'Lizzie' Is Almost the Feminist Masterpiece Chloë Sevigny Set Out to Make

The fantasy of 'Lizzie' is for the starring women to have just some of the power of the men they've both endured.

16 October 2018, 7:45am

Image via Eliza Morse/Saban Films/Roadside Attractions.

Corsets, hazy lighting and nervous glances into one another's eyes. Unless you know the American schoolyard tale of the murderous Lizzie Borden – the subject of a new film, Lizzie, starring Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart – the premise of a lesbian love story set in 1892 might strike you as a bit Downton Abbey. But those low expectations only make the unfolding story all the more delicious.

Sevigny, who co-produced the film with Naomi Despres and Elizabeth Destro, said she wanted it to be a "rousing, smash-the-patriarchy piece" – and there's no doubt it is. However, Sevigny has said that the final incarnation – of a project she's worked on since 2010 with screenwriter Bryce Kass – isn't quite what she wanted it to be. The story, once destined to be an HBO miniseries, was eventually whittled down by director Craig MacNeil, and Sevigny has explained that "it was very hard" to see certain moments cut. "I was like, 'If you have another scene with Kristen Stewart and you don't put it in your movie, you're stupid. What's your problem?'"

While Sevigny accepts that this editing process is a part of filmmaking, she pointedly told a reporter: "Almost everything that was on the page was filmed, and a lot of it didn't make it in the movie. And more stuff with me and Fiona Shaw [who plays Lizzie's stepmother, Abby Borden]. There was more to the relationships that made them more complicated, and also then informed why Lizzie [commits the murders]. Now, it's a little more vague than what Bryce and I intended originally to do."

Whether Lizzie – which begins with two mangled corpses and proceeds to tell the story of forbidden love, lesbian codependency and male violence – is truly vague is up to the individual viewer. Personally, I felt clobbered over the head by ruthless vindication.

It's 1892 and Lizzie is a woman living in Fall River, Massachusetts. That is to say she's living as chattel, both sexualised and a burden, under the eye of her mean, domineering father. Her sister has been silenced, her stepmother Abby is withering and life is one big dimly-lit hamster-wheel of joyless toil and grudges. Unmarried at 32, Lizzie's single status is initially put down to her propensity for emotion-induced seizures, but when Irish housekeeper Maggie/Bridget (Kristen Stewart) shuffles in, something else emerges.

'Lizzie' still via BFI London Film Festival

Diminutive in maid's gear and a little bonnet, her eye-bags sorrowful, Bridget still emanates a butch swagger, much in thanks to Kristen's public reputation for – and private understanding of – how a true lesbian top behaves. The growing tension and love between Lizzie and Bridget as they teach each other, respectively, empathy and literacy sets Lizzie apart from so many other so-called lesbian films. While the sex is momentary, fleeting and immediately punished, it's realistic, and accurately reflects how furtively and secretly women's pure lust for each other has to be conveyed when they've not got the power or space to relay it elsewhere.

Unlike the motivations of the two girls in Dangerous Creatures, another telling of a real-life lesbian folie à deux, Lizzie and Bridget share a refined and desperate bravery in the face of utter, contemptible evil. While the fantasy of Dangerous Creatures was a mish-mash of gobbledegook and teen hormones, the fantasy of Lizzie is for the lovers to have just some of the power of the men they've both endured. With all the right obstacles cleared, they have an opportunity to be together as they wish, and participate in public life as they wish. Why is something so simple so hard to reach?

Post-Kavanaugh, post-#MeToo, in the midst of our collective near-helpless recognition that powerful men do hideous things, so often and without reproach, things that women must just live with, contort around, allow to be part of their day, Lizzie's actions are heroic. It's testament to Stewart's nuanced acting that the audience can simultaneously understand that her approach to revenge is no less correct. Subversion, after all, requires a protective layer of privilege.

Following a flurry of soapy historical dramas showing proper ladies being proper, the privilege given to Sevigny comes in the form these women of yore fighting back, or at least acting sinisterly enough to prove some sort of point. Less stylised than 2016's near-allegorical Lady Macbeth, Lizzie’s cool determination is matched by Katherine, the film's cunning protagonist, as she uses a broken mirror, femininity gone wayward, to catch her prey. And while the stuffy, creaky house is sometimes seen through the bright haze of a Sofia Coppola film, Lizzie is a far more direct and strident offering than recent Black Narcissus re-fit The Beguiled. The result is a story of the ravenous, enduring desire of a woman hemmed in. However, while Lizzie wants to be as free as her pigeons, is her increasingly masculinised and mechanical way of addressing her problems missing some fundamental cogs?

It's a striking film, but if Sevigny is still unhappy with the final telling of the Lizzie Borden story she set out to make nearly a decade a go, stymied by the powers that be, then life is, horrifyingly, imitating art. And I agree: if the cutting room floor is home to anything Lizzie could benefit from, it would be more Stewart and more Shaw. We know the intensity of the lesbian romance, but could it have gone further? And Abby is a victim, too. How unwittingly? That said, this piece is still the rousing feminist fightback it set out to be, and so much more.

It's a galvanising moment in cinema, a chink in the armour of the overwhelming patriarchy that festers our news feeds daily, a sign that, well, if that could happen, imagine what we, onlookers to Lizzie’s strength and fervour, could do when the same fire roars under us.