Writer, animator, and director Signe Baumane takes us on an animated journey with Zelma who struggles against her upbringing and DNA to be the woman she wants to be and not the woman others want her to be.
All I wanted to do when I was kid was draw. My Ma would send me to school with a cheap stack of paper and a huge bag of crayons and markers so I wouldn’t draw on quizzes and tests. Later, I wanted to animate Disney movies. When I discovered Ralph Bakshi and Bill Plympton my head exploded. I wanted to be Bakshi, I wanted to be Plympton. I decided I would animate and voice my own features. Naturally, I felt I was born to do this. I had the drive and the passion. Then cold, hard reality shattered all of my childhood dreams- I had no talent. So when I see art and animation that moves me I have to speak about it. My Love Affair With Marriage is such a movie.
MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH MARRIAGE
My Love Affair With Marriage is broken into three parts about a young woman named Zelma. These parts chart Zelma’s progression, or regression if you like, from a self-perceived feral cat that has to fight for herself against the dogs of the world into a compliant woman the world will accept back into to a self-confident woman that Zelma can be happy with. Her journey is long and it’s not easy.
Today, Zelma would be called a “tomboy.” Some would call her “precocious,” “strong-willed,” or even “a free thinker.” None of these words would be used as a compliments. People may think they use these words as compliments, but there’s always a tinge of sarcasm attached with those words that betray their truer meaning. But young Zelma is a free thinker who does things on her own. When her sister calls Zelma to dinner she answers, “I’ll come right away, but later,” which is greeted with a huff and a puff. Her fellow villagers give her weird looks at her carefree ways. She is not like the others. But she is content feeding and hanging out with the cats of the village.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
The villagers and even her own family don’t agree with the way that she wants to live her life. She is being made into, her own words (Narrated and voiced by Dagmara Dominczyk, Succession) “the other.” Things don’t improve very much when Zelma and her family move to Latvia and to a new school. When she defends herself from a bully the class chant, “ She is not a girl, she fights.” A classmate “educates” her on how a real girl acts. Don’t carry your own books, she’s told, because girls are not strong and don’t stand out. It’s here Zelma begins to question the notion of what it means to be a girl and thinking that she may not be doing right. It’s also when Zelma, for the first time, feels pressured into making a choice- stay a non-conformist or conform to society’s made up rules.
Over the course of the movie Zelma is accompanied by three harpies, half bird and half woman creatures, who exist in her head. Harpies in Greek mythology were instruments of Zeus’s punishment, but in My Love Affair With Marriage they serve to reinforce what people tell Zelma about life, womanhood, her looks, and what she’s doing wrong. The harpies are Zelma’s inner voice.
The Blood Was A Sign of War
The Monthly Cycle
Her mother provides little guidance when Zelma has her first period. Her mother’s sage advice now that Zelma has entered “womanhood” is to: Stay a virgin, marry well, hold the marriage together no matter what, love your children more than your husband, and learn how to cook. As bad as things sound, her mother lets Zelma know “The worst is ahead of you.” Conspicuously enough, we never see the mother in Zelma’s story again, but the damage has already been done.
The harpies singing in her head reinforce to Zelma what her mother has already told her, the only way to be happy and to be a true woman is through marriage. Marriage is her destiny, it’s the only way to be “complete.” Being complete includes obeying your husband no matter what he says or does. It also includes giving him many, many children. An already confused Zelma becomes even more confused.
THE THREE MEN IN HER LIFE
Jonas (Stephen Lang, Avatar) is the first man in her life. She meets Jonas at his art gallery where she is immediately captivated at the thought of someone as “old and composed” as Jonas would be interested in her let alone value her opinion. What’s actually occuring is Jonas is luring Zelma into his bed by preying on her weaknesses. She loses her virginity to an older man that took total avdvantage of her. She calls her first sexual experiences “ordinary,” and a “disappointment” with “some pain and unpleasantness.” Yet, this does not discourage her from the idea that the two of them will be married. Fully convinced of a future with Jonas she leaves his art gallery to sit lonely days by the phone for a call that will never come.
The second man in her life, and her first marriage, is Sergei (Cameron Monaghan, Shameless, Gotham). Sergei is a textbook example of narcissism and misogyny. He criticizes how a friend of Zelma’s died in childbirth. His complete discount of a person’s life reflects much of his attitude towards woman and anyone who’s not him. It should have been a red flag for Zelma to avoid this person. However, her conditioning takes over and the two are soon married. She has become complete.
