The Dress Part

Tex and I are determined to go on some dates this week – Valentine’s Day week – and yesterday we managed to sneak off to see “Albert Nobbs”. SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to give things away! Not having read anything much about this film, we didn’t know what to expect, and were extremely moved to find it a work of such sophistication and depth. Yes, it’s a soap opera with certain stock characters, but what is so astounding is how those characters – all of them – are played and written with such complexity and generosity. Every single inhabitant of the movie has something unique and telling about him or herself, a way for the viewer to imagine or intuit the tangled beauty of each person’s life – even the villains. And there really aren’t any villains. Pretty much every one in this film has been extremely hard done by and the effects are played out in their lives. And for once in a movie, everyone’s sexuality is honored, even if, again, it’s an inference or intuition.

I didn’t really cry during the movie, but, reader, I am weeping now. It started when I was cleaning the bathroom upstairs earlier, wiping down tooth paste smears, and I suddenly came to an understanding of the dress part and just started bawling. That was the one part Tex and I just didn’t get: after the typhus epidemic which took Kathleen’s life (the femme wife of the butch painter, Hubert), Albert and Hubert put on dresses made by Kathleen and walk out onto the beach. They look ridiculous, and at first the scene strained our credulity – why would Hubert endanger himself in this way, and what on earth is Albert up to?

I must have dreamed on it last night, because it came to me all in a flash this morning: in the dress part, Hubert takes Albert upstairs to show him the dresses Kathleen made, trying to explain about his and Kathleen’s relationship, that they weren’t together just because it was convenient, but because they truly loved each other. How Hubert and Albert start putting on the dresses, I don’t know and the movie doesn’t show, but once the dresses are on, Hubert remains herself, a tall, lanky butch, squeezed into his wife’s hand-made dress, suicidally on display for whoever might care to see in the neighborhood where he’s passed as a man for many years. For Hubert, he is grieving his beloved. For Albert, something different is going on.

Raised without love by a woman who taunted him with her knowledge of who his real family was and died before she revealed that knowledge, gang-raped the year his guardian died, at the age of 14, Albert’s personality and sexuality have been pushed so far back into his psyche as to be practically nonexistent. Out of an ingenuity born of desperation, he dressed as a boy in order to get a job as a waiter the same year he was raped, and found safety and a way to effectively disappear himself and stay alive at the same time. Because Albert does want to be alive, and at the time of his death, is just beginning to learn or trust that something more than complete isolation may be available to him.

In the dress part, when he’s looking scared and ridiculous in a frilly dress and bonnet, he at first walks slowly on the beach, fussing with his shawl, and then, the wind takes him, or perhaps its the feel of his legs out of trousers for the first time in 40 years:  he begins to run. He smiles into the sky. The camera pulls back and we see him run for a bit more, then he falls, and Hubert hurries over to help him. For Albert, it doesn’t matter what clothes he puts on, what gender he puts on, he has been so damaged and has lived in such isolation for so long, that he may never learn to move freely in the world.

I am so cautious with movies about queers. I’ve been disappointed and more – insulted, wounded, shocked – by enough to know I need to be careful. (I’ll just mention “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “Claire of the Moon” in case you aren’t feeling me.) I held myself very still during “Albert Nobbs”, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It never did. I know Tex and I will continue to unpack and discuss this movie for a long time, and am so grateful for one more genuine and honest piece of art treating the complex lives of queer individuals – of all individuals.  Huzzah!

Published in: on February 14, 2012 at 10:59 AM  Comments (2)  
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