In Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, the princess’s would-be suitors are beheaded if they can’t answer her three riddles. In writer-director Maria Maggenti’s film Puccini for Beginners, our heroine Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) also juggles multiple suitors, male and female, but with a decidedly gentler touch.
Allegra is a huge opera fan, and she goes to a performance of Turandot at the start of the film. “It’s a very interesting opera, and I chose it specifically because it echoes some of Allegra’s problems,” Maggenti said. One interpretation of the opera is that the princess Turandot is a woman who is emotionally incapable of feeling any kind of love — something that Allegra could be guilty of as well.
As Puccini for Beginners opens, Allegra’s girlfriend, Samantha (Julianne Nicholson), leaves her because she is finally fed up with Allegra’s commitment-phobic ways. Samantha goes back to her boyfriend and gets engaged while Allegra becomes involved with a man and a woman, not realizing the two are a recently split-up couple. It’s quintessential screwball comedy.
In music, allegro denotes a tempo that is lively and cheerful. It’s the Italian word for “happy,” with allegra being the feminine equivalent. And it describes the pace of this film — even if Allegra, herself, is more frequently vexed than she is cheerful.
In Puccini, Maggenti takes on ’70s feminism, ’80s identity politics and current, persistent gender stereotypes — all in a comical way. Maggenti believes in comedy as a great subversive strategy, and felt it was the best way to approach her story. “If comedy works, you can take stuff on that would be depressing under other circumstances,” she explained.
In one particular scene, Allegra’s unconscious speaks to her in the form of a restaurant full of diners weighing in on her situation. They express a variety of perspectives about the fluidity of sexuality and relationships, as well as the idea of a lesbian dating a man.
“There are the super academic people who say things like ‘sexuality doesn’t exist,'” Maggenti said, “and then there’s your classic ‘you cannot be a lesbian if you have a boyfriend,’ and the ‘hey, I’m happy now.’ They all represent these different kinds of arguments that have come up over the years.”
It’s familiar territory for Maggenti, who also wrote and directed 1995’s The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love. She is a self-described “hasbian” who faced some harsh criticism when she became romantically involved with a man. She pointed out that the term is also a play on “has-been,” and when it was first used to describe her, many years had passed since her breakout hit film. So she reappropriated the moniker and is even amused “that it would enter the lexicon after coming into my life in such a painful way.” And now she has made a film that addresses how we label bisexual attraction.
But Puccini is certainly not the Maria Maggenti story. For one thing, she said, “I never experienced the hilarity. I mean, I never f—ing had to be cater-waiter at my ex-girlfriend’s engagement party; that’s pretty outrageous!” Maggenti based all of the film’s characters on people she knows and included some aspects of her own life.
“There’s the truth and there are the facts,” she said. “The facts of my personal life are quite different, but the truth of my life is very much there in the story: A woman who was a self-identified lesbian … fell for a man, and my life kind of got turned upside down. I know that. That was a personal, real experience to me. Luckily, with hindsight it became a funny story.”
Reaser, who portrays Allegra with a sense of humor about the situation, said: “I’m in agreement with Maria in that whoever you’re attracted to is who you’re attracted to. I’m very open to the idea and wish that more stories would reflect that. I’d love to explore that more, and I had a great time doing it.”
After years in development and pre-production, Puccini was shot in just 18 days. Reaser had only one week to prepare for the role. “The shoot was so fast, we were all out of our minds!” she recalled. “I’ve never seen anything like it, though. Maria was happy and excited the entire time. She never stressed. It was like she was at a party for three weeks.”
But it was no party casting the lead role, according to Maggenti. “That was one of the primary challenges in making the movie,” she said. “I needed an actress who could pull off the intellectual as well as the visceral in this character.”
For her part, Reaser enjoyed the challenge. “I think it’s fun to see a woman get to do something like that where it’s sort of a man’s role: being commitment-phobic and a bit of a womanizer,” she said. “It was fun for me, and I think people enjoyed seeing that.”
Maggenti drew strong performances from her entire cast, which includes Justin Kirk and Gretchen Mol playing the two characters Allegra gets involved with. Most of the actors are New York theater-trained, something Maggenti said was especially valuable given the tight shooting schedule. “That meant they had certain skills that allowed them to very quickly access the scene and the text and the emotions and the physicality sufficiently.”