Sex, lies and cinema

Desiree Akhavan on Appropriate Behaviour.

by Jennie Kermode

Behaving badly
Behaving badly

Not so many years ago – thanks partly to censors and partly to nervous investors – it was hard to find any kind of non-heterosexual content in mainstream cinemas. Now there’s a fair bit of choice for gay men - we’re even starting to see films about men who’re not conventionally good looking – but when it comes to lesbians and bisexual women, the industry lags far behind. Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour is a breath of fresh air. It has proven its ability to impress mainstream audiences and it has heralded the arrival of a major new screenwriting and directing talent. But the thing that struck me first – and I mention this to its creator with slight trepidation – is that it’s funny.

She laughs. Recent ventures in lesbian filmmaking haven’t exactly been noted for their humour, though some have tried. “I just made something that I knew would make me laugh. I think it’s just about following your own point of view,” she says, with some of same the brusque self-assurance that her character, Shirin, displays in the film.

A lot to talk about
A lot to talk about

The story wasn’t autobiographical, she explains, but obviously she drew on elements of her own life experience as well as things she observed. “I take notes throughout life really. I’m always looking out and collecting ideas for characters and stories from the world around me.” Everything was scripted before the shoot began with little rearranging afterwards. Although this was her début film she already had screenwriting experience from hit web series The Slope, a comedy about superficial, homophobic lesbians that won her a loyal following.

“I’m working on a few things right now but at the forefront of my mind is a television show I’m making in London about a lesbian who comes out as bisexual in her thirties and starts dating men, and what happens to her,” she says.

Bisexual people are even more underrepresented onscreen than lesbians, making it another important but challenging subject to take on.

“Yeah. I mean, I think we live in a society that likes things to be very black and white,” she says. “When I make films I always try to explore what makes me uncomfortable and I realised that I’ve been much happier telling people I’m a lesbian than saying that I’m bisexual because I felt like it was embarrassing somehow, so I wanted to explore why I feel that taboo.”

Three's company
Three's company

As well as sexuality, the film explores aspects of sex itself. I congratulate Desiree on one of the first scenes of a threesome I have ever seen that does away with fantasy and is awkward and human and realistic.

“That’s my favourite scene in the film,” she says, pleased. “I think it’s really important to have honest and realistic depictions of sex in general because I just don’t see that in films. The films of Andrea Arnold, actually, depict it in a way that speaks to me, but what I wanted to do was to show that there are so many different elements to it. As a child I learned everything I knew about sex from movies, so when I eventually tried it it was such a shock! I felt that I’d been lied to. At first I also thought, Oh God, I’m doing it wrong! but then I realised that actually nobody has sex the way people do in films. It’s not all romance and candlelight and simultaneous orgasms. Really there’s a lot to go wrong and there can be lots of tiny humiliations along the way. Also it was about bad sex because in films sex is always either terrible or wonderful and there’s nothing in between and that’s not an experience I believe in. I think really if you want it to work then it’s about constantly renegotiating little things.”

Love, she feels, is something similar. In the film, Shirin has just come out of a relationship which we see parts of in flashback, and is clinging to the hope of getting back together with her ex.

Dreams go down the drain
Dreams go down the drain

“You just keep holding on to something for ages after it’s stopped working because it’s way past its prime but you want it so badly to be what you had in your head when you first met,” she explains. “When I’m in a relationship I think I’m always in two relationships, the reality and the one that’s in my head, and it usually takes about a year of it not working for me to figure it out.”

Is that another area in which cinema let her down?

“Yeah for sure, because for so long I had seen films reinforcing the notion that if it’s really love then it’s going to last forever – I mean unless they turn out to have a secret family or something, but if you’re both basically good people then you’ll be together forever. I got engaged really young - I was 20 - because I fell in love with someone, and then later when we fell out of love I was blindsided. I thought, Why aren’t we still together? He’s a good person, I’m a good person. I didn’t think I did this change and I did and that’s okay, that happens in life. What shocked me about romantic love is that people do change and so you have to have a partner you can keep on falling in love with. I haven’t found that yet and I’ve seen people who are together like that and I think it’s wonderful when it happens, but it’s rare. But basically every film lies to you about that and tells you that if it doesn’t last forever then it’s not real.”

Another important aspect of the film is what it has to say about being an immigrant in New York. Many films have explored this in different ways and it wasn’t something Desiree had initially intended to make much of, but producer and longtime collaborator Cecilia Frugiuel persuaded her that it was important. “She read the script and said it was great but she wanted to know the whole world. She said it was important for me to write something inspired by my own family...

Family matters
Family matters

“When I came out to my family, none of us had ever met an Iranian gay person that we knew of, I mean absolutely nobody knew of an Iranian gay person who was out. There wasn’t even gossip, it was unspoken completely, so we were all in shock and nobody knew what the future would look like for me. That’s why it’s important to me to be out there as somebody who identifies as bisexual in public. It’s why it’s important to be honest about who I am and who I love. It’s a lot of people’s only exposure.”

Being unusual can, of course, also lead to being exoticised by others, something which happens to Shirin in the film.

“Being Iranian in general is unusual here,” she says. It’s also, from a studio’s perspective, another issue to complicate the story, but dealing with only one such issue per film means that people whose life experiences are more complicated risk never seeing themselves reflected onscreen at all.

Time for a change
Time for a change

“Let’s face it, no-one is ever gonna cast me in a movie,” she says. “No-one would tell the kind of stories I care about. If you’re out of the norm you have to tell the story yourself. You have to be the person to do that. When we were preparing for this we approached lots of funders and they all turned us down. They said, You have too many issues here, you’re pushing too much into one film.

It’ll be easier next time, she’s pretty sure, thanks to the success of this film. She’s a bit overwhelmed by all the support she’s received from audiences, which she didn’t really expect.

“I believe in what I have to say because no-one else does,” she says. “But that way I get to say things that are unique. I think the best films are the ones that talk about things we’ve never heard about. It’s like I have this superpower because I can write completely original material and even if it’s original because people are racist and homophobic it’s still mine. It’s exciting because I can tell stories no-one told before about being bisexual, being Iranian and having my sense of humour. I think that’s what matters in film, that’s what you have to do, to be honest and tell your own stories.”

Learning to enjoy the ride
Learning to enjoy the ride

One more thing she’s honest about, through the film, is her failure at a previous job, teaching classes to kids.

“I’m a bad teacher,” she declares. Those scenes are really drawing on the way that I felt with kids and it’s pretty funny. It was an endless purse of comedy but at the same time I felt genuinely frustrated because I wanted to be a good teacher and I wanted to do a good job but I just found myself failing at it. I often seemed to find myself not fitting in.” This, too, applies to Shirin, and is perhaps part of why she won’t find salvation through the kind of conventional happy ending she’s hoping for.

“I do think that in the end she comes to terms with it and accepts herself,” says Desiree. “It’s about being inappropriate and being okay with that.”

Appropriate Behaviour is released on DVD and On-Demand from 29th June from Peccadillo Pictures. You can order from Amazon, Peccadillo Pictures, iTunes and all good retailers.

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