This Is a Movie Review: ‘Lizzie’ Brings the Queer Subtext to the Fore in the Latest Telling of Ms. Borden’s Ax Murders

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CREDIT: Courtesy of Saban Films and Roadside Attractions

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Denis O’Hare, Kim Dickens

Director: Craig William Macneill

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Brutal Deadly Violence and Practical Nudity

Release Date: September 14, 2018 (Limited)

Lizzie is in some ways a throwback to an era when queer attraction was subtextual and coded and never explicitly acknowledged. Except that this time there’s a lot more nudity, which would seem to defeat the purpose, save for the fact that this lack of clothes is not about sex but rather avoiding the evidence of blood stains. Otherwise, the structure fits, as this telling of the Lizzie Borden story plays up the angle of an affair between Lizzie and her family’s housemaid without ever uttering the word “lesbian,” instead opting for whispers and implications and the occasional “abomination.”

The real Borden was accused and ultimately acquitted of ax-murdering her father and stepmother in 1892 Massachusetts. While popular perception has treated her as the no-doubt-about-it culprit, much of the case remains officially uncertain, lending fictional retellings a lot of leeway in how they approach the material. Director Craig William Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass choose to emphasize psychological abuse from Borden’s father Andrew that gradually wore Lizzie down to murderous intent. Chloë Sevigny plays Lizzie as a perfectly dignified and intelligent individual who cannot quite handle the cognitive dissonance of her father insisting that she in fact has no place in polite society. As Andrew, Jamey Sheridan actually finds some tender notes, but his foundation of disgust is just too implacable.

Of course mention must be made of Kristen Stewart as the Bordens’ maid, Bridget Sullivan. Most of the family call her “Maggie” instead, which might be an archaic form of discrimination I was previously unfamiliar with (any turn of the 20th Century American historians, please let me know). Her bond with Lizzie is forged a great deal by the latter making it a point to actually call Bridget “Bridget.” Alas, but unsurprisingly, their time together is not meant to last, partly because of their power differential, partly because of the fallout of co-conspiracy, but mostly because society would force them to remain a secret. Yet in the end that suppressive atmosphere is a double-edged sword: it allows Lizzie to get away with murder because her peers cannot believe that someone from such a respectable family could commit such a heinous act. If they knew her true orientation, perhaps they would have come to a different conclusion. That’s a warped sort of privilege that this version of Lizzie could never fully psychically bear.

Lizzie is Recommended If You Like: Twisty/twisted/stomach-twisting feminist narratives

Grade: 3 out of 5 Axe Chops

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Novitiate’ is the Latest Harrowing and Also Inspiring Peek at the Inner Workings of the Catholic Church

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Denis O’Hare

Director: Margaret Betts

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for Sexuality and Profanity-Laced Anger That Can Be Suppressed for Only So Long

Release Date: October 27, 2017 (Limited)

An institution as massive and long-lasting as the Catholic Church is bound to be filled with corners that many of its members are completely unfamiliar with. Sometimes those areas are not even the ones that are shamefully hidden. They may actually be intrinsic features, but if allowed to function independently, they can involve into a weird hybrid of both doctrinaire and renegade. I was raised (and remain) Catholic, but I was born decades after the reforms of Vatican II, which rendered the most extreme practices of convents as seen in Novitiate verobten. But even if I had been a churchgoer in the ’60s, I doubt I would have been familiar with the ins and outs of the nuns’ rigorous training. And yet, this story does not feel fully alien, nor should it feel so to anyone of any background who has ever desired feelings of deep love and devotion.

This examination of religious life is mainly told through the story of Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), who in 1964 is one of the convent’s new class of postulants (candidates to become nuns) who eventually become novitiates (nuns-in-training). Margaret’s ready acceptance of the convent’s extreme practices, e.g. self-abnegation, has nothing to do with lifelong indoctrination, as she comes from a family of bitterly divorced, agnostic parents (at least Mom is agnostic, Dad is never much around). Her attraction to marrying God is perhaps a desire for stability, but it is also more than that. Stirring in her is an aching for transcendence that cannot easily be explained by nurture (or lack thereof). Setting her up as the novice character to follow in this secretive world is crucial, because otherwise the convent’s frightening elements would feel almost abstract and theoretical.

As the convent is resisting the reforms of Vatican II that were then being enacted, the message is clear that this is not the right way to practice religious devotion. But that historical background of rebuke is unnecessary to make that point, except perhaps for viewers with the most hardened of souls. The training and practices – oppressive silence, avoidance of eye contact, asceticism, confession in a group setting – are reminiscent of the auditing of Scientology, so memorably approximated in The Master. Ostensibly designed to make its adherents better people and closer to God, its true effects are vulnerability and surrender to authority. Overseeing all this is the Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), who while sitting on her throne of a central chair, is reminiscent of Pan’s Laybrinth’s Pale Man.

Novitiate is powerful grist for the mill for those who decry the problems inherent to all religions and for those who remain religious but point to this as an example of the wrong way of doing things. And quite frankly, it may very well also make such a connection to the ultra-traditionalists and reactionaries, who might see this as a lament for the old, better way. It is a fascinatingly human look at all those urges, appealing both to a desire to connect to a higher power and a desire to not be wrong.

Novitiate is Recommended If You Like: Spotlight, The Master, Silence

Grade: 4 out of 5 Grand Silences