It’s puking and it’s leaking! Fiona Mozley captures the world of Sapphic cinema.
Last year, my partner and I and some of our friends set up a film club to survey the state of contemporary lesbian cinema. We all happened to be queer women and because queer people are only interested in queer things, we called the club The Female Gays. It felt funny at the time.
As our Sapphic Season progressed, we spotted some recurring motifs. I noticed the vomit first. In Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, 2019) it’s hard to miss. Clever girls, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) realise they’ve got to the end of high school having fulfilled their academic promise but without having had any fun. To correct this, they embark on a short campaign of high-intensity partying and substance abuse. In a bathroom at one of these parties, Amy has a sexual encounter with Hope (Diana Silvers); who is, in the vernacular of American teen dramas, a ‘popular girl’. For a moment, we glimpse a world where queer romance is so commonplace – mundane, even – that it can constitute a casual side-plot in a starry teen drama. Alas, the sex concludes abruptly when Amy vomits dramatically all over her would-be lover.
Scenes of expurgation are common enough in young adult rom-coms, so at first I didn’t think much of it. But Olivia Colman also chunders elaborately – and repeatedly – in The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018). And it’s there too in Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015), a film I watch at least twice a year. After a protracted flirtation and road trip across the mid-west of America, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) consummate their relationship in a motel room in a town called Waterloo. The next morning, the women discover they’ve been secretly taped by a private investigator working for Carol’s husband, Harge, and Carol hastily returns to New Jersey. Her dutiful friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) arrives to drive Therese home but the journey is interrupted when Therese is so distraught they must pull over at the side of the road. She rushes to a nearby patch of grass and throws up.
Set in 1950s New Zealand, Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994) tells the true-ish story of schoolgirls, Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) and Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), whose intense relationship and girlish hysteria reaches a horrifying crescendo. Juliet has been unwell for much of her childhood and the experience has left her bitter and twisted. Tuberculosis strikes and she is confined to hospital, leading to the subsequent intensification of her relationship with Pauline. The parents suspect they might be perverts and, when Pauline also becomes ill, a doctor duly concludes that the vomiting and weight loss results from a passing mental disorder: ‘homosexuality’.
We don’t see the sick in Ammonite, Francis Lee’s 2020 film about the nineteenth-century palaeontologist, Mary Anning, but we do see a woman (Saoirse Ronan) becoming dangerously ill soon after sex with another woman (Kate Winslet). Moreover, other bodily fluids abound. Out on the moody beach searching for squiggly rocks, Winslet has an ostentatious wee before offering her lover a pasty.
The World To Come (Mona Fastvold, 2020) is a brooding homestead romance set in the same era and geographical location as Little Women but without the Christmas cheer. The women’s husbands range from boring to abusive, so they find steamy solace in each other’s beds, causing one of them to become unwell. In addition to illness, The World To Come contains another motif I detected frequently (at least, more than once) throughout our film season. In the opening scene, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) goes out to the chicken coop and discovers a single, just-laid, perfectly white hen’s egg atop the straw.
Innocence! Fertility! Fragility! Egg imagery is the gift that keeps on giving and there were many nestled within our selected genre: raw eggs, hard-boiled eggs, poached eggs, eggs mayonnaise. In Heavenly Creatures, it’s a tray of fetid egg sandwiches, left to rot. In Carol, it’s the SNL-parodied lunch order of poached eggs and creamed spinach with a dry martini on the side, a truly disgusting combination. The French film Summertime (La Belle Saison, Catherine Corsini, 2015) sees Cécile de France order several hard-boiled eggs at a bar, proceeding to peel and eat them in front of her slightly bemused date. For a viewer in-the-know, it is clear that this insatiable appetite will also hard-boil and devour any possibility either woman has of a fertile future. I am reminded too of Bette Porter’s (Jennifer Beals) first lines in season one, episode one of the 2000s lesbian drama, The L Word: ‘You’re ovulating!’ and the way her partner, Tina, scrambles eggs despondently following a miscarriage. In Summerland (Jessica Swale, 2020) – a lesbian Goodnight Mister Tom – a boy is evacuated to coastal Kent and housed with a grouchy spinster, Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton). She entirely eschews the role of maternal proxy that has been foisted upon her by the highly irritating circumstances of war and demonstrates this by thrusting a pan and some eggs towards the child and instructing him to cook his own bloody breakfast.
What, if anything, does this all mean? Obviously, we could parse the eggs as symbols of femininity. We could make connections between vomiting and long-standing misogynistic tropes about leaky women. After all, motifs endure in the collective subconscious long after they’ve been expunged (purged, spewed, heaved) from the public conversation. But I think there’s something more going on. Made in an age of greater visibility, each of these films tries to subvert the narratives of previous decades: by offering their characters the elusive ‘happy ending’; or by drumming home the (not as profound as Hollywood thinks) point that lesbians can be hot too; or by focusing on love, friendship and acceptance rather than violent backlash. All these films attempt, and to varying degrees succeed, in inscribing new, fuller versions of lesbian romance in the popular imagination. And yet, these images recur. Vomit. Eggs.
In his 2004 book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman describes the interjection of children and childhood into gay cinema in the late 20th century. In films like Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993), children pop up, usually near the end, to remind the viewer of the reproductive future its subjects have refused. Queer stories have always had to be balanced by the sight of straight life continuing somewhere.
So perhaps, absurd as it seems, there might be something more radical going on with all those eggs. Even in a fairly ropey film like Summertime (not to be confused with Summerland, although that’s also fairly ropey), the sight of Cécile de France mischievously devouring egg after egg cuts right against the reproductive imperative Edelman spots in earlier films. Perhaps all these cycles of consumption and expurgation reflect a joyful kind of greediness: the pleasures of the present moment, with the future nowhere in sight.
The author and essayist Carmen Maria Machado has argued that it is impossible to expunge queer villainy from the history of queer culture and have much of it left, and further to the point, she asks, when so many of the unsettling tropes are so goddamn fun, why would we wish to? Both she and Edelman, in their own ways, have argued for the centrality of the bad stuff, of the importance of wrapping it all up together – the queer villains; the images of sterility – and enjoying it all.
Edelman writes of jouissance, a physical or intellectual pleasure, delight or ecstasy, as a quintessentially queer response to this. We often hear of the imperative for ‘queer joy’; of the need to conjure and reveal that which is happy in the queer experience. I have no desire to sneer at this admirable aim, but for those of us who struggle a bit with sincerity – or, more accurately in my case, swerve wildly between embracing sincerity as an absolute necessity for true human connection and finding it all a bit cringe – jouissance is a better fit. For me, it connotes a degree of whimsy. A raised eyebrow. A smirk. Or noticing a slightly dodgy set of tropes in a group of films that span from enjoyable to transcendent; from well-meaning to culturally vital, and continuing to envelop oneself in them, to return to them, to hold them dear, while also letting out a quiet snort of laughter.
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