Signe Baumane’s new animated feature, My Love Affair with Marriage, which fuses animation with music, theater, science, photography, three-dimensional sets and traditional hand-drawn animation to tell the story of a spirited young woman’s quest for perfect Love and lasting Marriage, opens October 6 in New York City. She is a Latvian-born, Brooklyn-based independent filmmaker, artist, writer, and animator. She has made 17 award-winning animated shorts and is best known for her first animated feature, Rocks in my Pockets, which covers a 100-year history of depression and suicide of women in her family, including herself. It premiered at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 2014 where it won a FIPRESCI prize, went on to over 130 international festivals and opened theatrically in the U.S. through Zeitgeist Films. Signe is a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow in Film for New York Foundation for the Arts. She has a degree in Philosophy from Moscow State University.
In a breakup, nothing hurts more than the realization that you could have saved the relationship with just a couple of words, like a key could have fit into the lock that was there all along, and unlocked the way out of your misery and into the Happily Ever After.
In my second marriage, that lock was Some Like It Hot, a film directed by Billy Wilder. We just missed a couple of words to unlock it.
I first saw Some Like It Hot in the late 1980s in Riga’s Cinema Club (Kino Klubs). The title was translated into Latvian as Džezā tikai meitenes (literally Only Girls in Jazz). This black-and-white film from 1959 astonished me. First of all, because the miserable, destitute reality of the two opportunistic musicians who got into trouble with the Mafia mirrored my own reality. I related to those two men, through their will to do anything to survive.
But when the story moved into another world – one brimming with glamor and wealth, characters dressed in glittering costumes, flashing their status (real or fake) and obsessing over diamonds – that reality was also emerging in my world. In the collapsing Soviet Union, the new rich were appearing with their gaudy costumes and obsessions with status and diamonds.
And then there was the outrageous line commenting on what a woman’s basic needs might be: “Why would you want to marry a guy?”
I thought this was a stereotype making fun of that stereotype by turning it upside down, because look who was speaking!
I was amazed to see what happens when two men, to save their lives, dress as women and live the reality the way it was set up for women – wearing ankle-twisting high heels, enduring cat calls and harassment, realizing that the only opportunity to rise up in the world is by marrying a millionaire.
The film’s last line – “Nobody’s perfect” – sealed the deal for me. Not only because it was formulating a thought that men may not be the better sex of humanity after all, but also it hinted at the tolerance of the character that said the line, a tolerance I was not familiar with before. The thought that we can fall in love with a person, and not their gender, was new to me. Some Like It Hot became my favorite film of all time.
Soon after the Soviet Union collapsed and Latvia restored its independence, I met a Swedish animator, Lasse Persson, on my first trip to Western Europe. We fell passionately in love. It was a strong mutual attraction, but we had a lot of obstacles to overcome to be together: borders, customs, visas, bureaucrats, travel expenses. Unlike many other people who can patiently wait for problems to sort themselves out or let their feelings die, we plunged into the hardcore solution for these problems – after knowing each other for only six weeks, we got married in Sweden.
At a small gathering after the wedding, one of Lasse’s friends, also a filmmaker, asked me, “What is your favorite film?”
It seems like an idle question, but in fact it’s a good question to assess a person in front of you.
Immediately, with passion, I replied, “Some Like It Hot!”
I saw Lasse look at me, startled, then look at me again, like he had never looked at me before. He quickly moved away to join a conversation with another group of friends.
I thought he was surprised to learn that I had seen the film. He had probably thought, “In the Soviet Union, they didn’t show American films!” But he didn’t know about Riga’s Cinema Club, that under the guidance of a Soviet-approved film critic could show their members “forbidden fruit.”
The morning after the wedding, we flew to Canada where Lasse was hired as the lead animator for a Derek Lamb project. In Toronto, our passionate, once-in-a-lifetime relationship turned miserable. I felt that Lasse – once so close to me, his body, spirit and soul an essential part of my spirit and soul – was becoming more and more distant. I started to think he was keeping a horrible secret from me. One way to find out was to ask him directly, “Do you have a secret?” So I did.
“No secrets,” he said. “You see all there is to see.”
But Lasse didn’t know that my favorite series of books growing up was Sherlock Holmes. Like a private sleuth, I started to look for signs of what his secret might be. Frustratingly, I could not unlock it.
At another party, another filmmaker asked me again what my favorite film was. I proudly shouted: “Some Like It Hot!”
And I saw Lasse startle again.
Back at home, Lasse casually asked, “Why do you like Some Like It Hot?”
“I just find it so amazing that two men dress as women and one of them identifies with being a woman so much that he forgets he is a man. He has to be reminded!”
Lasse gently touched my arm, leaned forward and opened his mouth as if to whisper something. But a shadow of a thought spooked him, and he moved away.
“Don’t you like the film?” I asked.
“I like it OK.”
I could take the misery only for so long. One day, I packed my bags and went back to Latvia. A few months later, Lasse called. “Before you divorce me, please hear me out!”
“I’ll hear anything you want to say.”
“Can we have a drink?”
So he came from Toronto to have a drink with me in Riga. In the restaurant of Hotel Latvia, we had a bottle of wine or two. Lasse emptied his last glass, took a breath and said, “Do you want to know my deepest secret?”
I emptied my glass and said, “I think I am ready for it.”
“I like to dress as a woman.”
I laughed. In my imagination, his secret had become immensely deep, dark and unspeakable. The desire to dress as a woman seemed so innocent in comparison. It was a secret that should not have been a secret. It made me sad.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was afraid to lose you. And no one else outside my club knows.”
“I wish you told me when we arrived in Toronto! Now it is too late.”
“I almost did. Remember the times you said you liked Some Like It Hot? I thought if you liked that film, you might accept me the way I am.”
And there it was: the key that went into the lock, just a few months too late.
I became really good friends with Lasse/Lisa. I probably love and relate to Lisa more than Lasse. I wish I had met Lisa the day I met Lasse.
Our relationship inspired me to make a film, My Love Affair with Marriage (which opens in the U.S. on October 6).
I now rewatch Some Like It Hot once a year, to make sure I still find it hot. And I do. Year after year. As a filmmaker, I wonder why this film made in 1959 is still so evergreen to me and other people. I think it’s probably because at its center, hidden by all the action, adventure and romance, quietly sits the most basic and necessary human emotion: empathy.
And yes, you can learn a lot about people by asking what their favorite film is.