Sunday, May 27, 2007

Loving Annabelle

For some time now, Loving Annabelle has sat in the top five list of videos rented by lesbians according to Wolfe Video’s web site (see It’s a small indie film, written and directed by Katherine Brooks, who according to the DVD shorts and extras, watched the classic lesbian film Maidchen in Uniform and decided to make her own teacher-student love story in which, instead of deferring the romance to longing, unrequited passion, and inevitable suicide, something actually happens between the two women. To paint the context for her version of the old story, Brooks creates a standard series of girls’ boarding school types: Colins (Laura Breckenridge), the slightly crazy lonely girl, who cuts herself and hides a rescued porcupine in a cage in her room; Cat (Gustine Fudickar), the aggressive, brash, brusque type, who is no doubt deeply emotionally wounded, but covers her emotions with nonchalant hostility; and Kristen (Michelle Horn), the more sexually experienced girl (who’s in fact had a child that her parents now call their own) who’s along for the ride in the awkward threesome these girls comprise.

Annabelle (Erin Kelly) is new to the strict Catholic school, brought to the isolated estate somewhere outside of LA by her mother, a wealthy, self-important senator. In the opening, Annabelle rides beside the senator in a stretch limousine, looking sadly out the window while her mother, talking into her cell phone and holding a sheaf of papers, ignores her. The two women are surrounded by white men in black suits, the entourage of government security that keeps Annabelle even further from maternal intimacy. We learn quickly that Annabelle has already been expelled from two previous schools, and that if the high school’s imperious nuns can’t break her free spirit, she’ll be sent next to military school.

The teacher in charge of corralling Annabelle is Simone (Diane Gaidry), herself a former pupil of the school who teaches poetry and lives as the housemistress in the girls’ dorm. She’s a wiry, lithesome woman, with the stooped stance that signals both barely repressed sexuality and a tragic past. Annabelle doesn’t take long to learn that Simone was once just like her—rebellious, passionate, and, of course, queer. Simone’s lover Amanda committed suicide, not strong enough—her final note confesses—to withstand the public condemnation (in the late 20th century?) of a lesbian life.

Simone pines for her lover, while she lets herself get involved with a perfectly nice, awfully boring male teacher from a nearby private school. As he presses for a commitment, her attentions and affections wander toward her young charge. Annabelle feels their mutual attraction first and fast. She comes on strong, practically stalking the older woman in her quest for Simone’s affections. But Annabelle is preternaturally sophisticated for her age (which would be, at most, 17). Once she learns of Amanda’s suicide, Annabelle understands Simone’s pain and sets about helping the older woman release her past.

Annabelle is smart and mature, which keeps the plot from plummeting into utter incredibility (and perhaps, to some, although I have to say not to me, moral ambiguity). Annabelle not only has the intellectual chops to attract Simone, she’s also emotionally articulate. One would think that a kid who’s been expelled from two previous schools would be a hellion, a shut-down wall of aggression and hostility (much like Cat, who expresses her fear and insecurity through harmful, destructive sarcasm and emotional manipulation). But Annabelle simply knows herself and her sexuality, and refuses to conform to social expectations that would make her heterosexual and in every other way straight. She empathizes with the marginalized and ostracized, comforting Colins when Cat strikes out at her, and otherwise shows herself as a young woman of strength and character.

Annabelle refuses to remove the Buddhist prayer beads she wears around her neck, given to her, she tells Simone, by the first “person” with whom she fell in love. (When Simone inquires after “him,” Annabelle corrects the pronoun.) The head nun, Sister Immaculata (played with campy parody by Ilene Graff) forces Annabelle to wear heavy crosses hung from chains over the beads, burdening the girl with the signs of a religion in which she doesn’t even believe. Simone persuades Annabelle to carry the beads in her pocket instead, so that she can keep her ex-lover close without incurring Immaculata’s wrath.

Annabelle, in turn, helps Simone take off the small gold cross Amanda gave her, which Simone fingers constantly at her neck, reminding her of what she, too, has lost. This is only one of several overly neat plot contrivances, but Kelly and Gaidry carry off these heavily parallel symbolic acts with aplomb. In fact, the women’s growing attraction works mostly because the two actors flesh out the characters’ emotional lives, and let their eyes and their faces communicate a seductive, credible intimacy that the dialogue sometimes flattens.

Annabelle and Simone’s attraction somehow remains sweet and pure; their age difference never seems to matter, because Annabelle’s worldly experience compensates for Simone’s sheltered Catholic girls’ school existence, balancing out whatever chronological age might otherwise mean.

Brooks builds the sexual tension between Annabelle and Simone, finally bringing them together after Annabelle witnesses Simone cajoled into dancing with her erstwhile boyfriend at the school prom. Taking off her dress and letting down her hair, Annabelle mounts the dance floor stage in a red slip with her guitar and a song, obviously written for and about Simone. When Simone flees in emotional confusion, Annabelle leaves the stage and runs after, catching up with her in the rain outside, where the two women finally kiss and return to Simone’s room to make love.

