In her new film, Loving Annabelle, writer/director Katherine Brooks poses the question: What’s a Catholic boarding school teacher to do when she falls in love with one of her students?
As it turns out, she mostly gazes off into space and fights off the kind of ill-advised fantasies that could get her fired, excommunication, tossed into jail, or all of the above. Which may sound like a bleak scenario, but the torment of forbidden love has never looked as good as it does in Loving Annabelle.
Annabelle (Erin Kelly) is the rebellious daughter of a high-powered senator, and she’s sent to a Catholic girls school for moral rehabilitation. Fortunately, she isn’t played as the stereotypical bad-girl. Sure she’s got a pack-a-day cigarette habit and the required “outsider” slouch, but she’s also thoughtful, self-possessed, and sensitive.
Annabelle’s new literature teacher, Simone (Diane Gaidry), is the kind of woman who often serves as the first crush of many a budding teen lesbian—beautiful, passionate about the arts, and a strong force in the classroom. Simone sticks up for the outcast and shoots down the bully without ever ruffling her flowing blonde locks.
Annabelle is immediately intrigued by the guarded Simone, who, in turn, is unnerved by this young woman who seems to see right through her.
In a boozy game of “I Never,” Annabelle lets her new boarding school roommates know that she has had sex with women—though she doesn’t officially identify as a lesbian. And because its 2006, her roommates are shocked but more impressed than freaked out.
Simone sees that Annabelle is intelligent and creative, and the two forge a cautious friendship based around Annabelle’s refusal to surrender Buddhist prayer beads to Mother Emaculata. Simone tries to convince Annabelle to give in, but soon learns that her rebellion is for a good reason.
Despite her best judgment Simone can’t seem to help but reveal more of her interior life to the persistent and passionate Annabelle. As a result, Annabelle quickly figures out that the great love of Simone‘s life was another woman. The information is just the last bit of encouragement she needs to make her feelings known to Simone.
Annabelle is the driving force in the film, and a catalyst for Simone to come to terms with her own sexuality. Simone has gone through the motions in a passionless relationship with a male teacher from another school, and is clearly torturing herself by hiding out in the repressive environment where she just happens to be surrounded exclusively by women.
Or, rather, girls.
The fact that Annabelle is still technically a girl soon becomes the central problem for both Simone and the viewer. In Loving Annabelle, director Katherine Brooks sets up a complex moral quagmire. Though legally a minor, Annabelle is mature for her age and in many ways the more sexually experienced of the two. She relentlessly pursues Simone, not just out of sexual desire, but also out of love.
The complicated scenario raises many questions. It may be reckless—not to mention illegal—for Simone to get involved with Annabelle, but is it wrong? If she is anywhere near an eighteenth birthday, is Annabelle really a “child”?
And how much of their forbidden May-December love affair is due to the fact that lesbian love is still, well, forbidden? If both were free to pursue their hearts’ desires, would they even be drawn to each other?
Would a woman who had dealt with her sexual identity even find herself in this position, or does her closeted nature make her vulnerable to confiding in a teenager and facing an inappropriate temptation?
To her credit, Brooks doesn’t attempt to answer these questions for the viewer. She presents the material without sensationalism, and it’s up to us to pass judgment. Or not.
In a recent interview with AfterEllen.com, Brooks said, “You would think from hearing about the subject matter—a story of a Catholic school teacher who has an affair with her student—would be pretty controversial. But, on the contrary it is a love story that defies all labels.” Brooks said that even the most conservative people who read preliminary excerpts of the screenplay have been rooting for the couple to be together.
On the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com), Brooks recently joined a discussion about her film, sharing with bloggers her own mixed feelings about the ending and the decision-making process behind it. She also revealed that the DVD will include an alternate ending.
The film is similar to the German classic, Mädchen in Uniform (1931), widely thought to be the first lesbian movie. In that film, the beautiful blonde teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg, is a magnetic force by whom all the students are captivated. One girl, Manuela, falls in love with her teacher and scandalizes the school by publicly announcing it.
For its time, Mädchen is surprisingly erotic, and, like Loving Annabelle, it builds to a suspenseful romantic crescendo. Two different versions of Mädchen in Uniform were made, one with a “happy” ending (Manuela’s suicide attempt is thwarted) and one tragic (Manuela commits suicide). U.S. censors wouldn’t allow the version in which Manuela survives, so American audiences saw the lovelorn girl leap to her death. And thus an unfortunate lesbian film tradition was born (see The Children’s Hour, Lost and Delirious, The Fox, and too many others to mention).
Luckily, one can watch Loving Annabelle and still feel outside of said tradition.
Simone’s emotional arc, and not the “tragic” nature of lesbian love, is the focus of the film. She struggles to integrate the truth of her desires into the claustrophobic life she has chosen, but it never feels like the world is “against” her. If anything, she has created her own prison.
Annabelle is open about her sexuality and appears to one of the more well-adjusted people in the film—regardless of her age. If anything, we get the sense that her “difference” has contributed to her intelligent and philosophical nature. Clearly, this is not a girl who will be hurling herself off a rooftop anytime soon.
Brooks’ own comments on IMDB.com indicate that she was less interested in taking on the “morality” issue or creating yet another lesbian tragedy than she was in adding some much needed erotic heat to the lesbian film canon. She writes, “Truth be known, I wanted to make a lesbian film that had great sexual tension with a good sex scene and was realistic to the situation. And I was tired of watching movies where they build up the sexual tension only to give me a KISS and nothing more.”
If viewers share Brooks’ frustration, they won’t be disappointed by Loving Annabelle. Its lush cinematography, strong acting and erotic charge will satisfy regardless of whether you think the lovers deserve ruination or redemption.