You know the look: Therese sneaks a surreptitious leer at Carol through her retro camera lens in Carol. Rachel walks down the aisle—about to marry a man—and locks eyes with Luce in Imagine Me & You. Billie Jean King holds Marilyn’s stare across a bisexually-lit bar in Battle of the Sexes, but glances away before an onlooker grows suspicious.
Movies about queer women are often dramatized, hyperbolic interpretations of what it's like to be a woman who falls for a woman—and they rely heavily on Furtive Lesbian Glances (FLG). Disobedience included. The film stars The Rachels, Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz, as two queer women in an English Orthodox Jewish community. There’s Ronit (Weisz), who absconded in her youth, and Esti (McAdams), who’s still practicing. From start to finish, the movie is a dreary rollercoaster of agonizing lesbian desire, but if Disobedience gets anything right, it's the FLG. Why is the FLG so important, even necessary, for lesbian films? Allow me to explain.
I've had my own share of secretive peeps as a gay woman, and suspect most queer people have as well. With the first harbingers of our sexual awakenings—often when we haven't completely come to terms with feeling attracted to the same sex—furtive glances are all we have to communicate our secret desire. As long as homophobia exists, queer people will always feel pressure to suppress our impulses, and unfortunately, women often double down on this sentiment. From the day our bodies show signs of puberty, women are taught to bury sexual desire, while men are encouraged to do the opposite. So, for two queer women trapped in a conservative community—or anywhere, really—an FLG can mean everything.
It means so much, in fact, that some part of me misses it and craves watching it play out on-screen. I'm blessed to have a welcoming community that loves and supports me in all my lesbianhood, and while I understand that films about queer women are often bogged down by harmful tropes, I still long for a gay sob story because of its nostalgic potency.
Watching a movie like Carol means reliving my inaugural passionate girl-on-girl love story; One which started with eye contact that dragged a beat too long and ended with lesbian blinking AKA gay Morse code. For queer women, this experience of clandestine love is nearly universal. Unfortunately, we’re not afforded the same opportunities to make grand romantic gestures in sappy films—or real life—that straight men have, which is why queer films capitalize on subtle gestures like the FLG. Disobedience promised to bless the Lesbian Cinematic Universe with a tortured romance replete with FLG, and boy did it deliver.
If you go into this Sebastián Lelio-directed film like I did (fully briefed on the plot and wearing Etsi cosplay from head-to-toe), then be prepared to be inundated with stolen glances. Ronit, now a professional photographer in New York, receives a phone call that her father—the Rav (Rabbi) of a British Orthodox Jewish community—has passed away. She flies back to her native country for the first time since her father caught her and Esti together as teenagers. When we first meet the grown Esti, who is now frum—as in, devout and dressed the part—we learn that she married her and Ronit's childhood best friend, their third, Dovid. Ronit watches Esti as she enters her kitchen and bang—the first FLG hits like an asteroid. Esti drinks her in with her eyes, but pretends she’s unfazed, while the cigarette-toting Ronit can’t help but appear starstruck.
But that was just the intro glance, the amateur FLG. Later, a group of mourners trudge down the street and Esti turns around, covertly searching for Ronit in the crowd. Ronit glances up and their eyes meet—just long enough for Esti to signify "sup?" but again, not long enough for others to catch on. From here, Ronit and Esti's relationship is defined by a series of glances: across the dinner table, over a candle blessing, on a sidewalk, in the park. FLGs bring the two women closer and closer until Esti can't take it anymore and pulls Ronit close to plant one on her. When the two are alone, they are free. But out in the real world—their secluded religious community—FLGs are their bread and butter.
Sure, Carol had a few arousing glances and many chic coats. Battle of the Sexes gave me tennis lewks and literal looks. But where other lesbian romances fall victim to tortured tropes, Disobedience comes barreling through with heart and passion. It might just be my new favorite lesbian movie, and I will stan The Rachels until my histrionic lesbian heart stops beating. Carol is bald.