Film Review: Portrait of a Serial Monogamist

Light contemporary comedy about a forty-something Toronto lesbian with the nagging habit of only remaining faithful to a series of partners until she’s firmly convinced it’s time to dump and bolt to the next.
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Set for a theatrical run in L.A. on Jan. 29 and a DVD and VOD release on Feb. 9, the often likeable, nicely lensed lesbian romantic comedy Portrait of a Serial Monogamist should certainly connect with an audience. Problem is, that audience could be slim—i.e., a sliver of Millennial through Gen X gay women or female curiosity-seekers drawn to middle-of-the-road, reassuring lesbian dramas that are nice, tasteful and only lightly spiced with an occasional kiss. (Male oglers will have to get their jollies elsewhere.)

Could this be described as Canadian cinema at its most Canadian? Written by filmmakers Christina Zeidler and John Mitchell, this Canadian cinematic breeze—no doubt shot during a sunny, temperate Toronto summer—is easy watching.  

Contrary to the classic Neil Sedaka song, breaking up is easy to do in Portrait—in fact, too easy, as it’s the thrust and tug that drive the plot. Forty-something lesbian Elsie Neufeld (Diane Flacks), an accomplished breakup artist, leaves her longstanding girlfriend Robyn (Carolyn Taylor) abruptly (as is her habit) to pursue the younger Lolli (Vanessa Dunn), who wears the multiple hats of barista/DJ/socially engaged photographer.

Lolli puts up resistance, but Elsie persists as her devoted clique advise in her pursuit or chastise her harsh Robyn dump and habit of grab-and-burn. These pals include Grace (Caroline Gillis), also a close pal of Robyn’s, and Sarah (Sabrina Jalees), a nonchalant hipster. Others further out in orbit include Elsie’s boss/mentor and a cat-loving lesbian couple whose funeral ceremony for their deceased is an occasion for the characters to converge.

But diverge is what the many arrows of advice to Elsie do: how to meet and hook up, why abstinence is the better alternative, how dog parks are great meeting grounds, etc., etc.

An accidental run-in with Robyn, notably at a gallery opening that TV culture producer and on-camera personality Elsie is covering for her show, becomes significant, as does her session with Lolli as guest at a Shabbat family dinner where mildly annoying Jewish mother Abby (Robin Duke) and the table chatter don’t sit well with Lolli.

A Canadian chill in the budding romance ensues, as Lolli won’t return Elsie’s calls. To again invoke another pop icon and classic (the more appropriately Canadian Paul Anka and his “Lonely Boy”), Elsie becomes lonely girl. Alone in her apartment and in discos and other places, she frets as she questions her serial addiction and feelings about Robyn.

The dramatics are set against a variety of hip clubs, bars, workspaces, fun spaces, galleries, etc. and well-chosen outdoor locations (including a dog run where Elsie gets pickup tips). Intermittent flashbacks to a teen Elsie getting dumped by a crush and Elsie and Robyn in better times punctuate the heroine’s dilemma. But the filmmakers’ decision at the outset to have some of Elsie’s dialogue and conspiratorial winks to the camera bring viewers in may do just the opposite.

The pop score that saturates throughout may strike some as too much. The Jewish angle imposed here doesn’t blend organically but seems more an effort to append some authenticity where other elements fall short.

The pervasive strain for hipness and coolness that’s not of the temperature kind is a bit strained. (Only vinyls are spun, shot in closeup as if to make a point.) Those efforts almost suggest a Canadian fear of being perceived as too square for hipsters south of the border. But the performances are pleasing, the cinematography is lovely, and the city of Toronto triumphs in a supporting role. The film’s slightly askew ending is also an asset, as is the smooth, scenic ride getting there.

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