I Watched Lesbian Classic “Disobedience” and Be Quiet Tiffany

Editor’s note: Some of our readers and writers loved Disobedience. Some of our readers and writers did not. We are not a monolith, and thank goodness for that.


Welcome back to Watching Lesbian Classics, a public log of lesbian movies that’ve managed to evade me because I’ve willingly chosen not to watch them and their subsequent reviews! It’s been quite the two-year journey, from the depths of Everything Relative hell to the soaring views atop I Can’t Think Straight. What an incredible wealth of queer history.

Last time we covered Liz in September, a movie that was a dollop of melancholy, a splash of vacation, and a sprinkle of cancer. Up next is Disobedience, a movie for which I left my home and paid money to watch alongside every queer woman in Los Angeles, California one fateful night almost a year ago. That means this very special episode of Watching Lesbian Classics will be from memory, as I want queer cinema to thrive at the box office, and engaging in torrenting gay culture effectively ruins the chances of that happening.

Also because I never want to see this movie again.

Let’s get some things out of the way about Disobedience, a movie that’s been advertised on this very website. Yes, it’s a mainstream movie with two women inches from each other’s face on the movie’s poster, adding it to the vast cannon of lesbian movie posters with two women just inches from each other’s face. Yes, there is a sex scene wherein Rachel Weisz unsnaps Rachel McAdams bodysuit in a way that made me rear my neck back as if to say, “Is that so, Miss Weisz?” and a from-the-behind situation that was inspiring. This was great for the gay community and me personally.

But here’s the thing about that sex scene, which could be representative of the entire movie: it was scored by music that sounded like the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where a victorious Charlie overlooks the city in fantastical wonder. Two hot people having sex, and then there in the metaphorical corner stands a man in a purple top hat who’s smiling like he’s just dying to tell you a secret.

And so went every other scene — the potential for greatness ruined by a terrible tangential choice. What was even more upsetting is that the better choice was often self-contained, the mismatched answer tucked into another scene. Like, for example, the audio from a scene where a group of Jewish men chant a prayer, which would have been the perfect score for the aforementioned sex scene. Having hot, forbidden sex to the very soundtrack that’s supposed to forbid it would have blown everybody’s bangs back, and yet we went with Generic Bank Or Insurance Or Like… Dog Food Commercial Background.

But enough about bangs and the various ways in which they could have been tossed, let’s get to what actually happened:

Ronit (Rachel Weisz) is living as a photographer in NYC – AKA “The Big Apple” and star of You’ve Got Mail – when she gets news that her father, a revered rabbi in her hometown, has died. She goes home for the funeral and divvying of the estate, and here we meet Esti (Rachel McAdams), Ronit’s secret former flame, and Dovid, Ronit’s cousin. Esti and Dovid are married, which is a bit of a banana peel situation for Ronit.

Somewhere in the home auditing walkthrough – wherein Ronit and Esti speak approximately twelve words to each other while Ronit occasionally touches things that she sees on shelves – we learn that, save for each other, neither Ronit nor Esti have been with another woman. Yes, despite being someone who’s rejected her religious upbringing and who’s a part of New York City’s art scene, this film was telling me that Ronit’s bisexual ass had never been with another woman after Esti. The disrespect jumped out!

Dovid takes over Ronit’s father’s role in their orthodox community as rabbi, and I’m telling you, the man loves God. He can’t get enough of Him! This means: he and Esti have dinner in silence, light prayer candles in silence, and in general just co-exist in silence. The guest room, prepared silently, gets set for Ronit under Dovid’s watchful eye.

Over the next couple of days, Ronit and Esti follow each other around town. Lotta just walking around if I’m being honest. There’s even a scene where the viewer is treated to a full minute of a large group of people walking down a narrow sidewalk with zero dialogue and a frantic back-and-forth POV between Esti and Ronit looking at each other like they’ve both just seen sharks in their respective areas of water and are trying to communicate that telepathically to each other.

Eventually, Ronit and Esti get a hotel room and surrender to what we were all there for: sex in a world of pure imagination. The fabled mouth spit delivers! Esti returns home and Dovid knows what’s happened, and to this situation he sends his literal thoughts and prayers. Then Esti reveals that she’s pregnant and tells Dovid she wants her freedom. Ronit’s like, still gonna be a no from me in terms of you being my cousin’s wife. Neutralizing this situation, Dovid, fresh off a fire eulogy about free will, tells Esti she is free.

