The Ladies and the Tramp

Portrait of a Serial Monogamist
(Canada, 84 min.)
Written and directed by John Mitchell and Christina Zeidler
Starring: Diane Flacks, Carolyn Taylor, Vanessa Dunn, Gavin Crawford, Caroline Gillis, Karen Robinson
Diane Flacks in Portrait of a Serial Monogamist

We’ve all seen that guy, right? The one who won’t commit? The dude who goes through girls as if they’re cold beers on a Saturday night? Drink ’em, love ’em, dump ’em, and move on the next one. But what if this guy, the one we’ve all been taught to distrust in romantic comedies, is a girl? Is going through glasses of chardonnay any different from ploughing through beers?

Portrait of a Serial Monogamist shows that complicated and selfish ways in love are not exclusive to gender. This queer rom-com from John Mitchell and Christina Zeidler, both making their feature debuts as writers/directors, gives audiences a complex and challenging woman in search of love. That character is Elsie (Diane Flacks), a Toronto thirtysomething who loves women and loves being in love with them. You’ll love her in spite of, or maybe because of, her flaws. It’s nice when characters in romantic comedies seem real.

Like a hound dog with a monster sniffer, though, Elsie’s nose leads her in new directions. She doesn’t stay with one scent for long. Elsie’s latest case of long-term love-’em-and-leave-’em syndrome hits hard when she ditches her girlfriend Robin (Carolyn Taylor) with little more than a word. It’s an unkind and unsympathetic break-up—cruel even—as Elsie dumps Robin and lacks the lady balls to explain what went wrong.

The short version of Portrait of a Serial Monogamist is that even lesbians can fear commitment. As Elsie’s friends (all lesbians in a notably queer cast) observe, she excels at the short game of relationships: she likes the courtship stage; she enjoys the comfort zone; but she can’t maintain them. Elsie falls into another trap of serial monogamy as she nearly claims hot DJ/blogger Lolli (Vanessa Dunn) with her cold kiss of attention-deficit affection.

Mitchell and Zeidler let Elsie and Lolli explore one another in various boroughs throughout Toronto. Portrait of a Serial Monogamist is a love letter to The 6—if not pornographically so—with its emphasis on distinct flavours and minor details that make people fall in love with the city. Witness the refreshing green of Riverdale Park, enjoy the soothing whoosh of the streetcars, and feel the unwashed grime of Kensington Market as love blossoms while the girls tour the city. The film uses the allure of the cityscape to its benefit and often drinks up the ugliness of Toronto’s concrete and wire mish-mash as Lolli teaches Elsie the art of perspective. A blogger and photographer for an urban magazine, she shows Elsie how to reframe her worldview. Things often look beautiful if one looks at them through the right filter.

Portrait of a Serial Monogamist demands a similar approach, as the film misses just as often as it hits the mark. Some awkward speeches about dating, love, and commitment are a little too on the nose, while the frequent social media references and #lesbian jokes often fly like Twitter birds careening into skyscrapers. However, every city has its condos, but those towers of girders and glass often yield their own hidden gems as finer points flourish beneath the surface.

The film finds moments of true beauty in its sweet moments of reflection. Flacks and Dunn both develop strong and distinct characters, and as Portrait of a Serial Monogamist portrays a rich and diverse city, it lets the uniqueness of its personalities mirror the diverse pockets that make up the whole. (A wonderful soundtrack makes the trip extra sweet.) The film creates a refreshing community through its large and inclusive portrait of Toronto’s queer culture on both sides of the camera, as the story goes beyond the ghetto of the Village and thrusts Elsie into many corners of the city that offer positive space. As Elsie wanders the city like a tramp in search of a lady, one can’t help but enjoy the charm of Portrait of a Serial Monogamist and hope that she finds a partner—and maybe even herself.

Portrait of a Serial Monogamist opens in Toronto at the Carlton on Feb. 12.