Loving Annabelle

For some time now, Loving Annabelle has sat in the top five list of videos rented by lesbians according to Wolfe Video’s web site. It’s a small indie film, written and directed by Katherine Brooks, who according to the DVD shorts and extras, watched the classic lesbian film Maidchen in Uniform and decided to make her own teacher-student love story in which, instead of deferring the romance to longing, unrequited passion, and inevitable suicide, something actually happens between the two women. To paint the context for her version of the old story, Brooks creates a standard series of girls’ boarding school types: Colins (Laura Breckenridge), the slightly crazy lonely girl, who cuts herself and hides a rescued porcupine in a cage in her room; Cat (Gustine Fudickar), the aggressive, brash, brusque type, who is no doubt deeply emotionally wounded, but covers her emotions with nonchalant hostility; and Kristen (Michelle Horn), the more sexually experienced girl (who’s in fact had a child that her parents now call their own) who’s along for the ride in the awkward threesome these girls comprise.

Annabelle (Erin Kelly) is new to the strict Catholic school, brought to the isolated estate somewhere outside of LA by her mother, a wealthy, self-important senator. In the opening, Annabelle rides beside the senator in a stretch limousine, looking sadly out the window while her mother, talking into her cell phone and holding a sheaf of papers, ignores her. The two women are surrounded by white men in black suits, the entourage of government security that keeps Annabelle even further from maternal intimacy. We learn quickly that Annabelle has already been expelled from two previous schools, and that if the high school’s imperious nuns can’t break her free spirit, she’ll be sent next to military school.

The teacher in charge of corralling Annabelle is Simone (Diane Gaidry), herself a former pupil of the school who teaches poetry and lives as the housemistress in the girls’ dorm. She’s a wiry, lithesome woman, with the stooped stance that signals both barely repressed sexuality and a tragic past. Annabelle doesn’t take long to learn that Simone was once just like her—rebellious, passionate, and, of course, queer. Simone’s lover Amanda committed suicide, not strong enough—her final note confesses—to withstand the public condemnation (in the late 20th century?) of a lesbian life.

Simone pines for her lover, while she lets herself get involved with a perfectly nice, awfully boring male teacher from a nearby private school. As he presses for a commitment, her attentions and affections wander toward her young charge. Annabelle feels their mutual attraction first and fast. She comes on strong, practically stalking the older woman in her quest for Simone’s affections. But Annabelle is preternaturally sophisticated for her age (which would be, at most, 17). Once she learns of Amanda’s suicide, Annabelle understands Simone’s pain and sets about helping the older woman release her past.

Annabelle is smart and mature, which keeps the plot from plummeting into utter incredibility (and perhaps, to some, although I have to say not to me, moral ambiguity). Annabelle not only has the intellectual chops to attract Simone, she’s also emotionally articulate. One would think that a kid who’s been expelled from two previous schools would be a hellion, a shut-down wall of aggression and hostility (much like Cat, who expresses her fear and insecurity through harmful, destructive sarcasm and emotional manipulation). But Annabelle simply knows herself and her sexuality, and refuses to conform to social expectations that would make her heterosexual and in every other way straight. She empathizes with the marginalized and ostracized, comforting Colins when Cat strikes out at her, and otherwise shows herself as a young woman of strength and character.

Annabelle refuses to remove the Buddhist prayer beads she wears around her neck, given to her, she tells Simone, by the first “person” with whom she fell in love. (When Simone inquires after “him,” Annabelle corrects the pronoun.) The head nun, Sister Immaculata (played with campy parody by Ilene Graff) forces Annabelle to wear heavy crosses hung from chains over the beads, burdening the girl with the signs of a religion in which she doesn’t even believe. Simone persuades Annabelle to carry the beads in her pocket instead, so that she can keep her ex-lover close without incurring Immaculata’s wrath.

Annabelle, in turn, helps Simone take off the small gold cross Amanda gave her, which Simone fingers constantly at her neck, reminding her of what she, too, has lost. This is only one of several overly neat plot contrivances, but Kelly and Gaidry carry off these heavily parallel symbolic acts with aplomb. In fact, the women’s growing attraction works mostly because the two actors flesh out the characters’ emotional lives, and let their eyes and their faces communicate a seductive, credible intimacy that the dialogue sometimes flattens.

