest, and it’s clear that a depiction of women respecting and loving each other unselfishly is missing.
Are there several gratuitous shots of the two young men emerging from the ocean in their surf shorts? Sure, but then how many Bond heroines have we seen emerging from the ocean bikini-clad? Is it preposterous that two women in their 40s could be desired by men half their age? Only if a pairing featuring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones or Kirk Douglas and Darlanne Fluegel is equally preposterous. These are consenting adults, caught up in a sexual situation that, while unusual, is only considered unbelievable because we are rarely shown older women acting on their desires. We are told women nurture younger men, not get naked with them. We are fed the idea that a woman would never let go of the safety of a marriage for a short-lived affair.
None of this is to say the film itself is perfect, far from it. The narrative stops and starts and marinates far too long on points that could be made in less time. The dialogue is simplistic and sparse. The cast is uniform in how they look. There could have been a lot more tension built, instead of reactions petering off and being lost. What is interesting, potentially revolutionary, about the film is that it paints an alternative picture of female desire; it shows women being logical in the face of lust, and a friendship between women that continues to be full of respect and love throughout the potentially inflammatory situation.
The love of these two women for each other, their unwavering support, is what makes this film less of the smut-fest it’s been painted as and more of a beacon of hope for more multifaceted portrayals of female friendships in movies. It’s promising to see a smattering of films by women depicting the complexities of female friendship, like Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, or female infidelity, like Sarah Polley’s Take this Waltz, or female desire, like Catherine Breillat’s The Sleeping Beauty. This year will mark the release of Amma Asante’s Belle, the first period piece by a woman of color, and Appropriate Behavior, the first feature from Iranian-American queer director Desiree Akhavan. These are small offerings though, and cinema is mostly still a boy’s club.
In I Love Dick, Chris Kraus says, “The sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world.” That is to say, not every act a woman artist makes need be overtly incendiary. A plurality of women’s voices, sharing their experiences, that is what will begin shifting societal norms. Adore has been most aptly described as a “light-hearted romp”, a “playful fantasy”, and yet it is of value to have this type of film told from the female perspective. In a world where females on film are constantly depicted through the eyes of men, I’ll take Adore for what it is – the opposite of that.