Gray Matters and Puccini for Beginners: Love Triangles and All

I can’t resist dipping into what’s now quite a catalogue of lesbian-themed movies, even though most of them are light fluff or portentous melodrama. I find these films by reading about them in scattered reviews, sometimes in the Times or sometimes The Advocate, or I find them in queer browsing sites like Wolfe Video (, which also offers a weekly email update on new LGBTQ DVD releases and entertainment industry queer gossip).

I recently rented Gray Matters (2007,, for instance, which stars Heather Graham, Tom Cavanagh, and Bridget Moynahan in a slight, but diverting lesbian date comedy. I’ve also watched Puccini for Beginners(, a 2007 Official Selection at Sundance, which also opened the 30th annual Frameline [Gay] Film Festival this year in San Francisco. Gray Matters was conceived and executed by Sue Kramer, who notes in the DVD bonus tracks that her sister is a lesbian; Puccini was written and directed by out lesbian Maria Maggenti.

Maggenti garnered mainstream attention with The Fabulous Adventures of Two Girls in Love(1995), the film that launched the queer career of Laurel Holloman, who’s now playing Tina Kennard on The L WordPuccinif, like Gray Matters, is another slight and diverting lesbian “date comedy” (two words I never thought would modify “lesbian” in films).

Gray and Puccini share a common plot thread: a love triangle among a lesbian, a straight woman, and a man. In Gray Matters, our heroine, Gray, and her brother, Sam, are so close they live together and are often misrecognized as a couple. Clearly, this arrangement is too queer to sustain, so it’s time to find Sam a “real” girlfriend. With Gray’s help, the siblings stumbled upon the androgynously, bi-friendly named “Charlie,” walking her dog in Central Park. Sam’s attraction is immediate, but Gray, too, and winds up falling in love with her.

In Gray’s critical “recognition” scene the night before Sam and Charlie’s (inevitable) wedding, Charlie insists on the old-fashioned ritual that Sam not see her until they meet at the altar. Charlie spends the night in a hotel with Gray. After a long evening of girls-only drinking, the two women exchange a series of physically affectionate gestures that escalate into a rather passionate kiss, after which Charlie promptly passes out.

Gray spends all night pacing the hotel room floor trying to figure out what happened; Charlie’s utter amnesia the next morning doesn’t help. When Gray confesses to Sam than she loves his wife, the siblings are temporarily estranged, until Gray lets go of her crush on their mutual object of affection and drifts off to ply her newly found lesbian desire farther from home.

In Puccini for Beginners, the unlikely but entertaining plot revolves around two love triangles, one among a lesbian and a straight couple, the other among two lesbians and a man. Here, Samantha (Julianne Nicholson) abruptly leaves our heroine Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) to return to her boyfriend, because Allegra, her girlfriend of nine months, can’t commit.

Commitment-phobic though she is, Allegra soon meets Phillip (Justin Kirk), a Columbia philosophy professor with whom she begins a surprising affair. Shortly after, Allegra also meets and beds Grace (Gretchen Mol), the woman whom (unbeknownst to Allegra, but already clear to us) Phillip has been seeing for six years and recently left because of her insistence on marriage. Phillip, a stereotypically commitment-phobic man, finds a “man” like himself in Allegra and pursues his attraction.

Maggenti offers a prologue to preview the eventual recognition scene, letting the audience know well before Allegra that she’s sleeping with a former couple, after which a series of farcical set ups inspired by this triangle proceeds as only screwball film comedy can. The antics are interspersed with wry but supportive commentary from Allegra’s two best friends (Molly, a straight woman, and Nell, an ex who majored in German philosophy at Yale and pronounces her opinions in suitably fierce, uncompromising intellectual terms).

Both Phillip and Grace attach to Allegra quickly, and she jumps in and out of bed with both, fielding inopportune cell phone calls from one or the other as she tries to keep her lovers straight (and separate). She doesn’t realize until the film’s third act (each act title serves as a convenient, rather theatrical transitional device) that Phillip and Grace were/are involved.

Like any good farce, all the plotlines and characters come together in the final revelation scene that was previewed at the film’s beginning. This one happens at a party for Samantha and her fiancé, whom Phillip and Grace just happen to know. Allegra, despite being a writer who was a runner-up for the New York Critics Circle Book award, has been persuaded to work the party as wait staff for a loathsome gay caterer. In a classic “She’s my girlfriend”; “No, she’s my girlfriend” scene, Allegra’s gig is up and the competing relationships dissolve with her and resolve with each other. Phillip and Grace, mutually humiliated over Allegra’s betrayal, are thrown back together. Samantha, fondly recalling her love and appropriately impressed by how Allegra has (supposedly) changed, ditches her fiancé and returns to her girlfriend, and everyone, we assume, lives happily ever after.

Puccini recalls Woody Allen’s Manhattan, as its New York-set scenes brim with affection for its West Village locations and long shots of the Met at Lincoln Center, where Allegra takes her dates to share her love for the grand passions of opera (which here seem wonderfully, intentionally queer). The apartments in which the characters live (and in which the film was presumably shot) are realistically small, if set-decorated in saturated colors, off-kilter art, and objects tastefully arranged to provide shorthand character detail.