Sergei controls Zelma. He separates her from her friends, tells her she can’t work, and isolates her in the small apartment they live in. Violence is second nature to Sergei. It starts with verbal abuse, calling her “stupid” and “perverted.” The verbal abuse becomes physical abuse. Jonas blames everything from his unemployment to his infidelity on Zelma. Like all abusers Sergei pleads for forgiveness every time he’s done something wrong. Like all abusers it doesn’t take very long before he is back abusing Zelma. Eventually, she leaves him knowing that there is no love between them. “Love is just a word for you” she says before leaving Sergei for good.
The second man in her life, and her second marriage, is Bo (Matthew Modine, Full Metal Jacket). Zelma meets Bo at an art opening in Denmark where they hit it off. Zelma doesn’t perceive Bo as a threat and love is out of the question. She feels comfortable making out with him on a couch. Even comfortable enough to revert back to her old self and run off two men who were watching them make out.
Bo’s shocked at what she’s done, even a little impressed. It’s this moment Zelma perceives Bo needs protecting. The love that could never happens happens. Bo asks her to marry her and she says yes. Zelma almost falls back into the same pattern she was in with Sergei. However, a vital change, a retaliation has occurred within Zelma’s brain. She become the Sergei in the relationship.
Zelma criticizes his hair, the way he sits, how he reads a book, and even how he holds a fork, and she criticizes his job. Bo tries to stand his ground sometimes but Zelma beats him back down. Eventually, they both want a divorce. Zelma returns to her home.
There was always something different with Bo that Zelma never picked up on. Bo is a transvestite. He only discloses this to Zelma when appears for a brief visit. Their marriage was the catalyst for him to be comfortable with who he is. At the same time, Zelma become comfortable with herself, to carry on with Plan D. Their marriage wasn’t a total failure because enlightenment was the result.
IT’S ALL BIOLOGY
If My Love Affair With Marriage were a Greek Tragedy, Biology would be the Chorus. It’s through Biology, expertly voiced and very scientifically explained by Michele Pawk, that we learn what is going on inside Zelma’s brain and the changes her body undergoes. We also learn about the inner workings and childhoods of both Sergei and Bo.
Biology informs us it wasn’t Bo’s choice to be a transvestite. It is true that being gay, transvestite, or LGBQTIA+ is not a choice one simply makes. Science is learning more and more every day but the consensus is that a person is born the way they are born. This is not up for argument. But if Bo didn’t have a choice than Sergei had no choice growing up to be an abuser and Zelma had no choice being born a girl who’s being pushed and pulled mentally in two different directions.
IT’S ALL IN THE DNA
Any choices the three of them had were taken away from them before they were born, it’s in their DNA. Zelma is biologically linked to her mother. She shares more than eye color with her mother. She shares her mother’s war and post-war traumas which will affect her as a child and a young woman. When Sergei was a child he had no idea if his mother loved him or hated him. This feeling of wanting to be loved by his mother carried over into adulthood where it manifests itself in Sergei as a less demented Norman Bates.
We can’t blame Sergei for being a scumbag or Bo for being transvestite. Nor can we blame or fault anything that Zelma has done or thought. Then what is, you may ask, the point of My Love Affair of Marriage? The point is to show how a woman in Eastern Europe, or anywhere for that matter, has to fight against herself and others around her to become the woman who she is happy to be. Some may say that she wants to be comfortable in her own skin which is another way to look at where Zelma lands at the end of the movie.
Zelma walks away at the end of the movie quite content asking herself what plan D was going to be? However, the film makes quite clear that any other options are almost impossible. If her history has shown us anything and as Biology has taught us, Zelma will keep making the same bad choices and marry one man after another looking for some sense of fulfillment that won’t happen. It’s in her DNA.
THERE IS NO FREE WILL, NO DECISIONS ARE YOUR OWN.
These are things My Love Affair With Marriage can’t square away. We’re rooting for Zelma every step of the way. We get mad at Sergei for the way he treats Zelma. And we even feel sympathy for Bo. It’s a testament to the story and to the amazing animation. At the end of the movie we’re left a little disappointed. Is love just a chemical reaction? Do I really feel the way I feel or is it a sliver of DNA left over from a long dead relative causing me to think the way I think? Are my actions really my actions or are the synapses and neurons wired in my head to react to a situation the way that I react?
Free will is never an option in My Love Affair With Marriage. What’s the point in having free will if we are trapped in a vicious cycle of brain pathways firing different chemicals into our heads and body? Do we simply have to accept the situation we find ourselves in? Biology would say “yes.” This is perhaps the saddest thing in My Love Affair With Marriage.