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Jew is the Warmest Color: How Sebastian Lelio Choreographed Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in the Wildest Sex Scene of the Year

IndieWire talks to the director of "Disobedience" about the six-minute sex scene that became the talk of this year's TIFF.

disobedience lesbian film rachel mcadams

“Disobedience”

Courtesy of TIFF

Sebastian Lelio’s “Disobedience” is a quiet, understated drama with one of the buzziest sex scenes of any movie this year. One a few high-profile acquisition titles at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Disobedience” quickly became known as “the movie where Rachel Weisz spits in Rachel McAdams’ mouth” shortly after its premiere. And while that scene doesn’t convey the strong performances and measured emotional journey at the movie’s core, it certainly leaves an impression.

In this adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s memoir, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns to the ultra-Orthodox community after her father, a noted rabbi, suddenly dies. Although she abandoned the faith years earlier, she’s taken in by her father’s longtime disciple Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and his wife Esti (Rachel McAdams). Ronit and Esti had an affair in their teens, which led Ronit to flee to New York. In due time, they rekindle their passion, but the movie’s less focused on the nature of that forbidden love than the way in which both women deal with their repressive surroundings. Despite the shocking eroticism of their lovemaking, Lelio maintains a gentle, introspective tone that manages to take the religious standards seriously alongside the desire to escape their pull. (The movie ended TIFF without a U.S. distribution deal in place, but several offers were on the table.)

As a white guy from Chile, Lelio isn’t the most obvious source for the feminist gaze, but his growing filmography suggests otherwise. His 2013 drama “Gloria” gave Paulina Garcia the role of a lifetime as a middle-aged divorcee eager to get her groove back with a new relationship; he followed that with “A Fantastic Woman,” an ultra-sensitive movie about a transgender woman (Daniela Vega) coping with the death of her lover. Both “A Fantastic Woman” and “Disobedience” screened at TIFF, amplifying Lelio’s capacity to deliver satisfying female-led dramas, and he’s not done yet: He recently scouted locations in Las Vegas for an English-language reimagining of “Gloria” starring no less than Julianne Moore.

Most of Lelio’s recent films have been produced by Chilean production company Fabula, which counts among its members siblings Juan de Dios and Pablo Larraín, but FilmNation made “Disobedience.” It began when Weisz’s producing partner, Frida Torresblanco, approached the filmmaker at the 2013 Independent Spirit Awards. The actress loved “Gloria” and wanted Lelio to direct “Disobedience,” which she planned to co-produce.

“I was excited about it because I would be allowed to write it,” Lelio said over lunch in Toronto. “I could find my own way into this story.” With no religious background, he added, “I treated it like a science-fiction story, as if it were an alien visiting this other world.” He hired eight different consultants from Orthodox Jewish community to aid in the accuracy of the screenplay, but once shooting started, they stepped back. “I needed to find my own way through the emotions of the story,” he said.

The sex scene arrives at a pivotal moment, when Ronit realizes that Esti — who’s been trying to conceive a child with her husband for years — remains attracted to women despite her attempts to suppress it. “Someone called it ‘Jew is the Warmest Color,’” Lelio said with a half-smirk, “but I think ours is a little less problematic.” The reference is to an infamous scene in “Blue is the Warmest Color,” French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winning lesbian romance starring Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, which was the subject of much controversy and accusations of a male gaze that even its stars eventually acknowledged.

That scene in “Blue is the Warmest Color” lasts seven minutes, while “Disobedience” lasts six, but the comparisons stop there. Kechiche’s scene is a salacious depiction of naked flesh, a lot of moaning and slapping; Lelio’s scene is far more coy about its reveals, focusing more on the women’s faces as they moan with pleasure. Notwithstanding the fleeting shot of spit flying from one woman’s mouth to the other, it’s a fairly subdued, romantic snapshot of lesbian lovemaking. (Already, the scene has received accolades for its sensitivity.) Lelio said that his script didn’t go into much detail. “It said something like, ‘They make love, at last unhindered and uninhibited. They are sheer chemistry, understanding and excruciating pleasure.’”

sebastian lelio

Sebastian Lelio on the set of “Disobedience”

Agatha A. Nitecka

Lelio avoided discussing the scene with his actors until shortly before production started. “It was kind of taboo until quite late,” he said. “A couple of weeks before shooting, we met in New York, and we were talking about everything except that scene. So I gathered my strength and said, ‘OK, I think we should start talking about the sex scene.’” Despite the lack of details, he had a specific vision in mind. “I explained that, for me, that scene was the heart of the film,” he said. “It had to be long. It was all about duration. We had to find very specific acts for them to do, because the real force of the scene would come out of that specificity. That’s why it’s not a generic sex scene. We could make the scene unique with the hyper-specificity of bold moments that avoided being exploitative.”

Lelio said he called lesbian friends while figuring out the various setups. “I would ask them, ‘Would you do this? Would you do that? Would you spit in her mouth?’” he said. “They would tell me what made sense.”

He used images from the work of Italian erotic cartoonist Milo Manara as part of the inspiration for the scene. “I love how he depicts female pleasure in his drawings,” Lelio said. “There is a certain excess and lack of guilt in his work that is strangely subversive. I thought it’d be great if we could have some of that energy in the scene.”

Then he went to work on some of his own drawings to explain the choreography of the scene to his actors. “I showed them the drawings and explained all the stations the scene was going to have,” he said. “First, kisses standing up against the table, then you take off her wig, et cetera. So we agreed to everything before we shot it.”

He was keen on explaining the specific function of the scene. “This is the moment where everything trembling under the surface comes into the light,” he said. “That moment that will define their lives. Because of the oppressive context under which the story unfolds, those few minutes of pleasure become almost like a statement. The human voice can use language as a way to articulate reality, to define it, to control it. But the sound of sexual moaning exists here beyond any possible control — beyond what’s right and wrong. It’s desire versus law. There is an urgency and a rebelliousness in this act.”

On the day of shooting, Lelio said there were only a handful of people on set, including cinematographer Danny Cohen and a few assistants. “We created a very intimate, protected set,” he said. “They were brave from the beginning. I felt so lucky to be dealing with real artists willing to take a risk. Acting is risk — it’s about trusting a director, and blindly jumping off the cliff.”

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