Jenni Olson‘s The Royal Road is full of love stories. The out filmmaker shares her love of unavailable women, classic films and the state of California in the work, which premieres this weekend as part of Sundance’s New Frontier program. Shot on 16mm with voiceovers and lingering shots of San Francisco and Los Angeles scenes, The Royal Road is experimental but accessible in the way that her monotone voiceovers are largely speaking to a shared experience for queer women: unrequited love.
In the beginning of The Royal Road, Jenni sets up what we’ll be seeing with a modern day look at a classic setting from Sunset Boulevard. She recounts how the opening voiceover monologue is one of the most famous in film history, and indicates we’ll be hearing from her in the same vein. She speaks in a monotone rhythm matched with the slowness of her scenes, where rarely is there movement besides the infrequent wind and occasional traffic. The narration reads like a short story, as Jenni recites anecdotes about “growing up in the Midwest as a gender dysphoric tomboy,” and how she learned to borrow the masculine persona of fictional characters from movies as a “mode of survival.”
Juxtaposed with scenes of two cities (San Francisco and Los Angeles), The Royal Road follows Jenni as she takes the train from Oakland to see a woman in L.A. The woman, named Juliet, is Jenni’s self-professed type: Smart, beautiful, and aloof. They have an “unconsummated flirtation” that Jenni, like most lesbians, can become attracted to. Jenni wonders if she’s too available, and this thread continues with different women throughout the film.
The name of the film comes from the history lesson that is also a large part of The Royal Road, which is Jenni’s retelling of the Colonial origins of the United States and how “El Camino Royal” (The Royal Road) became an historic highway in California. What is referred to as a “primer on Spanish colonization of California and the Mexican American War” can be a little heavy in the center of the film, accompanied by geographical illustrations. The parallels between Jenni’s love of “crazy women,” classic films and nostalgia are never quite tied together well enough to make a point.
Descriptions of her longings for the women she meets are gorgeous (“I’m smitten and adoring, she’s vaguely affectionate”), complete with imagined fantasies of what one love interest is doing on a lazy Sunday. She’s honest, but not self-deprecating when she says things like, “I want people to like me, to fall in love with me, simply because it would make me feel better” and “…inconceivable melodramas punctuate my waking life.” The accompanying still shots of Alcatraz, Hollywood bungalows and Oakland shipyards force viewers to concentrate on what’s being said more than what’s actually happening on screen.
The Royal Road attempts to align Jenni’s love of nostalgia and adopted home of San Francisco with the U.S. taking land away from Native Americans and Mexico. This kind of intertwining might have worked better in written form where there would be more time or space to expand on how these can be seen as connected to others as they feel to the filmmaker. What feels most real as a viewer is the romance–not just between Jenni and her women, but for her city and, as she explains the “preserving” and “possessing” of things she loves. Someone who came to San Francisco to “reinvent herself and find happiness,” Jenni explains the “city was built on people like me… where self-discovery is a civic value.” Those sentiments ring true without having to be bogged down with additional explanations or education.
The best parts of The Royal Road make up most of the film, which makes it recommended viewing, especially if you are a fan of classic literature and movies like Vertigo, The Children’s Hour or Proust, all of which are used as allegories throughout. Jenni Olson is a great storyteller with a style her own, but not so unlike masterful storytellers of the recent past.
The Royal Road is at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend.