Out, In, and Onscreen

The 19th Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival

Writer/director Maria Maggenti
Writer/director Maria Maggenti

Nobody's Perfect: Maria Maggenti on 'Puccini for Beginners'

Screwball comedy comes naturally to filmmaker Maria Maggenti. It was the dominant tone of her first feature film, The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, a movie about two high school girls and the community uproar that occurs once they fall in love. Then came her script for The Love Letter, a mistaken-identity comedy that was made into a film starring Kate Capshaw, Blythe Danner, Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Everett Scott, and Tom Selleck. Now, seven years later, comes Puccini for Beginners.

Puccini for Beginners is another screwball mash-up that uses gender identity and sexual politics as the bedrock of its comedy. The movie's central character, Allegra Castiglione, is a lesbian and a smart, successful author living in New York. She has just broken up with her current girlfriend because she is unwilling to commit to one woman and utter the words "I love you." While drowning her romantic sorrows she meets Philip, a Columbia University professor, a man for whom she, surprisingly, feels sudden sparks. She indulges her curiosity and embarks on a steady fling with the prof. Meanwhile, she also meets Grace, a recently un-engaged straight woman, with whom she also starts a separate but simultaneous affair. It turns out, of course, that Grace and Philip once had plans to wed but called it off before going their separate ways. Then, as happens in screwball comedies, everything combusts during one eventful gathering of all the characters.

Justin Kirk and Gretchen Mol were committed to playing Philip and Grace, but it took Maggenti a long time to find her Allegra. It wasn't until a week before shooting began that she found Elizabeth Reaser. "Allegra was a very hard part to cast," recalls the filmmaker during a phone interview, "because she had to be somebody who could pull off being sexy in an atypical way, and brainy without being your classic Hollywood brainy (which is dark hair and glasses). She had to be sexually vibrant, and interesting, and funny. And that's hard to do. The problem is that actresses are rarely demanded to be intellectuals. So many don't even know what that means because they work always in the body."

Maggenti's films are delightful in their lack of political dogma. They are rich with feminist ideas and principles, but generous in their allowances for the vagaries of human behavior. "The thing is that people are people: They're weird," observes Maggenti. "They're weird and they're idiosyncratic and they contradict themselves." It's as if all Maggenti's characters are fashioned in tribute to her favorite director Billy Wilder, the master of screwball comedies whose famous retort, "Nobody's perfect," from Some Like It Hot, is the ultimate comment on the topsy-turvy world of screwball dynamics. Puccini for Beginners is filled with a hipster chorus of New York lesbians and longtime feminists, who criticize Allegra for her defection to "the other side" and indiscriminate choices. "There are very few things I hold so dear that I can't start laughing and picking them apart," the filmmaker adds. "I was really interested in gender – what makes a male-female relationship, what makes a heterosexual relationship. I was interested in those things from almost a sociological/political view."

Puccini for Beginners premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival, and after playing a few festivals, the film is set for theatrical release in January 2007. Let's hope it doesn't take another seven years for Maggenti to make her next feature.

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