A Lesbian Landmark: Stacie Passon's Concussion

Nearly 20 years after her groundbreaking queer film Go Fish first galvanized audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, Rose Troche has produced the powerfully erotic Concussion, the debut feature of Stacie Passon, who both wrote and directed it. If Go Fish, famous as the first lesbian feature film to screen in competition at Sundance, is exemplary of the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 1990s -- meaning that it depicts same-sex erotic contact with daring and discrepant stylistic devices, from overlapping dialogue tracks to terrifically self-conscious moments that shatter the proverbial fourth wall - -then Concussion is clearly the product of a separate time and of far more conservative filmmaking techniques.

Impeccably shot (the cinematography is by David Kruta), Concussion unfolds in formally consistent fashion, like a high-toned advertisement for luxury living; one could eat off the pristine digital images. Unlike the necessarily messy, grainy NQC films to which it owes an undeniable debt, Concussion isn't concerned with overtly critiquing the claims made by and on behalf of lesbians. It doesn't bristle in the face of homophobia. In fact, for the film's wealthy, white, East Coast lesbians, heterosexism seems so alien as to require no comment. Like Lisa Cholodenko's 2010 film The Kids Are All Right, Concussion presupposes a wide and unquestioning public acceptance of lesbian marriage (or at least of an extrajudicial approximation thereof). At no point in the film must a character "defend" her decision to raise children with another woman, or define her sexual orientation identity beyond a few rote, audience-pleasing jokes. Straight men and women living in the suburbs of New York are seemingly so comfortable around their lesbian friends -- particularly around the film's central couple, Abby and Kate (played by Robin Weigert and Julie Fain Lawrence) -- that they can tease the topic of same-sex desire, the men by selfishly requesting a "hot" lesbian coming-out narrative, the women by wondering out loud if lesbians are staring at their asses. Vanity, in all its forms, is a currency in Concussion, one of several recent American films (Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said is another) that subtly skewer the pretensions of impossibly privileged people.

There's an inspired bit right at the beginning, with roughly a dozen lovelies pedaling away in a spin class, David Bowie's "Oh! You Pretty Things" filling the soundtrack with its mock-plaintive strains. The moment manages to be as satiric as it is sexy -- both a burlesque of body-conscious suburbia and a celebration of the sweaty, zany resolve of the modern, moneyed women who strap themselves to stationary bikes, leg and arm and neck muscles bulging. The images slow to the speed of an old Pantene commercial, allowing the women's hair to sway languorously, just as Bowie's accusatory refrain gains momentum; tracking shots take us the length of the spin studio, whose occupants, so unreasonably pretty at middle age, do indeed seem to be driving their admirers insane.

Kate can't join her wife in spin class, however. As a top Manhattan divorce attorney, she's simply too busy brokering the breakups of bankers to bother with group exercise, although she manages to maintain a striking set of six-pack abs. Abby, a sometime apartment flipper, has settled into her role as a stay-at-home mom, but our first glimpse of her parenting experience suggests considerable strain: She has just sustained a baseball to the head, wantonly tossed by her terror of a son, and she shouts obscenities, blood spurting from her temple, as Kate and the kids accompany her to the hospital. Abby's injury, from which the film derives its title (and which in fact befell Passon, down to the details of a baseball-tossing son), suggests a causal link with what comes next: Abby's erotic appetite increases (or at least appears to increase), and after a mutually satisfying session with an $800 prostitute, she decides to become one herself, accepting weekly assignations in a Manhattan loft that she's refurbishing.

What's so welcome about Concussion is that, contrary to expectations, it treats the titular condition as a red herring, a ruse that serves momentarily to distract from the intense sexual dissatisfaction of Abby's neglected housewife. This is no Nailed, the notoriously aborted David O. Russell film about a woman whose sex drive is spurred by a brain injury. Abby's concussion doesn't "create" her lust; it just coexists with it.

There is a stunning overhead shot of the vast bed that Abby and Kate share: Abby awakens in the middle of the night, turning to Kate for sexual comfort. Emerging from her slumber, but only slightly, Kate's fingers mechanically make their way to Abby's crotch. In spite of the lack of passion (or even of complete consciousness) that accompanies Kate's actions, Abby enjoys being stroked; monotony does not appear to matter to her, as long as pleasure is its principal object. Kate, however, falls asleep before her wife can get off, and in a later scene, fully awake, she refuses Abby's erotic advances.

This portrait of a sexless marriage has a series of complex counterpoints in Abby's well-remunerated loft encounters. They begin with a plus-sized NYU student whose first-ever kiss comes from Abby, and who later tentatively requests diet tips, and then, just as tentatively, confesses her possibly latent heterosexuality. Another encounter isn't nearly so sweet: It's with a prickly middle-aged woman who, noticing the art objects that adorn Abby's loft (they include a version of the Guerilla Girls print "The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist"), remarks that Abby seems "cultured," then asks if they "know anyone together." Affected and fatuous, the woman falls into bedded bliss with Abby, who, for her own part, frequently demonstrates just how shallow she can be.

Concussion's lesbian pedigree isn't limited to Go Fish: Its star, the remarkable Robin Weigert, played the legendary lesbian Calamity Jane on HBO's Deadwood, as well as the wagoner statue that comes to life in the HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America (another of whose actors, Ben Shenkman, shows up here). The film's obvious narrative parallels to such straight films as Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967), in which a sexually hungry housewife finds a measure of fulfillment as a prostitute, and Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972), in which anonymous erotic encounters take place in a provisional apartment, don't detract from Concussion's queer achievement, which is to show not necessarily a diversity but, at the very least, a steady stream of lesbian sexual acts. Abby spends more time in bed than out of it, the consequence being that this libidinous woman seems frequently happy, and only occasionally sad. A landmark lesbian movie, the carnal Concussion, a recent commercial screening of which sent two elderly spectators careening out of the theater during an especially sensual sequence, suggests that the depiction of lesbian pleasure continues to wield a transgressive power.

Check out the official red band trailer for Concussion (NSFW):