And there, the movie – full of Rachels and taboo and possibility – ended as it lived, not with a bang but with a cough from the back of a room. I don’t know how else to summarize my overall feel towards the movie other than to tell you that as the last scene lingered, the camera slowly settling into a wide shot of Ronit, Esti, and Dovid hitting that group Christian-side-hug, I was informed by my viewing companion that I started to do the “wrap it up” hand motion before the credits even began to roll.

I’m willing to concede to the fact that not every movie is going to be for me. I watch Hamlet 2 on repeat as if it will eventually unlock the secrets to the universe, and so I know this isn’t even a sound baseline of quantification. That said, I do wonder who this movie was for. Progressive religious people? Religious gays? Timid gays? It’s a question that accompanied a long line of questions throughout the entire film.

Also in line was: who am I supposed to be rooting for, exactly, in a narrative dedicated in equal parts to three people? Just behind that was how much should we as an audience be expected to really invest in what’s at stake when it’s never been clearly established? Peaking behind those questions was what is this movie even trying to say — about religion, about desire, about ownership, about duty, about life? Screaming from the back was what the fuck is even going on? All of my questions in a row, Brady Bunching down an escalator, distracting me from anything on screen.

But none of these questions would compare to the one that got born in the theater’s darkness. Standing there, in front of all of these women, as someone who was rooting for you, for everyone that was rooting for you, knowing that I’d never yelled at girl movie like this, the question most on my mind was: how dare you?

Los Angeles based writer. Let's keep it clean out there!

Erin has written 205 articles for us.

80 Comments

  1. Hey, Erin! Love your writing! And here is my 2 cents: I love a happy ending as much as anyone else, but I liked the overall ambiguity of the movie. There are no simple answers or pat outcomes. The characters are conflicted and have no crystalline plan about what comes next. Maybe Esti and Roni will get together in the future…maybe they won’t. On the definitely plus side, Esti has definitely changed into an active agent in her own life, though. I COMPLETELY am with you in the incredulity department that Roni (Rachel) had not been with anyone else (although I missed that plot point). I mean, c’mon!!! She’s so freaking hot!!! I’m also sending a big truckful of props to you for your “Brady Bunching” neologism. Hurrah!

  2. Didn’t she say “not really” when she was asked if she had been with other women? I took that to mean nobody important. The music was weird.

    I honestly don’t know how I feel about this movie except to say it leaves me thinking “what?”.

  3. I personally loved the movie. I saw twice at my local international film festival and both times the theater was full and it got standing ovations and claps when the end credits rolled. Since then I’ve seen it two more times because I liked the intensity, realism and tragedy of the movie, the tension and passion between the characters as well as the ambiguous ending. Also, Ronit said “not really” when Esti asked if she had been with other women…this could be interpreted as maybe she fooled around with other women but never went all the way? I mean she was outed in a very traumatic and unexpected way so maybe the residual trauma and shock of it all hindered her full exploration of her sexuality. But hey, I can also see how the film won’t appeal to everyone. Horses for courses I guess.

    • interesting! maybe it needs to be seen with the right kind of audience as ours on opening night ended with like a random singular clap and a lot of people slowly and silently filing out of the theater. i did not get tension or passion from any of these dynamics besides maybe Dovid and his bible but! horses

  4. i’m still confused about how i feel about this movie – i remember being so excited to see it but i literally felt nothing after, like nothing. I never even thought that was possible for me, a gay that watched all the seasons of lost girl & therefore gives zero fucks about the plot as long as gay, will watch a movie with rachel mcadams & rachel weisz falling in love and feel NOTHING… shook

    • This. I fully agree. There was so much attention to detail, down to the kosher kitchen, that you would only fully pick up on/appreciate if you’re Jewish or for some reason deeply familiar with Jewish faith and practice. And honestly I was so entranced by that attention to detail that I didn’t notice the music. So, yes, I’m plus-one-ing Disobedience having been made specifically for queer Jews with a wing and a prayer that other people would show up anyway.

    • I agree with this completely. I grew up in an Orthodox community, not quite as strict as in the movie but similar. It’s far from a perfect movie, but I loved it when I saw it initially and continue to enjoy it on subsequent viewings. It’s rare enough to see Jews doing overtly Jewish things in movies, never mind queer Jews (and starring an actual Jewish woman!). They clearly did significant amount of research, and they got many of the details exactly right, which I very much appreciated. Plus I truly, deeply, genuinely enjoy watching Rachel Weisz top the fuck out of women, even moreso when the other woman is Rachel McAdams.

