BY FRANCESCA LEWIS
Based on Jane Chambers’ classic 1980 Broadway play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove and adapted as a contemporary story set in Venezuela, Liz In September is more than a simple adaptation. Writer and director Fina Torres tried to make the film fourteen years ago, in English, but the project never got off the ground. When she got the chance again, she decided to do it differently — a Spanish language re-imagining with an updated story, focusing on issues that are more relevant today. With a wonderful cast, including gay ex-supermodel and The L-Word star Patricia Velasquez, and a new compelling focus on the right of the terminally ill to choose to die with dignity, the resulting film is as artfully executed as it is surprising.
The film tells the story of Eva, a married straight woman whose young son died of cancer. On her way to meet her cheating husband for a Caribbean getaway she encounters car trouble and, stranded, finds herself staying at an isolated beach retreat. Little does she know, this place is for lesbians and a group are staying there now, old friends spending the summer together away from the judgemental eyes of society. Eva meets Liz, a beautiful and competitive motorcycle-riding ex model who bets her friends she can woo Eva, without falling in love. But Liz has a secret – she is dying of cancer – and as she and Eva get closer and she gets sicker, the film explores love and death in a way that is neither sentimental nor melodramatic.
“I don’t like melodrama,” says Torres, “so I tried to distance myself. I don’t know if it’s because of my French formation or my Venezuelan culture, but I think that we understand better and stay in the moment with you if we avoid melodrama.”
This is certainly true and, watching the film, the viewer is drawn into Liz’s reality through the realness and subtlety of both Torres’ direction and Velasquez’s performance.
“I tried to portray a character that was a winner.” says Velasquez, “And when you try to win no matter what, there is no space to be a victim, and what creates that melodrama most of the time is because one plays a victim.”
Velasquez poured herself into the role, spending time in hospitals with terminal patients in all stages to see the process, an experience she describes as “heartbreaking”, and reading books like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s On Death And Dying. In fact, Torres’ adaptation of Liz was heavily influenced by Velasquez.
“You know they say that we directors are sort of vampires,” she says, “and we suck blood from everywhere. Yes, I was very inspired for the character by Patricia. She came out with a book after the movie — we planned together that the movie and the book would come out together – because I think that having the courage to make this movie gave her the courage to assume her identity. I thought it was fascinating to put elements of her life into the fictional character so there are many elements of her life and backstory that are in the movie — even when Eva is watching her on the computer, she’s watching real shots of Patricia as a model.”
The book Torres refers to is Velasquez’s memoir Straight Walk: A Supermodel’s Journey To Finding Her Truth in which she writes candidly about her rise from poverty to the first Latin supermodel to her experiences as a model in the closet.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its wonderful cast, which all work together perfectly and make it very easy to believe that they have been close friends for many years.
“Patricia was the first person to be cast, of course,” says Torres, “and little by little actresses came – some of them were already friends before. The people who didn’t know each other became really close friends in the process of shooting the movie. Which denies what people say about women, ‘when we’re together, that’s a mess’ – well, here it was not a mess – we were really good friends!”
It definitely shows on camera and the bond between characters in this film is a beautiful testament to the sisterhood of the lesbian community.
Francesca Lewis is a queer feminist writer from Yorkshire, UK. She writes for Curve Magazine and The Human Experience as well as writing short fiction and working on a novel. Her ardent love of American pop culture is matched only by her passion for analyzing it completely to death.