Editor’s Notes: Portrait of a Serial Monogamist opens February 12th in Toronto at Carlton Cinema.
Portrait of a Serial Monogamist is trying too hard in all the wrong ways. The film pushes hard on its specific milieu, the Parkdale, Toronto lesbian community, and on cultural signifiers (its main character is Jewish, but “Jew-ish” because the film is not putting much effort into its jokes), but does not spend the time necessary to make any of it feel particularly lived in. The characters, the point of view, the plot, and even the city of Toronto all begin to bleed into the middle of the road. It’s a light, slight movie, satisfied to be just satisfying enough, never reaching for much more than a light diversion.
It’s a light, slight movie, satisfied to be just satisfying enough, never reaching for much more than a light diversion.
When Elsie (Diane Flacks) breaks up with her long-term girlfriend Robyn (Carolyn Taylor), she begins to question her status as someone who cuts and runs when things turn sour. Along the way, she makes a bet to stay single with one friend (Caroline Gillis), takes dating advice from another (Sabrina Jalees), courts a barista/blogger (Vanessa Dunn), and does indie movie things like attend a cat funeral. The film falters from the first at specificity, bringing us into this fairly easy to understand subculture by having Elsie monologue at the camera (this has worked, as far as I am concerned, all of once, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). From there, it struggles to decide what it wants to be, and what it wants to be about.
There’s not a lot to dislike in Portrait of a Serial Monogamist, there’s just also not much to recommend.
Sometimes, it’s a movie about dating culture, offering limp bon mots about pick up tricks or online dating culture. At others, it’s a rom com about Elsie’s burgeoning non-relationship with Lolli. There are subplots about Elise’s job as a TV journalist and her mother’s efforts to throw a Shabbat dinner that seem largely thrown in to pad out an already light runtime. But the most problematic element lies dangerously close to the center of the film; it’s arguable throughline is the relationship between Elsie and Robyn, which we are supposed to see immediately as a great thing Elsie is throwing away. This is problematic in a few respects. First, Robyn never coheres as a character, appearing in fleeting flashbacks and as a scorned ex, to the point where it isn’t clear whether Elsie had reason to end things, or whether she is missing anything by letting Robyn go. Next, the film loses the Elsie-Robyn dynamic amidst a sea of other storylines, all of which drop off at various points. Elsie’s bet threatens to give the movie some structure, but is forgotten for most of the runtime, her relationship with Lolli is a nonstarter until it starts and then abruptly takes some turns that make little sense, there’s work drama, art drama, and (it bears repeating) cat funeral drama. All of this could amount to something, but each element is vanishingly thin, until the movie comes to a conclusion that feels forced rather than earned.
To her credit, Diane Flacks is consistently engaging, existing as an anchor amidst the swirling sea of subplots and side characters, holding the center of a film that desperately needs one. In fact, most of the performances are good, with Taylor and Dunn doing their best with thin characters, and Gillis turning in a disarmingly subtle performance. There’s not a lot to dislike in Portrait of a Serial Monogamist, there’s just also not much to recommend. The jokes feel like the easiest versions of themselves, the characters like they are stand-in archetypes waiting for real versions of their roles to arrive. The real issue, though, is that the film is one about an identity crisis that is itself having one. The movie is less a blend of genres than several light indie dramedies thrown in a blender. The result goes down easy enough, but the taste is hardly memorable, and you’ll be hungry again before you know it.
The film is one about an identity crisis that is itself having one. The movie is less a blend of genres than several light indie dramedies thrown in a blender. The result goes down easy enough, but the taste is hardly memorable, and you’ll be hungry again before you know it.