'Disobedience' Shows It's Possible For A Lesbian Sex Scene To Be Filmed With Respect

By Pang-Chieh Ho

Sex scenes in movies have always varied in quality. On one end of the spectrum, there are those that feel by-the-numbers or boring (see: the Fifty Shades franchise). On the other end, there are sex scenes that are, at best, gratuitous, and, at worst, possibly exploitative. It’s a tight rope to walk, and not every movie succeeds in striking the perfect balance. Disobedience, a romance starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, however, does just that with its six-minute-long sex scene. What makes the scene so remarkable is not just how well-done it is, but the fact that it is a lesbian sex scene directed with great sensitivity by a male director.

While the scene’s raciness has frequently been spotlighted — after its festival premiere at Toronto last year, the film became widely known as the “the movie where Rachel Weisz spits in Rachel McAdams’ mouth” — it’s easy to forget how quiet and subdued most of the movie is. Taking place in a contemporary Orthodox Jewish community in Northern England, Disobedience is about the return of Ronit (Weisz) after the death of her father, a celebrated rabbi. Her reappearance in a world she has been living in exile from for many years creates complications for the people around her, specifically Esti (McAdams), Ronit’s childhood friend and lover.

Most of the film is focused on the relationship between Ronit and Esti and how they progress from the initial iciness of two estranged friends to re-igniting their passion for each other, and it climaxes in a hotel love scene. The scene is tender, starting with Ronit removing Esti’s sheitel, a disrobing that seems far more personal than any other action of undressing. There is no nudity; instead, the camera focuses on the faces of the characters and the desire that is unleashed through their expressions and voices.

The lack of nudity, however, does not detract from the scene's sexiness. While LGBTQ cinema often avoid explicitness in sex scenes, perhaps to gain mainstream success, that doesn't seem to be the case for Disobedience, which includes steamy moments like the two actors masturbating each other and Weisz unbuttoning McAdam's bodysuit with her teeth. In contrast to Call Me By Your Name's director Luca Guadagnino, who expressed in a Hollywood Reporter interview that he avoided overly-graphic sex scenes because he "didn’t want the audience to find any difference or discrimination toward these characters," Lelio's motivations seem to be different.

As he told THR, he places his camera in service of the characters, and not himself, and After Ellen reports that both he and Weisz, a producer of the film, felt that leaving things outside of the frame was more erotic than showing everything on camera. The lack of nudity in the Disobedience sex scene is not so much a pandering to more conservative-minded audiences as the director's attempt to avoid being exploitative while also creating a scene that is bold and far from generic.

In an Entertainment Weekly interview, McAdams noted how female actors often have to gauge whether a sex scene in a movie is gratuitous or not. That was not the case for Disobedience, though. Explained McAdams, “this scene felt so integral to the plot and moving the story forward.” One of the reasons why the love scene in the movie is so significant is that it is undergirded by the emotional trajectory of the characters. It’s not merely there to be titillating; it also marks a significant transition for the characters as they fully embrace emotions and impulses considered taboo in their culture.

The specificities of the scene also lends to it much of its power. As said, an often discussed part of the scene involves Ronit lovingly dribbling strands of saliva into Esti’s open mouth, a depiction of love-making rarely seen in other movies. In an After Ellen interview, Weisz credited Lelio with coming up with that particular setup. According to Weisz, the director had storyboarded the entire scene and communicated with the actors beforehand what would be filmed and what he wished to convey.

Weisz’s interview reveals what is crucial in making sex scenes comfortable for all the parties involved: clear, transparent communication. There were no surprises on set, Weisz told After Ellen, no sudden changes suddenly sprung on the actors. “We felt very in charge and we knew what was happening," Weisz said. To EW, McAdams seconded her co-star’s sentiments, saying she felt “safe and free” during the sex scene. Indiewire reports that Lelio himself has stated that working in a controlled environment where everyone was aware of and in agreement of the limits that had been set helped enormously with the filming.

In light of the #MeToo movement and the recent pushes in the film industry to embrace gender parity and inclusiveness, the ways in which Lelio managed to avoid the missteps of other male-directed lesbian movies with Disobedience is significant and worth examining. Unlike Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a movie criticized for featuring the male gaze and saw its lead actors claim bruising, sometimes degrading treatment from the director, reaction to Disobedience has been overwhelmingly positive.

And it acts as necessary proof that it is not impossible for an “outsider” to make an authentic movie about fringe communities; Disobedience is not only directed by a man, but is headlined by two heterosexual actors. The key is that there should always be a high amount of research and sensitivity involved, and thankfully, Weisz, who bought the options to the Naomi Alderman novel the movie is based upon and shepherded the project into existence, studied lesbian literature extensively. Lelio, meanwhile, frequently consulted his lesbian friends over whether the sex scene in the movie made sense. Weisz's contributions to the storytelling of Disobedience might not be as visible as that of Lelio’s, but as a producer, her commitment to bringing more female-centric stories to the big screen shouldn’t be overlooked.

“I really enjoy all the thousands of movies I’ve seen about men… But there’s just a dearth of ones about women,” Weisz told The New York Times recently. Films like Disobedience, with fully-fleshed, complicated female characters, should be the norm, and not the exception as the industry shifts towards embracing different and marginalized voices. And while we of course hope that more LGBTQ cinema has directors and actors who identify as queer, Disobedience proves that there exists ways for a male director and heterosexual actors to give us a lesbian sex scene that is not only done well, but done right.