  5. Pardon my French as I’m not a native English speaker but I will try to articulate my views on “Disobedience”. For me it shows the tragedy of choice – that as a lesbian born in an orthodocs community whatever you decide to do with your life, break free or stay, you always have to give up on something, your family and friends (your roots) or your true self (acting on your feelings towards other women). It’s the hardest of choices and still many women have to face it. The music in the love scene was bad – I admit it (but it was fresh in terms of showing authentic desire without much or even any nudity). The hug at the end was bad too. Too much Hollywood in a very silent, contemplative movie. But I like the fact that no one is actually bad there. Even Dovid with his heavy burden. The characters often greet each other with the paradoxcally opressive words “May you live a long life” and this movie aks a question if length is really the thing we should crave the most in life. Thank you for your review, Erin, it’s always great to read your articles!

    • What needs to be added is: there is an intresting scene between Ronit and Esti in the middle of the movie where Esti asks Ronit if she’s happy in her New York. Ronit’s positive answer sounds too forceful and stubborn to be authetnic and that made me realize that escape doesn’t guarantee being trully free and without doubts. It actually shows that there is no good decision in such situations what gives this movie an additional Greek tragedy accent.

    • yes, this exactly: Esti can’t have a 100% happy ending because of the frame her upbringing has put on her. I saw the film at a Q&A with the author of the book and she basically said the same thing. Indeed, the book has a different, also not 100% happy ending.

      “who am I supposed to be rooting for, exactly, in a narrative dedicated in equal parts to three people?” is kind of the whole point… those three people are kind of three stages of naomi alderman’s coming out process and in that way no one is really better or more important than the other

      • Kate, your words are on point and I wouldn’t be able to express my feelings about the issues this movie adresses in a better way than you did.
        I also think that the fact you cannot root for anyone is a characteristic feature of a well-written drama (that’s why “Disobedience” reminded me od “Brokeback Mountain”) where everybody’s perspective is depicted and respected, nobody is judged and it’s visible that everybody’s unhappy with their state no matter if it’s because od their own choices or some external forces. This movie could have need better, it’s not a masterpiece of course, but it for me it stays close to it’s source book material as well as the sad reality of fighting for yourself in extremely difficult circumstances where you have your family and closest friends on stake.

  6. I loved this movie! I remember live texting to a friend how badly I want to never have to share the news to someone that *I* married their ex (like, I couldn’t feel too sorry for Dovid, but that’s not a fun fact to share) and Esti not following Ronit to NYC is not really a surprise cause she seemed to enjoy everything about her community except the gender of her spouse.

    I also never want to see it again, though. I decide to watch it again several times a week but I just. can’t. pull the trigger on it.

  7. I really loved this film – the pacing of it, the fact that rather than throw in a load of clunky exposition you just had to piece it together from their conversations, and the chemistry that I thought was really present and excellent between Ronit and Etsi. This had more emotional impact for me than Carol did (which I nonetheless liked very much), and maybe that’s just it being a British film and therefore feeling a bit more relevant to me (we don’t have that many films made here full stop, let alone ones with the resonance of this one). It obviously really divides people but I loved it, and I’m really glad it got made.

  8. “I watch Hamlet 2 on repeat as if it will eventually unlock the secrets to the universe, and so I know this isn’t even a sound baseline of quantification. That said, I do wonder who this movie was for.”

    1. This movie is for baby gays searching for lesbian sex scenes on youtube to see if it gives them gay feelings. That is its ultimate destiny. Nothing else. I had a majorrrr crush on Rachel Weisz after she played Hypatia in Agora (i love a woman who rejects men wholesale in the pursuit of knowledge and also happens to look hot in a toga…) and I left The Notebook with big heart eyes for Rachel McAdams. I can only imagine how much more expedited my coming out process would’ve been if I could’ve just googled a sex scene between them. So simple, so easy.
    2. I did plants for the guys that produced Hamlet 2 and no one ever thinks this is a fun or interesting fact or cares about it in the slightest.

  9. I watched it at a Jewish Filmfestival after a glowing and warm introduction by a 60something male professor for Jewish studies in a tweed jacket.
    I liked the movie!
    For me it was the sequel to all of those cheap vhs movies/tales of “girl comes out in conservative town and after some hardships flees to be herself in the big city-Happy End” things I watched in the nineties and 00s.
    I liked how Ronit went and had the food she’d been craving for a decade. I liked how shell shocked and deeply in mourning she was. I also liked the mundaneness and London in winter.
    How she came back and slotted herself back into life with Esti and Dovid and still fit, because that’s how friendship and time works.
    I liked the movie for all of these things, but then again, I’m European, I’m kind of used to walking out of a movie theater and then asking my companion “But what do you think it means?!?”
    On another unrelated note: They had Disobedience on the plane at Delta last month and imagining a bunch of people stuck in four seat rows blushing through that six minute sex scene still makes me happy.