Annabelle and Simone’s attraction somehow remains sweet and pure; their age difference never seems to matter, because Annabelle’s worldly experience compensates for Simone’s sheltered Catholic girls’ school existence, balancing out whatever chronological age might otherwise mean.

Brooks builds the sexual tension between Annabelle and Simone, finally bringing them together after Annabelle witnesses Simone cajoled into dancing with her erstwhile boyfriend at the school prom. Taking off her dress and letting down her hair, Annabelle mounts the dance floor stage in a red slip with her guitar and a song, obviously written for and about Simone. When Simone flees in emotional confusion, Annabelle leaves the stage and runs after, catching up with her in the rain outside, where the two women finally kiss and return to Simone’s room to make love.

And pretty good love it is, too. Brooks, in the extras, describes how she wanted to film a love scene that would palpably represent the heat of the two women’s desire, rather than cutting away at some key moment or only intimating their physical intimacy. The scene is well-choreographed; Simone and Annabelle’s sexual connection is one of the most believable in the film. They share the lead in taking off each other’s clothes, in the first exploratory touches, and in the building passion that takes them to Simone’s bed where Brooks actually does show them having a pretty convincing, pretty hot, pretty moving simulation of lesbian sex.

Because of the storm, Simone’s alarm clock doesn’t ring the next morning. Tipped off by the jealous Cat, Immaculata finds the lovers in Simone’s room and promptly calls the police. The officers lead Simone out of the school, Annabelle tearfully running after them to toss Simone her Buddhist prayer beads, which the older woman catches and to which she clings as she’s driven away in a car ride that mirrors Annabelle’s arrival. Annabelle turns back into the school, running past the girls lined up to witness the spectacle. She returns to Simone’s room, where she finds the art photos Simone took of her on their day at the beach and smiles, loving Simone and not regretting it for a minute.

Brooks is careful not to judge the characters for their affair, despite the age difference. Unlike, for instance, the recent heterosexual version of a similar story, Notes on a Scandal (see my earlier blog entry), the teacher-student affair isn’t presented as the ruin of the nuclear family, or as a cruel manipulation of a vulnerable teacher by a horny, handsome teenaged boy or girl. Although the officers arrest Simone for her apparent indiscretion, until that moment, neither woman has suffered guilty misgivings about their obvious desire. Simone hesitates more because of the emotional wounds of her past than the prohibitions of the present. The film doesn’t sensationalize the story, either; in some ways, it’s just an old-fashioned lesbian movie that insists desire should be seized wherever it’s found. Loving Annabelle makes it clear that denying need and lying about love can disintegrate your soul.

Why am I so attracted to these stories? Why do these images linger for me for so much longer than those from other films, even though I know Loving Annabelle is a melodramatic diversion? Could it be that at 50-years-old, I’m still entranced by images of women falling in love against the odds, still starved to see this particular, predictable plot enacted? Is it because I, too, like director/writer Brooks, want to see consummated the desire that so many films of my own youth only suggested (even though Brooks is 20 years my junior)?

Does Loving Annabelle linger because in my own life, I seem to have moved from identifying with Annabelle’s precocious emotional sensitivity to Simone’s more painfully guarded passions? Is it because I came of age knowing that my sexuality and my own desire was illicit, so that watching the enactment of a forbidden teacher-student relationship reminds me that the erotics of sublimation and transgression are hard-wired into my own psyche? Or is it because the subtextual necessity of Annabelle and Simone’s flirtation recalls for me the necessity with which I lived for so long, of signaling to other women in the dark, hoping they could read what I was trying to tell them, hoping to find companionship, if not passion, with women who might truly know me?

When Annabelle finds Amanda’s suicide note in the astonishingly beautiful ocean-side condo Simone’s parents have left her, Simone is furious at the breach of her privacy. But Annabelle knows she’s found the key to Simone’s defenses. Struggling against Simone’s arms as the older woman tries to push her away, Annabelle insists that she intends to hold her and not to let her go. They tussle for a moment, then Simone surrenders to Annabelle’s embrace, sobbing on her shoulder as the younger woman holds her tightly, their hands entangled in each other’s hair.

