Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Film Review: Lost and Delirious

Directed by Léa Poole

Cast: Mischa Barton, Jackie Burroughs, Jessica Paré, Piper Perabo

Peccadillo Pictures DVD

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

When I first saw Lost and Delirious in 2001, I thought it was the most perfect lesbian film ever made. It outstripped my personal best of Salmonberries (what can I say, I like the girls of the frozen North?) because its hearts-on-sleeves tale of adolescent love seemed more universal, and its embrace of emotional honesty more ambitious. I loved its defiant heat, its refusal to go quiet.

I still feel that those qualities define the film: it has neither the icy disaffection of arthouse cinema, nor the hysterical sentimentality of Hollywood. Léa Poole draws spectacular performances from her young cast (OC fans should check out Mischa Barton when she still had flesh), whose quivering pouts convey the depths of passion and grief rather than a tantrum about the new iPhone. It was an unfashionable tone in the summer when Ghost World ruled, and it’s even more unfashionable in the Skins era. Mary B., Paulie and Tori may be sarcastic, flippant and rude, but they’re never apathetic. They care – mainly about each other, somewhat about Shakespeare, and a little bit about birds and trees.

It’s the “about each other” bit that makes this a Peccadillo release, of course. Mary (Mischa Barton), known as Mouse, arrives at boarding school after the death of her mother and finds herself rooming with Pauline (Piper Perabo), known as Paulie, and Victoria (Jessica Paré), known as Tori. Drawing the shy new girl into their friendship, Paulie and Tori re-christen Mouse “Mary B. for Brave” when she shares her grief with them in a round of confessions about the girls’ relationships with their mothers. Mary’s bravery lies in her ability to survive the confusing new world of the school, including rooming with two charismatic girls who are both crazy, and crazy in love. Cue hot love scenes with added cute, straight voyeure.

But the film is not (just) boarding-school porn: it’s adapted from Susan Swan’s The Wives of Bath, known as “Canada’s Lady Chatterley” because of the censorship it faced, not only for its depiction of lesbian sex in a school, but also its utterly shocking ending, in which Paulie castrates a male character and uses his penis (and some Superglue) to transition in order to “become” male and win back Tori’s love. Not so popular with the male broadsheet critics. The book’s stunning critique of sex, gender and class is tempered, rather than tamed, for the film, as Poole makes a number of interesting decisions: she updates the story from the 1950s to the twenty-first century; she dropped the plot concerning a merger with the nearby boys’ school (which was given ample, if uncredited, treatment in the Kirsten Dunst vehicle Strike!); and she changed the balance of the novel by giving the viewer some insight into Tori’s cruel behaviour towards Paulie.

What seems like a love story is in fact only the springboard for a thorough-going exploration of these young women’s relationships not with each other, but with their mothers. Mary, grieving for her loss, feels dead from the waist down and seems barely able to connect with either Paulie or Tori, who hates her mother but says she is “addicted to her, like chocolate.” It’s this addiction – which is both romantic/incestuous and about her family’s comfortable, bourgeois lifestyle – that causes her to pull away from Paulie. Deprived of Tori’s love, Paulie feels again the bereavement of being taken from her mother by Children’s Aid: she even tells Mary that Tori has the same fake brightness in her eyes as her adoptive mother.

Entwining the mother/daughter and lover relationship is as risky as anything in the book, and I think that’s what gives the film its depth and purchase beyond the obvious attractions of beautiful young women kissing passionately to the strains of Me’shell and, in my favourite scene, weeping to Ani Difranco’s “You Had Time” (which Poole and her composer discovered via Perabo, who had it on her Walkman). The intensity and ferocity of mother-abandonment underlying these demanding, world-blotting-out relationships between the girls raises these moments above cliché.

But it also introduces a worrying politics that I totally missed on my first viewing. 2001 was a more innocent time, both globally and for me politically. After six years in Canada, I was more aware of what it meant for Paulie to imagine her mother working the streets at Gerrard and Parliament, and why certain characters in Canadian art are paralleled with wild (and endangered) nature. Both suggest that she has First Nations heritage (Poole invents a First Nations character, a school gardener played by the wonderful Graham Greene, to – surprise – dispense wisdom to Mary and be identified with the natural world). Paralleling Paulie with Cleopatra (the dark Other) underlines the implication. Paulie’s crazy courage, her desperation to be loved, and her final act of merging with the wild world/dying are all tropes of the Noble Savage, the romantic Indian with no place in the contemporary world. So how are we to take her exhortation to “rage more”?

In its politics and emotions, Lost and Delirious feels like a film from another time, when bisexuality was the new black, riot grrrl had morphed into girl power, and a daughter’s grief didn’t have to stand parallel for larger national ones. In telling its story of innocence and experience, the film takes a bold stand on the side of adolescent passion in all its colours – and the transfer preserves the hallucinatory colours of the Ontario landscape – but its final cut is crueller even than that imagined in the novel.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at



At 4:27 PM, Blogger Shelagh said...

I have not read the book yet, but loved the film. Beyond dealing with queer-specific issues, it is also about isolation, loneliness and the inherit dangers of being branded an outsider, no matter what causes this branding. Attending an all-girls school for several years, and finding myself branded an outsider for reasons that were never made clear (and were most likely therefore insignificant), I could relate to all three of the main characters in different ways. Great film, great observations.


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