‘Lizzie’ Delivers on Cinematography and Acting, Comes Up Short On Lesbian Romance

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In Lizzie, Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart star in what promised to be a thrilling portrayal of Lizzie Borden, accused and acquitted of murdering her parents with an ax.

Sevigny had been working on bringing Borden’s story to life since all the way back in her Big Love days. According to an interview with Huffington Post, She partnered with friend and screenwriter Bryce Kass to develop the story line, and ended up growing the story into a miniseries for HBO. In her words, HBO dawdled on the project, and by the time it had some momentum behind it, Lifetime had made a Lizzie Borden TV movie, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax followed by the miniseries The Lizzie Borden Chronicles.

Clearly it wasn’t a lack of demand for salacious female murderer stories that kept Lizzie out of production so long. However, having been scooped, HBO pulled the plug on the project. Sevigny said she was heartbroken, but didn’t give up. Sevigny and Kass got the rights back from HBO, continued to work on a producing team, and, after a few near misses, signed on Craig William McNeill to direct. The dream seven years in the making was finally underway.

 

The movie starts strong, throwing us immediately into the aftermath of the murders. We flash back to the moment when the Bordens welcomed a new maid into their house, where we establish an immediate antipathy for the patriarch of the house, and a connection to the women he so obviously subjugates with a toxic mix of cruel words, emotional manipulation, and threat of destitution. Of course we won’t be sad to see him go. But unfortunately, we are made to wait for the murders to begin.

Lizzie Borden is portrayed as a highly intelligent woman who would like to indulge in life’s pleasures, but, due to her epilepsy and her tyrant father, is limited to small joys: a night out to the opera, a deep conversation, literature, the company of her pet pigeons. Lizzie is an independent spirit, and she meets her kindred in Bridget, the Irish maid who everyone else calls Maggie in an example of misogynist, classist depersonalization typical of the setting. Bridget has been told that the key to avoiding poverty is to make herself smaller, quieter, compliant in front of authority, and this seems like an easy enough trade for a degree of freedom and self-reliance. However, shown the slightest care and affection from Lizzie, Bridget’s independence makes room for itself.

Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, is an existential threat to anyone who crosses him: his daughter, his wife, the tenants of his land holdings. He has enemies. But none so immediate as willful Lizzie, and as he ages, he not-so-secretly plots to keep her from an inheritance. Seeing as how it’s the 1890s and women like Lizzie can be institutionalized for literally any reason, not least of which is epilepsy or homosexual trysts, Lizzie hardly needs more reason to ax her father. And yet, the movie retreads the same territory with her father and his conspirators, his wife and brother, building the case for Lizzie’s breaking point.

At a reasonable hour and 45 minutes or so, the movie nevertheless felt very long. I wanted to turn it off, but no one had been murdered yet. Ultimately the time jumps did not work to establish a timeline or to build a sense of forward movement.

The final film was not what Sevigny had in mind. In the same HuffPost interview, Sevigny explains that she was hoping for Black Swan meets Capote, and that director Craig William McNeill apparently trimmed and cut scenes, including some which offered a more three-dimensional look at the characters, and perhaps most crushing for AfterEllen readers, scenes building romance between Sevigny and Stewart.

“It was very hard,” Sevigny said about seeing what had been 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?’ But almost every movie goes through that. 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. 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.”

Vague is one way of putting it. To me, the movie seems sort of insecure or afraid to take a direction. It does not commit to a genre.

This movie could have been a romance, but there was not enough love story, much less sizzle, between Lizzie and Bridget. It could have been a horror, a woman unraveled, terrorizing her family, but it wasn’t frightening. It could have been a thriller: a breathless audience hoping the heroine makes it out unscathed, but there was little suspense. It didn’t do any of these things all the way, and so the sum of its parts added up to a movie that was an imaginative biopic, but not more.

Chloe Sevigny is an actor of incredible range and artistry. Her face, her movements, her body language, sells us on the story of Lizzie as a sort of feminist hero. A woman who is self-identified. A woman who knows when she’s being conned. A woman who so fiercely believes in women’s right to bodily sovereignty that she takes down her abuser, determined to free not only herself, but her sister and her lover in the process.

Whatever else Craig William McNeill did to her and Kass’s original vision, he did not leave Sevigny’s woman-in-revolt on the cutting room floor. However much I’ve dogged the film, I would to see it in theaters for the spectacular, surprising, and aesthetic murder sequence. Warm sunlight streaming through the windows and Lizzie, naked so she leaves no evidence, in control in every moment, brought a humanity to something we’d usually see as ruthless and cold-hearted.

Overall, Lizzie is a beautifully lit, costumed, and acted film that suffered from pacing issues and, well, not being gay enough.

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