And pretty good love it is, too. Brooks, in the extras, describes how she wanted to film a love scene that would palpably represent the heat of the two women’s desire, rather than cutting away at some key moment or only intimating their physical intimacy. The scene is well-choreographed; Simone and Annabelle’s sexual connection is one of the most believable in the film. They share the lead in taking off each other’s clothes, in the first exploratory touches, and in the building passion that takes them to Simone’s bed where Brooks actually does show them having a pretty convincing, pretty hot, pretty moving simulation of lesbian sex.

Because of the storm, Simone’s alarm clock doesn’t ring the next morning. Tipped off by the jealous Cat, Immaculata finds the lovers in Simone’s room and promptly calls the police. The officers lead Simone out of the school, Annabelle tearfully running after them to toss Simone her Buddhist prayer beads, which the older woman catches and to which she clings as she’s driven away in a car ride that mirrors Annabelle’s arrival. Annabelle turns back into the school, running past the girls lined up to witness the spectacle. She returns to Simone’s room, where she finds the art photos Simone took of her on their day at the beach and smiles, loving Simone and not regretting it for a minute.

Brooks is careful not to judge the characters for their affair, despite the age difference. Unlike, for instance, the recent heterosexual version of a similar story, Notes on a Scandal (see my earlier blog entry), the teacher-student affair isn’t presented as the ruin of the nuclear family, or as a cruel manipulation of a vulnerable teacher by a horny, handsome teenaged boy or girl. Although the officers arrest Simone for her apparent indiscretion, until that moment, neither woman has suffered guilty misgivings about their obvious desire. Simone hesitates more because of the emotional wounds of her past than the prohibitions of the present. The film doesn’t sensationalize the story, either; in some ways, it’s just an old-fashioned lesbian movie that insists desire should be seized wherever it’s found. Loving Annabelle makes it clear that denying need and lying about love can disintegrate your soul.

Why am I so attracted to these stories? Why do these images linger for me for so much longer than those from other films, even though I know Loving Annabelle is a melodramatic diversion? Could it be that at 50-years-old, I’m still entranced by images of women falling in love against the odds, still starved to see this particular, predictable plot enacted? Is it because I, too, like director/writer Brooks, want to see consummated the desire that so many films of my own youth only suggested (even though Brooks is 20 years my junior)?

Does Loving Annabelle linger because in my own life, I seem to have moved from identifying with Annabelle’s precocious emotional sensitivity to Simone’s more painfully guarded passions? Is it because I came of age knowing that my sexuality and my own desire was illicit, so that watching the enactment of a forbidden teacher-student relationship reminds me that the erotics of sublimation and transgression are hard-wired into my own psyche? Or is it because the subtextual necessity of Annabelle and Simone’s flirtation recalls for me the necessity with which I lived for so long, of signaling to other women in the dark, hoping they could read what I was trying to tell them, hoping to find companionship, if not passion, with women who might truly know me?

When Annabelle finds Amanda’s suicide note in the astonishingly beautiful ocean-side condo Simone’s parents have left her, Simone is furious at the breach of her privacy. But Annabelle knows she’s found the key to Simone’s defenses. Struggling against Simone’s arms as the older woman tries to push her away, Annabelle insists that she intends to hold her and not to let her go. They tussle for a moment, then Simone surrenders to Annabelle’s embrace, sobbing on her shoulder as the younger woman holds her tightly, their hands entangled in each other’s hair.

As I describe the scene, I know how cheesy it sounds—I can’t even keep that hint of breathless sensation from my prose. And yet the moment was also very true and, for me, very moving. Here was the offer of understanding, the offer to care, to love, a living young woman wrapping her arms around Simone to comfort and sympathize. How many times, in my later teens and early 20s, just before and just after coming out, did I want someone to just “get it” like this, to use their body to tell me so, not to force me to talk about it, but just to let me feel it, whatever “it” was.

And honestly, “it” was mostly the complicated pain of being a lesbian before it was even marginally okay, as it is now, when it was still forbidden, taboo, perverted, misunderstood, when my attachments were to straight girls who could never reciprocate because I didn’t know any other would-be lesbian girls. I remember too well the inarticulate despair that came from not being able to express my desire openly, from being isolated without the words for what I felt and what I wanted, from being gripped by powerful hormones that sent my passion driving in the “wrong” direction, and not being able to do a thing about it.

I wanted to be Annabelle, but instead, I was Simone. Even though the film doesn’t illuminate anything new about this now-stereotypical story, Loving Annabelle still reminds me of my own coming of age.

When the Annabelle and Simone finally do give in to their desire, the film captures well the release of that instance, the combination of terror and depth of passion it inspires. Kelly and Gaidry bring something fresh and truthful and sincere to the moment, registering that there’s no turning back from transgression, and at the same time, that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks or says or what the consequences are—you just have to join your flesh with hers, you can’t deny it a second longer. When the harridan Immaculata confronts her with outrage, after finding Simone and Annabelle in bed together, Simone says simply, “I love her.” To make that declaration should be enough; in Loving Annabelle, as in my own life, indeed it is.

Sentimentally, perhaps,
The Feminist Spectator