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Rachel Weisz Talks Filming Lesbian Sex in ‘Disobedience’: Sebastián Lelio ‘Doesn’t Objectify, He Subjectifies’

"If you are gay, your subjectivity is the center of your life. But if you go to the cinema, you’ve just been shoved out," Weisz told IndieWire, while praising the Chilean director.

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When Rachel Weisz saw Sebastián Lelio’s film 2013 “Gloria,” about a 58-year-old woman’s sexual re-awakening, she knew she could trust the Chilean director with “Disobedience.” It was Weisz who approached author Naomi Alderman about adapting her eponymous novel for the screen, about Ronit (Weisz), a woman who rekindles a teenage affair with Esti (Rachel McAdams), a woman from her Orthodox Jewish community. Ronit returns home after the death of her rabbi father, having left her religious life behind years ago. Although her childhood best friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), welcomes her cautiously, she is surprised to learn he and Esti are now married.

In the film, the tension between the two women is palpable the minute they lay eyes on each other, though their story unfolds at a delicate pace. Surprisingly, it is Esti who makes the first move, catching Ronit off guard. In the scene which Lelio calls “the heart of the film … the deepest layer,” Ronit and Esti tumble into bed with equal parts wild abandon and tender sensuality. The lesbian sex scene on screen, which has been distorted for and by the male gaze, is here rendered respectfully and gracefully, while still delivering the lustful thrill its characters deserve. To borrow a line from Dovid: “It is important that everything be conducted with honor.”

“In the script, the love scene just said: ‘They make love,'” Weisz told IndieWire during a recent interview. “But, a few weeks prior to filming, [Lelio] storyboarded it. So the whole grammar, all the things that happened, the wetness and the spit, that was all from his imagination.” Weisz is referring to a moment when Ronit lets saliva fall onto Esti’s tongue, which quickly became a “Disobedience” talking point after the film’s premiere in Toronto. It’s odd, and a bit jarring, but it certainly distinguishes the scene. As do two other idiosyncratic moments: the removal of Esti’s wig and her black spandex undergarment.

Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in “Disobedience.”

Bleecker Street

“We were given those musical notes to hit, if you like, and we had to fill them up with emotion and longing and desire. We were actors, given a really good, non-objectifying, journey through desire and sexuality,” said Weisz. She added that the spitting was all Lelio’s idea, but he cleared it with both Weisz and McAdams. “It would be hard to spring that on an actress that day — ‘By the way, I want you to spit,'” she said. “So it was all him. I can’t claim anything apart from acting his sex text.”

Both Weisz and Lelio said having the scene mapped out helped both actresses let go. “What often happens on sets, and I’ve only done heterosexual love scenes, is they just get naked and improvise,” said Weisz. “And sexuality is very — it’s like in a film you need good words — you need good gestures, you need good tropes … Within the structure of the scene, we could really abandon ourselves.”

“It seems like they are they are flying free, but really everything was very controlled, so that was good for all of us,” Lelio said. “They knew what they had to do, and we were all in agreement, and then we could work within those limits.” He said he challenged himself to do the scene with very little nudity. “It was mainly about the faces … and how they get lost. Or, how they find themselves through getting lost. By being together and by having sex, and that paradox between being lost and deeply in touch with who you are.”

“Disobedience” is Lelio’s third film in a row about women on the margins of society. The first was “Gloria,” which he will remake in English starring Julianne Moore, and the second was “A Fantastic Woman,” which won the Oscar this year for Best Foreign Language Film. “He just doesn’t objectify, he subjectifies. And mainly women,” said Weisz. “He just has empathy. I think that’s all it is.”

Like Lelio, Weisz said she is also drawn to telling stories of people on the fringes of society. “People who don’t fit into the mainstream. I think that’s where the most interesting, beautiful, deep stories can happen. Obviously, if you are gay, your subjectivity is the center of your life. But if you go to the cinema, you’ve just been shoved out, and you’re not being represented.”

When asked if she had any reservations about taking on a gay role with such an explicit scene, Weisz paused briefly before casually replying no. “Of course, getting it wrong would be awful, misrepresenting what we’re trying to represent.” She can rest easy: Everything was conducted with honor.

“Disobedience” opened in theaters on April 26, 2018.

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