In discussing what constitutes homophobia, queer theorist Eve Sedgwick posits that “the number of persons or institutions by whom the existence of gay people is treated as a precious desideratum, a needed condition of life, is small.” Every single institution — the law, education, religion, and mass culture — is predicated on the avowed investment for a non-gay outcome. It’s unsurprising, then, that most gay media is concerned with tackling the intersection of queerness and religious faith, especially when the latter is almost always used as a justification for lobbying bills that annihilate queer existence. In lesbian films like Maggie Betts’ Novitiate, Joachim Trier’s Thelma, and Sebastián Leilo’s Disobedience, the heteropatriarchal structure of religion necessitates the erasure of lesbian desire. These films, however, are also careful not to demean the importance of faith to their lesbian protagonists; faith, after all, is as much a source of love and community as it is a potential source of isolation and pain.
Set in the early 1990s in Quebec, Sarah Watts and Mark Slutsky’s You Can Live Forever joins the canon of lesbian films that explore how religion can stifle queer existence. Inspired by Watts’ own experiences as a lesbian who grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness community in Canada, You Can Live Forever offers an achingly authentic look at a love affair condemned by the puritanical environment that seeks to curtail it. But the brilliance of the film is derived from its staunch belief that the experience of lesbian love — even when headed toward tragedy — has the ability to soften even the strictest of beliefs and believers.
You Can Live Forever opens with 17-year-old Jaime (Anwen O’Driscoll) being sent to live with her Aunt Beth (Liane Balaban) and Beth’s husband Jean-François (Antoine Yared) after her father’s death and her mother’s consequent grief-induced breakdown. Both Beth and Jean-François are devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, and expect Jaime — who is a non-believer, like her parents who long ago left the community — to attend church meetings and respect their beliefs whilst living with them. Beyond these requirements, however, neither Beth nor Jean-François are too imposing about their faith; Jaime is mostly free to do what she wants in her spare time. The very act of taking Jaime in — when others in their community are encouraged to treat those who left as people who have died — is indicative of the couple’s love for Jaime, as well as their desire to keep in contact with her, even when they know that she will never join their faith. It’s this all-encompassing yet conflicted love that makes Watts and Slutsky’s film far more nuanced than your average tale of gay forbidden love.
At her first church service, Jaime catches the eye of Marike (June Laporte), and the two become fast friends. Unlike Jaime, Marike is a devout Witness, and sincerely believes that by following “the truth” of Jehovah, she will live forever in paradise. The price of her faith is loneliness; she eats lunch alone in school, doesn’t hang out with anyone, and endures the ire of the general public toward her religion. But Marike doesn’t seem to mind that Jaime is a non-believer; her insistence that Jaime sleep over at her house and join her in field service is less about converting Jaime than it is about spending time with her. The blossoming affection between the two girls is liberating and joyous. Marike makes concessions to her faith to make Jaime happy, like buying her a birthday gift after Jaime was reprimanded by the community for celebrating it, and it’s through these scenes that the audience is able to catch a glimpse of who Marike really is — a courageous person who risks ex-communication to be true to her desires. In return, Jaime also goes out of her way to attend church meetings and bible studies to see Marike. In You Can Live Forever, the inherent defiance of lesbian desire shines in these small moments, particularly in the context of the religion’s grand, apocalyptic promises of eternity.
O’Driscoll and Laporte deliver exceptional performances as two teenagers caught between their desire for each other and the violence — emotional and otherwise — of an orthodox faith that is invested in breaking them up. Despite being a non-believer, Jaime dreams of spending eternity in paradise with Marike; for her, paradise is a place where the two can co-exist together, despite their differing beliefs. These fantastical images of an alternate paradise expand Jaime’s character beyond a teenager’s one-dimensional rebellion against the Jehovah’s Witness faith; her affection for Marike, a girl whom she knows won’t ever abandon her religion, is indicative of a nobler desire for a world where faith and love are one and the same.
When the community finds out about the affair, Marike chooses to get engaged to a fellow Jehovah’s Witness; she insists to Jaime that she wasn’t forced, but her heartbreak is palpable. It’s a devastating portrait of a girl who is bereft at the thought of losing the only family she’s ever known — not even her love for Jaime can rectify years of religious indoctrination. After all, Marike’s mother left the community when she was only seven, and Marike has been told repeatedly to believe that her mother is dead. You Can Live Forever complicates expectations for a narrative like this by proving empathetic to the difficulty of simply cutting ties and unraveling the layers that belie queer compromise.
The film’s striking compassion bears a resemblance to Leilo’s Disobedience, which ends with Rachel McAdams’ character agreeing to stay with her husband for the sake of their unborn child. But while this ending was routinely panned for falling into all too familiar tropes of homosexual despair, Disobedience also took care to make sure that viewers saw her telling him, in no uncertain terms, that she had wanted the affair to happen. Despite being a devout Jehovah’s Witness, Marike, too, was the first to ask Jaime out. When it becomes apparent that their relationship won’t work, Marike tells Jaime: “I can believe enough for both of us.” It’s a bittersweet line that breaks the chasm between queer love and religious faith wide open; the latter, for Marike, is the selfless option. Compromise may be part and parcel for queer people, but queer desire — even when it manifests in an orthodox community — is always a moving force which creates hope for a better world in the here and now. As a film that is delicately and specifically attuned to the sacrifices lesbians make, You Can Live Forever is a wonderfully deserved and moving addition to the lesbian canon.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 18.