As I describe the scene, I know how cheesy it sounds—I can’t even keep that hint of breathless sensation from my prose. And yet the moment was also very true and, for me, very moving. Here was the offer of understanding, the offer to care, to love, a living young woman wrapping her arms around Simone to comfort and sympathize. How many times, in my later teens and early 20s, just before and just after coming out, did I want someone to just “get it” like this, to use their body to tell me so, not to force me to talk about it, but just to let me feel it, whatever “it” was.

And honestly, “it” was mostly the complicated pain of being a lesbian before it was even marginally okay, as it is now, when it was still forbidden, taboo, perverted, misunderstood, when my attachments were to straight girls who could never reciprocate because I didn’t know any other would-be lesbian girls. I remember too well the inarticulate despair that came from not being able to express my desire openly, from being isolated without the words for what I felt and what I wanted, from being gripped by powerful hormones that sent my passion driving in the “wrong” direction, and not being able to do a thing about it.

I wanted to be Annabelle, but instead, I was Simone. Even though the film doesn’t illuminate anything new about this now-stereotypical story, Loving Annabelle still reminds me of my own coming of age.

When the Annabelle and Simone finally do give in to their desire, the film captures well the release of that instance, the combination of terror and depth of passion it inspires. Kelly and Gaidry bring something fresh and truthful and sincere to the moment, registering that there’s no turning back from transgression, and at the same time, that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks or says or what the consequences are—you just have to join your flesh with hers, you can’t deny it a second longer. When the harridan Immaculata confronts her with outrage, after finding Simone and Annabelle in bed together, Simone says simply, “I love her.” To make that declaration should be enough; in Loving Annabelle, as in my own life, indeed it is.

Sentimentally, perhaps,
The Feminist Spectator

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13 thoughts on “Loving Annabelle

  1. Hi, Jill

    Thanks for introducing this film. It was a really tantalizing eye-candy for me in the first half. My favorite scene is that Simone visits a prayer room to hold her attraction for Annabelle and to repress her desire. But rather, she falls into sexual fantasy which Annabelle caresses Simone. It was very transgressive and intense. Lesbian sexual fantasy in the prayer room of the strict Catholic boarding school!

    I really enjoyed reading your review. I’m struck by ways in which you reflect on your own desire, passion, and longing through this film. Especially, I like your reading of Annabelle’s beads and Simone’s gold cross necklace in connection with religion, rebellion to social norms and authority, and reminding lesbian love. And you beautifully describe and interpret the scene where they embrace in the condo. About solace, caring, and empathy beyond their age difference.

    What’s interesting to me is that art forms are a sensual language to mediate desire and to grow attraction for each other in this film. Simone is an amateur photographer and captures the beauty of her lovers through her yearning lens (previously Amanda, now Annabelle). Also, she is a poetry teacher. In the first class, when Simone asks about the implication of “I celebrate myself for every item belonging to me belongs to you,” Annabelle replies that it suggests the intensity of connection between lovers as one. Later, in another class scene, Annabelle responds that “endless space” and “thick fluids” symbolize sex in love. Proust’s words become their secret sign. Finally, Annabelle sings a song for Simone. As such, all the artistic forms like photography, poetry, and music are a seductive medium of “the erotics of sublimation” in the forbidden relationship.

    Also, I’m intrigued by women’s relationships depicted in the film. Cat is a seemingly homophobic straight, but she’s jealous of Simone and Annabelle. I don’t think that Cat’s kissing Annabelle was just a sexual experiment (according to Annabelle’s words, picking a science object). Besides, it seems to me that the head nun, Sister Immaculata’s affection for Simone is obviously lesbian-erotic. Maybe, the head nun calls the police because she’s jealous of Annabelle and feels betrayed by Simone, which reminds me of Judi Dench in Notes on Scandal. Sister Immaculata is another older Simone. This characterization demonstrates that relationships among women are very ambiguous between emotional intimacy and sexual attraction. It also blurs the line between straight women’s assumed heterosexuality and potential lesbian desire.