Maggenti films many scenes in public places—delis, restaurants, subways, benches in Central Park—where ever-opinionated, eavesdropping New Yorkers provide a Greek chorus for Allegra’s on-going dilemmas and don’t hesitate to tell her what she should do. Anonymous diners and wait staff turn to offer Allegra unsolicited advice. The sushi chefs at a place she frequents observe Allegra’s comings and goings with soap opera zeal and the insight of committed fans; their hilarious remarks are spoken in Japanese and displayed in English subtitles, which helps comment on the clueless spectacle of white folks in love.

Maggenti’s eye for New York character demonstrates a smart wit—the diners are “types,” including, among others, Babs Davy of the Five Lesbian Brothers playing, in a striped baseball shirt, an advice-wielding member of a dyke softball team arrayed at a nearby four-top in a restaurant. On the subway, the voice of an African-American woman stop announcer interjects her own reading of Allegra’s fortunes, and at the deli, a Latino cashier offers to take her out but looks on approvingly when Grace arrives and embraces her.

That people of color in the film only appear in these subsidiary cameos is unfortunate; what good progressive artist/writer/intellectual like Allegra in Manhattan in the 21st century would only associate with white people?

If it stints on the possibilities of racial diversity, Puccini does represent its characters as smart people who think about their emotions and their politics. Allegra and Phillip lie in bed talking about marriage, which Allegra articulately dismisses as a bourgeois institution of property, whether for heterosexuals or queers. Phillip and Nell joust about Kant. The opinionated diners describe the fluidity of gender, the pros of bisexuality, and the queerness of opera. When Samantha leaves Allegra, she heads to the bookcase to retrieve her belongings. Allegra and her friends go to the Met together (even though most of them hate opera, while Allegra swoons). They escape into bookstores and cinemas when they’re depressed, and come out with enthusiastic analyses of black-and-white films. Idle shoppers at bookstores interject observations from Freud into Allegra’s private conversations.

Allegra becomes a kind of lesbian everywoman, someone strangers want to steer and guide and help to find her way. The film’s affection for her warms the narrative and lets you appreciate the one-liners and sight gags that pepper each frame and fondly skewer upper-middle class white intellectuals like its characters while it moves through Allegra’s plight.

Puccini wouldn’t be half as affecting without Reaser’s subtly sexy, easy-going charisma. Reaser had her own plot line on Grey’s Anatomy last season as the amnesiac patient who falls for Alex during her long hospital stay. In Puccini, she invests Allegra with just enough self-deprecation to make her appealing, balanced with just enough sardonic self-knowledge and sophistication to balance what could have been a mopey, self-indulging role. Reaser’s Allegra is bright and adorable and appealingly open to the parade of New Yorkers with whom she effortlessly, casually shares her intimacies. Through Maggenti’s recurrent joke about the omnipresent and omnipotent New Yorker runs a vein of happy humanism, a vision of the city in which people are entwined in each other’s lives for a moment then move on, all gracefully touching one another with care and humor before they go.

Maggenti also offers a New York in which it’s easy to be a lesbian (even a lesbian sleeping with a man). None of the city’s talkative denizens—straight or queer—blink at the gender of Allegra’s attachments. In Gray Matters, the heroine only begins her search for lesbian love as the credits roll. At the end of Puccini for Beginners, Allegra and Samantha walk off together through Central Park, hands in each other’s back jeans pockets.

If Puccini needed to establish that male-female love triangle, at least it wasn’t to enable the heroine’s coming out through her attraction to her beloved brother’s desire. Allegra’s affairs with Phillip and Grace are instructive, just like those profitable Fill-in-the-blank for Beginners books from which the film adapts its title (Puccini could also be sub-titled Lesbianism for Dummies). Her relationships let her (and Maggenti) sort through the differences between men and women, not only as lovers, but as life partners.

Still, the repetition of the three-way love triangle (one lesbian, one straight man, and one alluring, mostly straight woman) bears noting in popular lesbian film. I’m not sure, finally, what to make of it: On one hand, lesbians have historically been vulnerable to the advances of bi-curious straight women, and many lesbians who suffer a dearth of safer objects of desire find themselves attracted there. Straight women are, in fact, a “type” or a “preference” for some lesbians—proselytizing has its attractions.

On the other hand, perhaps this plot structure signifies cultural anxiety about lesbians competing with men. Then again, maybe it’s aimed at straight women, suggesting it’s okay to have sex with girls as long as you go on to marry a man. In fact, a kiss, some sex, even playing at a relationship is kind of cool–for a while. I’m still not sure what the pattern means, but it seems worth tracking.

In Puccini for Beginners, happily, Allegra affirms her choice to be with women, even as no one judges anyone else for making other choices. Her decision to finally accept the potential of a long term monogamous relationship with Samantha seems a bit of a compromise, after her refreshing aversion to commitment (we all know the joke about lesbians bringing U-Hauls to their first dates).Puccini’s message is liberal, for sure, but delivered with a light touch and enough comic verve to make for a fun evening in front of the flat screen TV.

As an old-time (and getting-kind-of-old) lesbian feminist, I’ll keep mining those lesbian DVD catalogues, still amazed that I now have so many choices for amusing pleasures besides Desert Hearts.

Happy for eye candy,
The Feminist Spectator

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