Over the weekend, the Mill Valley Film Festival had the U.S. premiere of gay writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein’s handsome period psychosexual drama, “Angelica.” As he did with “Teeth,” Lichtenstein is again exploring a disturbing aspect of female sexuality.
Told almost entirely in flashback, the film recounts Constance’s (Jena Malone) strange relationship with her husband Dr. Joseph Barton (Ed Stoppard). After an appropriate courtship, the couple marries and they have sex. Constance and Joseph both enjoy their connubial pleasures, but when she has difficulty giving birth to their daughter Angelica (Eliza Holland Madore), they are told to resist their conjugal desires entirely. This causes frustration for Joseph. It also bonds Constance firmly to her daughter, while distancing her from her husband.
Joseph thinks he has resolved their situation when he encourages Constance to perform oral sex, but their lovemaking is interrupted when Angelica has a choking fit. Are mother and daughter so closely related that Angelica suffers pain at the precise moment Constance is sexually submitting to her husband? An apparition in the form of a man suggests this as it circulates around Angelica’s bedroom, an ominous symbol of sexuality.
Litchenstein wants to address issues of purity and innocence (Victorian attributes) as well as sin and patriarchy with “Angelica,” and while there are points to be raised about women embracing sexual desire, much of the film is ploddingly dull. There is a strange but important scene where Constance surprises her husband at his laboratory only to make a disturbing discovery. Is her shock causing her psychosexual trauma? one doctor wonders, but his search for answer is so dryly done it may prompt viewers to nod off.
“Angelica” does get some life breathed into it when Anne Montague (the always reliable Janet McTeer) shows up to rid Constance and her house of its demons. Anne befriends Constance, and shows her how to exert some feminist courage, and put her feet up on a table. The film could have used more of McTeer’s brio.
Instead, Lichtenstein features several over-the-top scenes of Constance being sexually assaulted by the apparition. These moments are certainly meant to be allegorical, and they are rendered well even if one episode ends with some rather nasty consequences for a character. But the film exhibits very little power—emotional or otherwise—making “Angelica” visually arresting but ultimately, lacking sensation.