    Another thing that I thought about is class. I was curious about why the writer/director characterize Annabelle and Simone as upper-class. Simone has a beautiful ocean-side condo which her parents gave her. Annabelle is a daughter of a wealthy politician mother. Could their upper-classness be needed as a shield from social taboo on their sexual affair? To alleviate moral shock/charge or to beautify the “wrong” relationship? As they can escape from the school and have their own private time in Simone’s condo? Simone’s economic resource and class privilege offer her a lesbian sanctuary protected from moral judgment and oppressive sexual norms (the Catholic boarding school). In addition to their class status, their femininity serves to makes the story less threatening. They can pass as straight. Doesn’t conforming gender compensate for deviant, dangerous, and “immoral” sexuality in a way? I can’t imagine a teacher-student love-affair between butch Annabelle and Simone, or Annabelle and butch Simone. Butch Annabelle to butch Simone?? No way. It can’t be seen. In this context, it is not accidental that many contemporary lesbian films portray romance between “feminine” white women.

    In the ending scene, I feel sorry for Simone. Although Annabelle sings, “I will shelter you through the storm,” Simone is left alone in the storm, and Annabelle can’t and don’t do anything for Simone. It’s sad that only Simone takes all the responsibility. I know that it is reality, but I didn’t want to see the ending scene where eventually she is arrested. Only one comfort for me was that Simone looks free and present with a serene smile in the police car, holding Annabelle’s beads because now she is loyal to her own feelings and desire.

    Thanks for your writing, again.

  2. Thank you, Jill, for your very detailed review of “Loving Annabelle” and the personal insights you shared with your readers. I am the same age as you and also found that this film lingered long after the credits had rolled. In fact, I revisited it several times in order to try to work out what it was that so attracted me (apart from the obvious aesthetic pleasure of seeing two beautiful women fall in love!).

    Like Annabelle, I was young, precocious and quite unafraid to go out and discover life. I am bisexual and had my first lesbian affair with a student the same age as myself (21) when I was working in France in the late Seventies. In her class were many people coming to terms with the growing pains of discovering their sexual identity, including a transsexual waiting for surgery, so our clandestine relationship, though the subject of intense interest on the part of some, was not particularly scandalous; it was my lover, deep in denial about her sexual orientation, that put an end to our affair. I did not have another lesbian relationship until I met my current partner when I was in my late 30s. However, as I live in her (Asian) country, we cannot “come out” – although we are quite open when we visit friends in other countries.

    Until this year I had never even read lesbian websites or blogs so when I accidentally discovered the “Loving Annabelle” clips on You Tube I was blown away. I was also extremely surprised by the amount of attention the film has received from lesbian audiences. When I finally got the whole movie, I was disappointed that the ending was so abrupt and unsatisfying (or, as one reviewer put it, “lacking a third act”), yet the fan mail has been extraordinary, even from women living openly in relatively lesbian-friendly societies whom I imagine would have found the story rather tame. I have also noticed that a competition on a Fan Fiction website to rewrite the ending to “Loving Annabelle” has received a huge number of responses (112 to date), some highly articulate and creative, and this is a whole new genre waiting to be explored!

    On deeper analysis, however, I can see there is a lot more to the film than might at first appear. Certainly, the inspired acting and palpable chemistry between Erin Kelly and Diane Gaidry lift the movie well above the ordinary. The love scene is hot, yes, but it is also beautifully choreographed and appears (to me, at least) almost breathtakingly sincere and realistic. Those elements alone would probably be enough to draw the viewer back more than once. There has been plenty of – all valid- analysis of the plot, the characters of Simone and Annabelle, the school environment etc. but when I try to seize on why it is that I still want to watch it again, it is because in those life-changing moments which start at the beach house, when Annabelle precipitates Simone’s emotional confrontation between her past and the present, and lead up to the inevitable consummation of their love, they play out for us a journey we have all been on, a journey of liberation across the borders of fear and denial, but which probably few of us have ever been able to complete in such a satisfying way if at all. For me, this movie is about my lost youth, about discovering your real identity and wanting to shout it to the world ; it is about having that “perfect moment” and holding it in your memory forever. (Societies have so many ways of awarding iconic status to heterosexual coming of age that we take them for granted). To see this celebrated on the screen, and to know that these women are willing and able to declare their love openly is a truly uplifting sensation.