  10. Erin, can we put in requests for you to do other movies? Lemme just go ahead anyway: Bound, Aimee & Jaguar, But I’m a Cheerleader. For these were the DVDs I made a special trip into New York to get to bring back to my Gay Straight Alliance club meetings. Please and thank you.

  11. “I do wonder who this movie was for.”

    QUEER JEWS. This movie was for queer Jews. And I am very grateful for it. Did I have issues with it? Yes. Did I think it was perfect? No. Did I nevertheless sob through the entire movie? Yes, I absolutely did. Because I know what shiva is like, because that soundtrack (minus the admittedly weird soundtrack during the sex scene, which I barely noticed) is the soundtrack of my life, because the chemistry between Ronit and Esti was compelling and devastating, because I know that community, because I speak that language, because having that desire and conflict recognized on screen answered a longing deep within me, because, like the characters, I have been both hurt and uplifted by the tradition that defines us.

    Yeah, I spent the entire movie in tears, and I get that not everyone has the same experience because you don’t share the same context, and that’s okay, it’s not for everyone. But it was *for* someone, and that someone was me.

    The book was better, though.

  12. I loved this movie because even though I wasn’t raised in an Orthodox community, as a Jewish lesbian the whole thing resonated down to my ancestral core. I had been waiting for this movie my entire life. My atheist raised-in-West-Texas-among-Christians wife was pretty meh about the film.

    Erin, I love your reviews. They’re fucking hysterical. Never stop.

  13. A few things: it’s hardly a classic yet, since it was released early last year. I so respectfully and totally disagree with this review, I don;t know where to begin. I thought it was a remarkable piece of work, from the acting to the music. The two Rachels and Alessandro Nivola in fact deserved to be nominated for Oscars, but unfortunately, the movie got lost in the Oscar frenzy shuffle. We in the lesbian community complain that lesbian movies are often cliched, derivative and repetitious. Well here was something unique: a look inside a very closed off community dealing not only with the death of a beloved figure, but the “forbidden” romance between his daughter and her longtime love. And that love scene was beyond erotic. I had never seen anything like it portrayed on screen. I also applaud a straight actress actively searching out strong female roles as well as strong lesbian roles. And two in the same year!

  14. I wanted to love this movie. I was so excited for it. I had read the book about a year before I saw it, and while it wasn’t my favorite book ever, I did really enjoy it. The movie left me wanting so much more. I rarely read the book before I see the movie on which it’s based, but I was disappointed in the screenwriting. The plot points were very different, and I think the book worked better. I’m all for lack of exposition, but the film had so little that it barely seemed like a narrative.

    I held a book/movie club about Disobedience, and the consensus seemed to be the same. I honestly don’t remember the soundtrack, which says something.

    Also, for what it’s worth, “He is raising the roof for [YHVH]!” is, let’s say, not the most kosher, and I was a tad offended. I get the sentiment, but as a practicing Jew, it rubbed me the wrong way.

    If I ever watch Willy Wonka again, I really hope I don’t have flashbacks to this movie.

  15. I’m so happy you’re still doing this series, Erin! 🤩 I very much enjoy the manner in which you make fun of things. It’s been so long since the last installment – I was worried maybe you’d stopped writing the series.

  16. i honestly wait on bated breath for all of your reviews

    and like the first time i watched it: i loved it! i was moved! the cinematography the dialogue the movie all around!

    and then the second time i was like, maybe i dont love it? maybe i loved the hype? but its still v good!

    and then when i started procrastinating watching it again i was like, i just wanted to see rachel weisz and rachel mcadams have a sex scene and i was willing to applaud whatever happened to get us there so sometimes what happens is you love something and then you realize you dont and we contain multitudes and erin reminds me of this often thank you

  17. I echo above sentiments that this movie was for Jews. It meant a lot to me to see these depicted on screen with accuracy for the most part (the shiva made no sense, like, who the f were the people there?). Regardless, I think that the perception of North American & British Jews is so rooted in assimilation that it’s hard to explain to others how we really still are these freaky sand people whose traditions haven’t changed much since we were forced out of the desert a few millennia ago, we’ve just locked them behind closed doors for safety. So getting to feel seen… especially with a queer lens… was pretty amazing. I do remember thinking to myself, though, that a non-Jew would have absolutely no idea what was going on.

    That being said, it was frustratingly slow, and my non-Jewish partner was asleep within 10 minutes, so.

    All the Jews on this thread, find a way to see the play Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story. Fly to see it you have to. You’ll weep all the way through and it’ll change your life.

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