“I wanted to poke the viewer with Tyler,” Nicole Conn says of the Love Guru’s significance in her latest film, Elena Undone. “Tyler is not a storyteller, but a provoker,” and what he intends to provoke in us, the audience, are questions about how we know love. How do we know we’re in love? How do we know soulful, spiritual love from – what Conn calls – “a high seas romance”? How are we able to distinguish, Tyler wonders, between an insatiable, physical lust from something more profound? Is this distinction possible, when all our synapses are tangled and our libidos are out of control?
Tyler certainly poked me, after I saw the film Thursday night. His questions were spinning in my mind well into the weekend, and so I felt the strong urge to think through his questions, and the driving concept of the film, “soulemetry,” with the film’s creative team, real-life partners Conn and Marina Rice Bader (left).
Indeed, it is their love story that forms the premise of Elena Undone, with Bader being the married-to-a-pastor heterosexual who builds an intimate relationship with an interested, but weary, Conn. Many of the film’s scenes mirror their courtship, including the one when Elena says “You can have all of me…except for that”; and the scene when Elena finally takes charges, grabs Peyton, and kisses her. It was only last August when Bader suggested they make a film based on their story. Conn was reluctant to agree; after the seminal Clare of the Moon, followed by Cynara, she ceased making lesbian films in favor of other projects, including her critically-praised documentary, Little Man.
Thankfully, Bader was very persuasive (wink-wink. Nudge-nudge), and viola!, in less than a year we have Elena Undone.
Two days after seeing the film, I sat down with Conn and Bader to discuss the concept of “soulemetry” and how romance is a problematic genre for lesbians.
Bader said that, like Elena, there was “a magnetic sort of pull” that drew her to Conn; it was, she explained, “the first time [she] felt her heart was a physical part of her body.” Neither Bader nor Conn believed in soul mates prior to meeting each other. Bader was unhappily married, and always felt that she would never find love, “at least not in this lifetime.” When she met Conn, she had an immediate, bodily reaction, and it is this kind of pre-cognitive, “cellular knowing,” as she defines it, that encapsulates this idea of “soulemetry.” To be clear, both maintain that they do not believe that there is one specific soul mate for each person; rather, two people can be soul mates if— among other things, like physical and emotional attraction—the timing is right. (One big difference between their story and Elena and Peyton’s story: Bader had already planned to divorce her husband prior to meeting Conn.)
There’s a certain amount of ambiguity in the definition of “soulemetry” so to leave enough conceptual space for each person to define her own idea of what a soul mate would be for her specific person. This makes rational sense—we are all unique creatures, with our own preferences and proclivities. Of course, all the while I’m talking with the duo, I’m staring at them wide-eyed, looking for a precise definition, hoping that combined they’ll play my love guru to let me know if my feelings about my ex mean something. (Turns out, I’m just delusional.)
This all being said, we then thought about the difficulty of making a lesbian film, and, in particular, a lesbian romance. Conn emphasized that one of her objectives with Elena Undone was to “reclaim romance”: “I didn’t want to make it sentimentally romantic, but I wanted a serious love story—an adult love story.” She wanted, in other words, to make a romance and not a romantic comedy, which is easy to sidle into, as infusing a romantic plot with comedic elements prevents a certain cheese-factor that is always possible when venturing into the realm of romance, overtly sentimental or not. How to make a honest, sincere lesbian romance without hinging the plot on a character’s death, or a character’s internal battle with gay-shame, or some other pathetic, postmodern Aristotelian tragic element is the challenge Conn faced in the making of this film. Another facet to consider in the making of a lesbian film is the trite and overused trope of the lesbian predator, which is employed concurrently with the gay-shame theme: usually, one character is the shark, and the other is the passive, shame-filled victim. The resulting relationship feels forced—and, yes, here I think Desert Hearts is a prime example (and, yes, I’ve gotten shit for saying this before: I do not like this film). Lesbian romance, to me, is in no way predicated upon this kind of relationship. It is unfortunate that our cinematic past has rested upon these types of tropes, figures, and themes.
However, 2010 has been a breath of fresh air in lesbian cinema—from shorts like You Move Me, to feature films like My Normal—film makers of lesbian cinema are getting it; they are understanding the need to move beyond what we know as clichéd lesbian cinema, including oversaturated, politically-correct (please, just spoon out my eyeballs, now) films. And, I think, Conn is just as successful with Elena Undone: no one is ashamed of themselves or the how they feel about others; no one is predatory; and, thankfully, neither of the central characters in the relationship dies or moves away or turns-hetero.
Lesbian romance is possible, Cherry Grrls, and there can even be jokes about lesbian bed-death, to boot!
Stay tuned for more on lesbian cinema, including a talk with Wolfe Video founder, and lesbian film pimp daddy, Kathy Wolfe!
Qfest photo by: Gail Kamenish