    As Ji Hiye has noted, the artistic forms in the film – poetry, music, photography- serve to heighten the eroticism operating subliminally throughout, and for me, the final love scene is itself akin to an art form- if we freeze the camera we have that perfect moment suspended in time . From that moment onwards nothing will be the same. Simone and Annabelle will get older, they will have other lovers and other moments but nothing will ever compare to that one perfect moment when they reach the end of their secret, shared journey and break through the final barrier.As an artistic concept, it reminds me of John Keat’s words at the end of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” :
    ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

    Thanks again for sharing.

  3. Dear Caracol, thanks so much for this lovely response to my post. I’ve been thinking a lot lately (see my recent post on Jodie Foster’s coming out) about lesbian generations, and the ways in which certain representations strike us differently depending on when in our lives they reach us. I felt the same way you did about those moments in LOVING ANNABELLE, and wonder if it’s because, as you say, there are still so few images of lesbians coming-of-age in movies. Thanks for your insightful comments. Keep sharing your thoughts here!

    My best,

  4. Hi,
    Great summary of Loving annabelle
    Can I just suggest that you put a spoiler warning at the top of the article

    Loving Annabelle Trailer

  5. This really is a great review, so many spoilers but I can’t help wondering if the plot could actually take place in reality? Does anyone know of one, i’m interested

  6. Hi Mazdesigns, I do think that relationships between teachers and students happen in the way depicted in the film. It’s a kind of lesbian narrative stereotype, but it’s also based on something real and perhaps, though not common, it happens. Thanks for reading and writing. jd

  7. Hello to everyone,

    I couldn’t help telling that such stories do really take place. My partner and I have been together for 6 years since the similar affair at secondary school..


  8. Hi Jill
    Thanks for sharing views about this great movie, i had just finish watching it. At the end they were connected emotionally and disconnected physically. The ending was perfect and imperfect, imperfectness leaves room for spectators’ imagination. Both actress did a great job in the movie.

  9. hey, I’d like to say, its my favorite movie. because it made me realized how much of dyke i am!

  10. Hi Jill
    I’m speehless… dont know where to start my comment, views etc. I was stunned while watching the film. I’m 31 yrs old, married w/ 3 kids, sounds perfect right? But the sad thing is I discover myself when i was already 26 yrs old. During my marriage, i had several relationships with same gender, i love it and i feel much comfortable and wanting to end my marriage life but i need to sacrifice it for the sake of my kids. My parents knows about this but they are not convinced for they only knew that lesbians only looks like a guy (butch) funny that they are not aware that femme also exist. Anyway, i still have my regrets and wants but i just fill it with my eyes whenever i saw attractive women but sometimes whatever i do to ignore that feeling still… they come on my way. I don’t know why… maybe because it takes one to know one? take care Jill and hope to hear from you again. God bless you.

  11. Anonymous, good luck to you. At least watching these films can be a way to pursue your desire imaginatively, if nothing else. We’re lucky there are more and more films out there with some sort of LGBT/queer content. I wish you all the best.

  12. I can’t believe how spot on you are about this movie. I saw the samethings. However I don’t know anything about lesbian sex, I know lust, and hunger, and I saw that and the build up. It doesn’t change between genders. I know that this is a favorite movie of mine that brought me not only religous insight but insight in literature. I would have never read about Mr. Rilke or Mr. Proust had it not been for this movie. Unfortunately it is a movie that I keep to myself because my right-wing conservative family and friends would all frown upon me loving this movie so fervently. I am from a liberal Christian home but have many nonliberal Christians that make up my family. It doesn’t matter what my sexual orientation is but just the fact that I would “watch” such “smut” as they would say. It is like being Simone pretending to live when all you want to do is lie down and die.

  13. This review was very good, but I can’t help noticing you never mentioned that Cat kissed Annabelle, and while that was not an incredibly important detail, I felt that giving the detail you went into regarding the rest of the movie, it deserves to be mentioned.

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