Elisa & Marcela ★★★½

I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again: Webster’s Dictionary defines “love” as “living as the opposite sex in order to marry your partner and flee the the country only to end up in jail together.” Netflix’s Spanish acquisition Elisa & Marcela is the story of Spain’s first same-sex marriage—an illegal one that involved cross-dressing and identity theft, all under the roof of the Catholic church in 1901. Name something more punk than that, I dare you.

There’s plenty to like about Elisa & Marcela. As the titular leads, Natalia de Molina and Greta Fernández are convincing. De Molina Especially gives a flawless performance as Elisa, who it’s safe to say suffered the most backlash between them. With a story as fascinating as that of Elisa Sánchez Loriga and Marcela Garcia Ibeas at its disposal, it’s impossible not to root for the two, who—weird paraphernalias aside—are entirely wholesome and endearing as a couple. When the film reaches its happy ending, you can’t help but smile, even if it feels abrupt as hell.

While the black and white cinematography of Elisa and Marcela doesn’t have the same effect as it did in Alfonso Cuarón’s crisp and exquisite Roma in 2018 (comparisons are inevitable), Isabel Coixet crafts a visually pleasing film that makes it stand out against this year’s horde of average to mediocre Netflix originals. Her focus on nature and landscapes are especially beautiful and I can think of several frames in this that will remain fresh in my mind for a long time. Admittedly, other stylistic elements bugged me a bit—lame transitions and and some very on-cue instrumental music choices come to mind—but Coixet’s film is otherwise an aesthetically sound picture that joins the likes of Leto and The White Crow in the field of 2019 foreign films with unique cinematography choices that elevate them slightly.

Strong performances and pretty landscape shots aside however, there’s something admittedly off about Coixet’s newest directorial effort, which, for such a gripping true story, feels lacking in energy at parts. And despite the original premise and unique stylistic choices, Elisa & Marcela does fall prey to quite a few of the oft-mocked lesbian drama clichés, going through the motions of stolen glances during a memorable first encounter, and a friendship that quickly develops into something more… tropes that, in a period piece, feel somewhat implausible. You still roll with it because the actresses have excellent chemistry and because the director knows how to frame a beautiful love scene—or at least she does until those start to rely more and more on gimmicks too. Ribbons? Squid? Milk? It’s all too much, and not in a good way, in case that needed clarification.

Flaws and all, Elisa & Marcela winds up being too interesting a film to ignore. The familiar tropes are there and the feminist undertones have been managed better before (looking at you, La Belle Saison), but it's a satisfactory little film nonetheless. Do the real Elisa and Marcela deserve a better biopic? Perhaps, but this one isn’t without enchantments. Like the bruised couple at its center, I think a lot of the flack this is getting is unfair. Come for the history lesson, stay for the wholesome lesbians.

2019 Ranked