“Reading your words is the closest thing to touching you”
In her biographical romantic drama Elisa & Marcela (2019), Catalan director Isabel Coixet uses an artistically promising black and white canvas to bring visibility to the story of Marcela Gracias Ibeas and Elisa Sanchez Loriga, who got married in 1901, marking the first same-sex marriage in Spain after the Roman Imperial era. However, Catalonia’s auteur falls short of embracing the expansive dimensions of the two women, and their struggle.
These two early pioneers of same-sex marriage got their first mention in Felip Trigo’s novel La Sed de Amar as early as 1902, while Spanish historian Narciso de Gabriel wrote an extensive book on their story called Elisa e Marcela: Amigas e amantes. The film follows the two courageous women in their unprecedented fight to live freely, almost a hundred years before same-sex marriage was legalised in Spain.
Reserved Marcela (Greta Fernandez) meets strong-willed Elisa (Natalia de Molina) on the first day of their catholic college in A Coruña. Their platonic relationship soon produces deeper feelings that force Marcela’s despotic father to intervene by sending his daughter away to study in Madrid. The love and passion between the two women stays alive through letters and the hope that they will be able to reunite one day. Upon returning to Galicia as a teacher, Marcela is offered the chance to live with Elisa and make up for the lost time. However, while their relationship blooms, people become suspicious and uproar follows, putting their lives in jeopardy.
Much like Sally Wainwright’s TV drama Gentleman Jack (2019), which focuses on Anne Lister’s life and intimate relationships, Elisa & Marcela aims to stand for gay rights by normalising the concept of unoppressed love. However, the stilted dialogue, weak script, and art-house crescendos of long silences and stylised sex scenes result in a love story that seems like a shallow imitation of the depth and sensuality found in Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015), for example. What could have become an iconic feature film celebrating the first gay marriage in Spain is somehow battered into the confines of its own art-house pomposity.
Coixet opts for olden techniques, like the classic iris shot from the silent film era, while Jennifer Cox’ cinematography relies on wide camera angles broadening the viewer’s take on the two lovers’ world. However, the trifling dialogue and abrupt lack of character development strip the film of its sought-after ostentation. Most baffling of all is the women’s immaculate relationship, which seems to exist as a separate entity, peeled away from the membrane of the women’s individual woes and troubles. Instead of shaping their love into something spellbinding and untouchable, this rapture serves only to drain the film of the realism is seeks to convey.
The love letters exchanged between Elisa and Marcela were written by the actresses themselves during the shooting of the film as a bid to capture the sentiment of their characters, but this regard for emotional authenticity does little to help them achieve a convincing level of intimacy on-screen. In fact, Natalia de Molina seems rather lost after character’s shift towards a male identity, which she undergoes for the sake of her beloved. Her appearance as Mario is bluntly simplified to wearing men’s clothing and donning a pencil-drawn moustache.
The sex scenes, meant to capture the film’s breathless tenderness, are well acted out, but over-stylised, appearing more like an attempt to seduce the audience than to provide vital substance to the plot. Something that is linked to cultural sensitivity – and might baffle many viewers – is the octopus integrated into one such intimate scene. The octopus used in the famous tapa of pulpo a feira (traditional octopus dish from Galicia) should be interpreted as an allegory. It serves as a uniting element for the two women, who indulge in tasting this delicacy like everyone else, without being denied this normal act because of being different from the norm.
Although Elisa & Marcela is an obvious effort on the part of the female director to draw attention to gay rights and the oppression experienced by the LGBTQ community, the overall impression is that the film is too dreamlike – lacking both the audacity and soul of the two women. However, despite its shortcomings, one cannot deny the film’s paramount importance in accentuating the lesser-known parameters of lesbian history, as well as the ongoing struggle for the right to live and love as equals.