“The joke is that everybody knows one and, if you don’t, you might be one,” says John Mitchell, co-director of Portrait of a Serial Monogamist, with Christina Zeidler. The “one” is a serial monogamist and the joke forms the framework of the filmmaker’s latest movie. Zeidler describes the title as a play on the popularity of film and television about serial killers, with titles such as “Portrait of a Serial Murderer/Killer. As you start saying the title, people expect it to be killer and then are surprised when it’s monogamist. There’s just something funny about it. Serial monogamy in the lesbian community is a joke in itself; it’s almost its own punch line. When we tell people the title, especially lesbians, they just laugh. They know what it means.”
For those not in the know, Zeidler describes a serial monogamist as “a person who goes from committed relationship to committed relationship with no break in between. They’re absolutely in love with a person, and all their friends know them, and their family knows them, then the serial monogamist dumps their significant other unceremoniously and goes on to the next person. And everyone must love this person because their new partner is ‘the one.’” This is the starting point for the unconventional romantic comedy about 40-something Elsie (Diane Flacks), a serial monogamist whose friends and family have decided they’re not going to move on to the next girlfriend with her.
“We didn’t want to make a saccharine romantic comedy; we wanted to make something that felt authentic to relationships. It’s really a movie about relationships more than a glorified romantic comedy. But it’s certainly romantic and funny.”
The movie is a collaboration in the truest sense — Mitchell and Zeidler finish each other’s thoughts and are completely in sync. “It’s like two heads, one brain,” explains Mitchell, “You’re trying to solve the same creative problems, but you’re coming at them from slightly different points of view. We also discovered we have complementary skill sets, so we relied upon our strengths to get us through. We think it’s a richer film for having two perspectives.” Zeidler adds, “The idea with collaboration isn’t that you muddle two ideas together. The idea of collaboration, which film is so predicated on, is that you take the best of two people and their ideas and through coming together you make something else. You’re taking the idea of one plus one equals three. Our collaboration felt very natural. It wasn’t confusing to us. Certainly it challenged people when we said we wanted to direct together, but we really felt it was part of our method and practice. It ended up being the best thing for the film.”
The idea for Portrait of a Serial Monogamist was born one night over drinks. Mitchell recalls, “Christina and I were talking about romantic comedies that we liked, and Christina had just seen High Fidelity, with John Cusack. Often in those kinds of movies you see this emotionally stunted character that’s a bit of a screw-up, but is charming enough that you go with them. It’s always a guy in this role and she thought it would be nice to see a woman as that character for a change. I thought it was a great idea and we talked about writing the script together and decided that was what we we’re going to do.” Zeidler took over the tale of the film’s beginnings. “In that sense, we didn’t want to make a saccharine romantic comedy; we wanted to make something that felt authentic to relationships. It’s really a movie about relationships more than a glorified romantic comedy. But it’s certainly romantic and funny. We really did want to play with the genre; we’re fans of romantic comedies, but the ones we like are High Fidelity, Annie Hall and Manhattan.”
Portrait of a Serial Monogamist is most certainly not a typical romantic comedy. It’s not about the meet-cute and true love; it’s about the break up and the complications that come with it. “Off the top, Elsie talks about all these songs about people who have been dumped, but wonders why there aren’t more songs from the other point of view, from the dumper. The movie is a little bit of an homage to the dumper.” It is also a film that features a woman in a role that is almost exclusively the domain of male characters and for Zeidler, “that was exactly the challenge. We don’t feel the same way about Woody Allen or John Cusack, who play those kinds of male leads. The film is asking the culture at large why can’t we accept that kind of a character being played by a woman? A good person who does bad things — a lovable screw-up. Certainly if you watch High Fidelity, he’s not a great guy; he does really bad things, really naughty things, but we love him and think of him as a great guy by the end. We really wanted to play with that with Elsie. I think we were also addressing the gap. We wanted to see if we could add that character to the cannon. Maybe the lack of women in this kind of role is just a gap.”
For Mitchell, “it’s important to say that we didn’t dislike Elsie while we were writing her. We had a lot of fun with this character because she makes mistakes and she’s flawed and very human. In a sense, an audience can identify with somebody whose heart is in the right place in so many ways. She’s a great girlfriend when she’s there. She just has this flaw that she has to end it before she gets dumped.” Zeidler adds, “she has her set of rules and ethics, so as she’s making her decision, she honestly believes she’s making the right one. You can’t hate a character like that.” Mitchell continues, “She’s true to herself and her strangely misguided set of rules. And we were very lucky in the casting because Diane [Flacks] gave a very subtle performance; she gave us a lot to work with.”
“The film is asking the culture at large why can’t we accept that kind of a character being played by a woman? A good person who does bad things — a lovable screw-up.”
Part of building the audience’s connection with Elsie was getting into her head. For this, Mitchell and Zeidler turned to another romantic comedy, Alfie, with Michael Caine, for inspiration. “Michael Caine is a really unlikable character in that movie. But he talks to the camera to make sure the audience is going to follow his journey. We weren’t trying to make Elsie unlikable, but breaking the fourth wall was a device we could use to make sure the audience stuck with her, even when she starts off the movie in a really questionable spot.” Mitchell also explains that Elsie is “a character who doesn’t get herself, so she talks to the camera when she has to rationalize her behaviour and explain herself to keep us on her side. It’s also because she’s trying to convince herself that, yes, I’ve broken up with my girlfriend, but I am doing it for her; it’s not about me. Trust me, folks.” Zeidler expands, “We were laughing because we were thinking about where we have characters who are so un-self-aware, and then we started to think about reality television. Reality television is all about talking to the camera because you can’t believe what these people are doing, but they have rationalized their actions to themselves and they are trying to convince you. The reason to talk to the camera is to say that these people might not understand what’s going on, but certainly you do.”
It’s a simple and unusual device, but by addressing the audience directly, the film becomes more than a simple collaboration between the two filmmakers. Mitchell and Zeidler bring the audience in on the joke and allow us to be part of the collaboration as well.