There are different kinds of silence in film. There is the uncomfortable, dominating silence that makes your muscles tense in morbid anticipation. Then there is the intimate silence, where a glance, a touch, a brush of skin tells everything; where words aren’t necessary to reassure both character and spectator and bring them in closer. This film gifts us both kinds of silence, and shows us the difference.
Elisa y Marcela (2019) is a Spanish romantic drama film by the auteur filmmaker Isabel Coixet. It tells the real-life story of the two eponymous women as they fall in love and, disguised as a heterosexual couple, eventually marry in 1901. Shot in black and white across beautiful Catalonian and Galician scenery, the action takes place across Spain and Portugal in a kind of pan-European celebration of Iberian landscapes. The mysteriously whispered opening monologue and dramatic violin music sets us up for a fraught and artsy depiction of forbidden lesbian romance. And it does not disappoint.
I imagine it would be easy for a film set in black and white to be visually quite boring. Fortunately, Coixet ー working too as a camera operator, as if the roles of director and writer weren’t enough ー doesn’t let this happen. Interesting shots and perspectives are speckled throughout to keep the visuals engaging, with certain motifs re-emerging, letting the viewer ponder over their meaning and importance. I had the privilege of interviewing Isabel Coixet for euradio back in 2018 and her passion for and dedication to the art of filmmaking in all its facets were as evident then as they appear to be now. I’ve uploaded the translated interview transcript here, alongside the original French audio. In the interview she mentions Elisa & Marcela as her upcoming project, and as a fan it’s exciting to see it come to fruition.
The first half of the film is especially visually and thematically interesting, reflecting the girls’ excitement as they get to know each other, fall in love and explore their bodies together. We watch them stroll along the beach through a bizarre but intriguing frame, the camera focusing on drying octopus bodies in the foreground.
Throughout future sequences in their early relationship, marine imagery crops up again in unexpected places. Indeed, Elisa talks to Marcela of dreams where she runs away through the sea, showing that this marine motif perhaps represents a queer adolescent yearning for freedom.
Biggest Gay Mood: sitting in bed practising how to say hello to your crush the next day
After Marcela’s father predicts a scandal for the family and sends Marcela away, the two girls write to each other during their three years apart. They dictate their letters to camera, fading through shots of words, letters and landscapes, all with faltering focus. Later on, images are blurred once again, this time as a fade between a vintage camera filter and modern HD then back again. We are reminded of the oppressive attitudes of the era and the fragility of their relationship if its true depth is perceived by outsiders.
Finally, the camera work can also be playful. We circle cheekily round the top half of the women’s bodies during one intimate moment. Later, at the start of a sex scene, the camera starts on their faces and pans down, only to flick jarringly back to where it started before we see anything explicit. And repeat.
A lot of these shots occur during what I would call a comfortable kind of silence. We see close-ups of the girls’ skin, panning down forearms to reveal goosebumps filled with anticipation. And yes, they do have arm hair, it is the 1890s after all ー a quick google search tells me that shaving body hair didn’t become widespread amongst women until the 1940s. They also have armpit hair and (rarely on screen) pubic hair. No leg hair though. Still, 3 out of 4 isn’t bad.
Overall, the camerawork throughout is a testament to Coixet’s hard work at perfecting her craft of filmmaking. Like the story, it is sensitive, intimate, tender ー and yet quietly powerful.
I did not notice this until afterwards, but the chemistry created between Elisa and Marcela makes you never question the validity and strength of their relationship. Through a variety of challenges (and there are a lot of challenges), they rarely falter. This is another demonstration of Coixet’s quiet brilliance, as well as that of the two lead actresses: Natalia de Molina and Greta Fernández.
Having read this review so far, you may be forgiven for thinking that Elisa & Marcela is faultless. However, some awkwardness becomes apparent in the second half of the two-hour epic: when Elisa is forced to disguise herself as her recently deceased male cousin ‘Mario’ so that the two can get married and continue to live together. Though she does play her role as a straight man fairly convincingly ー spitting on the ground is so hetero, bravo on that ー it unfortunately leads to some unnecessary and problematic trans cinematic tropes. At one point she (and I say she, Elisa never identifies as male except for survival) is given a forced sex check, the traumatic climax of far too many trans narratives on screen.
To learn more about problematic tropes in trans representation in cinema, check out the documentary Disclosure, which I reviewed at the end of last month.
There are significant visual gaps in the story ー we span many years of their lives together ー so it wouldn’t have been especially jarring to skip or simply imply this altercation. Indeed, the film does just that with a presumed rape scene, so why can’t it do that here? Of course, one could try to justify it by saying that it is based on a true story, but for me this doesn’t make it any less damaging.
Still, I should give praise where praise is due, and Elisa y Marcela tells its queer narrative with a mostly sensitive and moving approach. Although the two women get their fair share of opposition, there are some great and touching moments of female solidarity which somehow don’t feel out of place in societies where both homosexuality and cross-dressing are illegal. When they escape to Portugal, they find solace and support in unexpected female friendships. In a few scenes, you do get the sense that, if women were running the show, it would have been quite a lot easier for the two to be together.
Together. The Spanish word for together is either juntos (masculine) or juntas (feminine). With mixed gender, grammar defaults to masculine (thanks for that patriarchy), so a straight couple would use juntos. A gay male couple would also use juntos. Two women, however, would use juntas. Juntas pops up in private dialogue between Elisa and Marcela at critical points in their story. In their context, it is a forbidden word for a forbidden romance. This is just one example of the care and subtlety of language in the script that makes the film so quietly powerful.
Top Tip: avoid the dubbing, and use subtitles instead. The words are so beautiful.
I want to take you back to my opening paragraph, and the different kinds of silence offered in Elisa y Marcela. It took me thinking back and analysing to realise that the uncomfortable silences are only ever brought in by intruders into the main relationship. We feel the tension in Marcela’s childhood home after she talks highly of her newest friend, or in the governor’s office in Porto when Elisa (disguised as Mario) is questioned about the validity of her marriage. By contrast, comfortable silences come when the two are alone together, and it is in these moments juntas that they ー and thus we ー find their paradise.
Header image via AfterEllen