I’ve been thinking about this film a lot since seeing it, in spite of the fact that I didn’t particularly enjoy it while watching it. There are probably a lot of ways to get into this – writing about how conventional storytelling dictates a certain structure to a film, which Lovesong very much leaves by the wayside, how the best thing about this film is how much it relies on faces telling stories, which both Jenna Malone and Riley Keough pull off perfectly, how this isn’t just a film where a lot remains unsaid but really a film about things remaining unsaid, a film where two characters dance around each other for a good portion of their lives, and never quite get to the point where either of them names what their relationship is, except maybe that’s not even necessary.
But -- maybe a better way to start this is to show how far out of the conventional canon of films about two women who very much love each other Lovesong is. The two options – the romantic comedy, perhaps never more perfectly realised than in Ol Parker’s Imagine Me & You (where the gender of the two main characters was an afterthought late into the game, but one that one presumes had a part in how tame this film is, even by romantic comedy standards), which in this case ends happily for everyone involved, even for the poor husband whose wife pretty much at the altar discovers that love should be more than a fuzzy feeling of friendship for your best mate. One assumes that historically speaking, a few husbands and wives / boyfriends and girlfriends have seen the dark underside of societies and families not allowing women and men even think about the possibilities that their lack of fulfilment in their relationships may be connected to not being straight, but in Imagine Me & You, Hec’s pain isn’t the focus, which is a good thing, as in the long canon of films about women who love other women, the ones that don’t end in death and destruction are in the considerable minority. Which brings us to the other category of possibility, one that is still so prevalent that a good chunk of 2016 was dedicated to debating it. More often than not, the people most hurt by societies and families not allowing individuals to express who they truly love used to end in despair, both in film and in real life, and when it comes to the depiction in media, the line between making a point and just profiting from the tragic possibilities is very, very thin. You could for example say that it wouldn’t really have been possible for the film The Children’s Hour to end the way that Patricia Highsmith’s / Claire Morgan’s then pulp novel The Price of Salt (or Carol) ended, because of who starred in it and where it was produced. The question of whether the film ends the way it does because someone made a calculation about what would make the most emotional impact, and didn’t even consider the option that both characters surviving, or finding happiness, could be an answer to the that question, isn’t exactly raised, because of context. It is however a question that will always be raised now, so many more years later, after so much traceable progress and maybe especially because of all the stubborn, disgusting holdouts for the radical idea that our dignity is just as worthy of protection as that of straight people. You killed Lexa, and more than that, you killed Poussey for one reason: because you could not imagine that any version of their lives where they get to survive would have more of an emotional impact than their death. I sometimes think that claiming that this is just a lack of imagination and not something deeper and more twisted would be incredibly naïve.
Taking both of these tangents into considerations, there are two ways of approaching So Yong Kim’s Lovesong. One is to consider that characters can exist without the entire baggage of history and expectations bearing down on them. These are two women who have known each other forever, who share a deep, profound connection, who don’t have the words or the concepts or the possibility in their minds to clearly define what it is that is between them, who have nothing but the word love to resort to in order to explain how they feel for each other, which isn’t enough to set them on a path where they share their lives. This is the tragedy of the film – they are clearly deeply and profoundly in love with each other and throughout the film, through the two episodes set years apart, skirt around their desire, around the almost of a kiss going further, or a burning look being carried through more eloquently, or a fleeting comment leading to the conclusion that is so clearly outlined. There is no version of this story where Mindy (Jenna Malone) and Sarah (Riley Keough) aren’t in love, and haven’t been in love since whatever previous historical version of themselves first met, but there are many versions of this story where this fact alone doesn’t suffice for them to get their happily ever after. Sarah had a kid and got married young – the marriage is distant, alienating, unhappy, and finally terminated. Mindy is a force of nature and probably more afraid than she would like to admit of ending up like her mother, so the man she eventually marries comes from a family that is nothing like her – but none of that changes the fact that they both know exactly that this other path that neither of them ends up choosing exists. This is where the beautiful, tangible chemistry and tension throughout the film comes from. A path not chosen, knowing that they are missing a moment in their life, that at some point in the future, they won’t get that choice again, because the more choices we make in life, the fewer we end up with.
The irrefutable fact is that when Mindy comes to visit Sarah and doesn’t need to be told a single story about her life before she realises how trapped her friend is, she imagines a future together, and she leaves abruptly when she realises that Sarah isn’t ready for it, that she is still dedicated to trying to make a broken marriage work. She, in the intervening years where they barely talk, presumably goes off to distract herself, knowing she’s missed one of those decisive moments in her life where everything could have been completely different. The same happens to Sarah, in the later episode, where she helps to arrange Mindy’s marriage – Mindy gets increasingly more anxious about it, her doubts becoming clear, and Sarah’s steady reliability if anything helps the ceremony along. They are trapped in what good, dedicated best women friends should do for each other (Sarah is trapped with sisters-in-law or other friends that she has no connection to, both because of how she feels about Mindy and because she has a tangible responsibility for her now almost teenage daughter). I can’t pinpoint when the moment came where I realised that the film wasn’t working towards some kind of great escape, that the closest we could ever possibly come was a mutual acknowledgment of love after a spiral that, somewhere in the middle, had a kiss that was anything but a drunken mistake (even though the context in which it happened so very much allowed for it to be construed that way, because we have always suffered from the double oppression of not being taken seriously in our desires and being forced into heterosexuality).
The other reading – a less generous one, one that still recognises the incredible acting, the beautiful camera work, the way everything relies on these faces telling an unspeakable story – is that nothing much will stay behind of this film, because there are too many almosts, too much frustrated expectations and build-up towards nothing. Other audiences will read this relationship as more ambiguous than it is, as another example of an unclear straddling between friendship and desire, which this isn’t, really – it’s love, subsumed into something that is easier, more acceptable, but at the same time so unfulfilling and unhappy that the future of these two women is in serious doubt.
2016, directed by So Yong Kim, starring Riley Keough, Jena Malone.