‘After 40, you have to choose between your ass or your face,” one offscreen spin-class participant remarks to her fellow affluent fitness enthusiasts within the first minute of writer-director Stacie Passon’s poorly conceived Concussion. The remark is a paraphrase of a quote attributed to Catherine Deneuve, and the first of two times the actress is evoked. One of the French icon’s most enduring characters, Séverine, the bored bourgeois housewife who takes on the 2-to-5 shift at a Paris bordello in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), would seem to be a partial inspiration for Concussion‘s Abby (Robin Weigert), a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom chafing against domestic drudgery. But like its opening adage, so much in Passon’s debut feature, as in other inferior descendants of Buñuel’s great film, has been repeated over the decades to the point of banality: sexless marriage, midlife regrets, and deadening suburbs.
That Abby is wedded to a woman, divorce lawyer Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence), may make her a new kind of protagonist in an old scenario, though her lesbianism does little to vivify these hoary setups. Abby and Kate and their two young children (played by Passon’s and her partner’s own) live in the leafy town of Montclair, New Jersey (where Passon and her family reside). Our jarring introduction to this foursome stands out as Concussion‘s best scene: Abby, blood streaming down the left side of her face, scaldingly reproaches her son, whose errant baseball toss was the cause of her gory gash. Weeping in the passenger seat, she says to Kate, or perhaps to anyone who will listen, “It just goes and goes. . . . I don’t want this, I don’t want this . . .”
The promise of this raw, potent incident, however, quickly devolves into a series of unconvincing scenes in service to an outlandish premise. After her head injury, Abby declares she’s “going back to work,” labor that entails buying and renovating a walk-up loft in Manhattan—a 30-minute drive and a lifetime away from her Garden State social set, who brag of long-ago wild nights spent at Limelight and Don Hill’s—with the help of twentyish contractor Justin (Johnathan Tchaikovsky). He will soon be assisting Abby in another enterprise: finding clients for her $800-per-session sapphic sex work, all of which transpires in her West Side pied-à-terre, tastefully adorned in pseudo-boho chic. (Every shot of the apartment seems to include a framed Guerilla Girls manifesto or a poster for a Louise Bourgeois exhibition.)
Abby’s bold business plan, launched after she’s had two experiences as a john, is a reaction to the frost and frustrations she encounters in her own marital bed: Conjugal relations reach a nadir after Kate falls asleep in the middle of administering digital stimulation. Yet this thwarted diddle is one of the few instances when Kate, who often appears only fleetingly as a harried figure in a business suit, registers as an actual, flawed human being instead of a hazy sketch. That vagueness—of Kate, of her partnership with Abby—burdens Concussion, rendering most of it dully schematic and half-thought-out. Abby’s drastic measure to give and receive pleasure is less implausible, in fact, than that she goes by “Mrs.” and that she and Kate appear to have no gay friends—female or male—at all.
In place of precision, Passon, whose background is in commercial production, gives us plenty of visual clichés: unhappy Abby sitting on a duvet, a mountain of unfolded laundry beside her; running faster and faster on a basement treadmill until she pukes, the arduous exertion to nowhere also echoed in the spin classes she takes with the other bored Essex County moms. One of those fit matrons, Sam (Maggie Siff), will become a repeat customer of Abby’s, and likes it a bit rough in bed (“Pull my hair. Harder“). Most of what happens, though, during Abby’s business hours is all perfectly pleasant and vanilla, with no actor, particularly Weigert, conveying any sense of carnal abandon—the need for which supposedly led Abby to her exorbitantly priced freelance gig in the first place. (Though it’s even more fatuous than Passon’s film, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, which will be released in three weeks, at least tries, boldly if often clumsily, to capture the all-consuming lust between its female leads.)
“I hardly recognize myself some days,” Sam says to Abby at one point. The problem with Concussion is exactly the opposite: Its characters are all too easily determined but never specific—or memorable.