Occupied & The Wilds – The best TV Shows With Lesbian Characters in 2020
Series that most surprised me with lesbian storylines this year are Norwegian Occupied (Lund, Nesbø, Skjoldbjærg, 2015– ) and The Wilds (Streicher, USA, 2020– ). Occupied is the most high-budget show Norway has ever produced – a near-future climate-crisis and geopolitical thriller. The world is gripped by a fuel crisis; war in the Middle East has halted oil production; the U.S. has become energy independent; and the fossil fuel–rich country of Norway has become the critical supplier of energy to the Europe. And yet, the ruling Green party, led by Norway’s charismatic prime minister, Jesper Berg (Henrik Mestad), has decided to halt all oil and gas production. Berg aims to avert a global climate catastrophe. By shutting down its oil pipelines Norway will supply energy to its European neighbours solely through cutting-edge thorium nuclear plants.
Russia, Norway’s neighbour, immediately stages an intervention, kidnapping Berg and forcing him to accept a »partnership« which will keep the oil and gas flowing. This amounts to a soft occupation of Norway by Russian forces. Prime Minister Berg rails against Russian presence and yet he has little choice but to submit to his powerful neighbour, and to the EU, which supports Russia’s move. First, the country becomes gripped by nationalists, with »Free Norway« activists turning on ordinary Russians living within their borders. Then there are escalating acts of domestic terrorism and violence. And by season three, in which climate warriors turn to guerrilla cyber tactics and »Free Norway« activists commit grotesque acid attacks on accused Russian collaborators, Berg has been transformed from an idealist into a power-mad ruler who wants to deport all Russians living in Norway and punish their collaborators.
However, the series is not only about the independent Norway as energy supplier with close ties to EU which has been always intricately connected to Russia but also about lack of diversity and inclusitivity of the Russian conservative politics through introduction of a power lesbian couple, Irina Sidorova (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), a Russian ambassador representing Russian government in Oslo in love with a pianist Lyubov Sorokina (Darya Ekamasova). However, Sidorova has been removed as ambassador to Norway by the Russian government, who claim it is due to her unpopularity with the Norwegian population. Sidorova disagrees with the official explanation and believes it is due to her lesbian relationship. On a whim, Lyubov tells the press she believes the Melkøya explosion was a Russian attack which angers Russian authority. Fearing for their safety, Sidorova fakes a Russian assassination attempt against herself to prevent deportation to Russia but Berg personally orders the deportation of Lyubov, hoping to force Sidorova to leave the country to be with her. A high Norwegian official and attorney, Hilde Djupvik (Selome Emnetu) helps overturn the mass deportation of Russians, allowing them to return to Norway, but Lyubov is detained at the airport in Moscow. Sidorova arranges for Lyubov to be smuggled out of Russia through Georgia; they cross the border without incident, but Lyubov undergoes an operation in Tbilisi where a small ampule of poison is implanted in her body. Sidorova is contacted by a Russian official, who tells her that the ampule is remote-controlled and that Lyubov will be killed if Sidorova is disloyal to Russia again.
Sidorova and Lyubov are reunited and co-found an LGBT rights organization named Love Without Limits to campaign against homophobia. However, Sidorova secretly uses it as a front to spread Russian influence in Europe. Lyubov has an ultrasound, revealing the poison ampule; Sidorova tells her what it is, but refuses to explain why it was inserted. She is contacted by Russian authorities, who tell her the ampule will only be removed if she ensures Berg loses the election and install a candidate with affinity to Russia. Russian authorities tell Sidorova she must locate Hilde before the ampule will be removed from Lyubov. Sidorova tracks and contacts Hilde. Later, Lyubov gives birth, causing the ampule to burst. The baby is healthy, but Lyubov is sent to intensive care and dies due to the poison.
I could complain how another lesbian character gets killed but in this case the plot symbolically tells the story of the oppression by the Russian government which doesn't allow LGBT couple to exist, less to get married, have families or to adopt.
In The Wilds we got to know the empowerment retreat called »The Dawn of Eve« which is like a private version of The Big Brother competition with eight teenage girls stranded on the deserted island after the alleged plane crash. Namely, the empowerment retreat is a private research programme lead by psychology scientist Gretchen (Rachel Griffiths) who study young troubled women as her test subjects measuring their perseverance, stamina, mental (dis)stability and social emotional intelligence in a chaotic environment where they have to ensure their own survival through group work and cooperation. Through being stranded on the island we learn more and more about the teens and how their personalities distinguish one from another.
Leah (Sarah Pidgeon), an art student got romantically involved with much older author of the book who breaks up with her when he finds out she was laying about being underage. Since then Leah couldn't move beyond the romance and kept living buried in the book with her former lover's footnotes and memories attached to it. Her parents concluded she had unhealthy obsession and couldn't make new social contacts. On the island Leah with her paranoid tendencies quickly becomes suspicious that things aren’t what they seem and that something isn't right.
Quiet, artistic and caring Nora (Helena Howard), psychology freshman developed a romantic friendship with her fellow freshman who got killed on his initiation night into Kappa brotherhood. Nora has a twin sister Rachel (Reign Edwards), a sport diving athlete who put all her time, work and energy to become a part of the national Olympic team but gets dismissed because she is too tall and thus can't perform the top results due to her height. Since she was dismissed she also lost the chance to get enrolled into prestigious Standford university and became depressed. On the island we get to know the twin dynamic relationship with Nora's unhealthy obsession to care for Rachel who most of the time opposes her.
Fatin (Sophia Ali) is a top violoncello artist whose life revolves around practises, school and being a normal teenager wanting to have trendy clothes, good make up, attending parties and having sex, On island she is the most impractical of all caring mostly about her looks (make up) and clothes although she is willing to share what she got with the others. Basketball player Toni (Erana James) is an orphan, angry, unpredictable and lesbian whose best friend is Martha (Jenna Claus). On an insland her anger issues are challenging for the group work. Peaceful, vegetarian and an animal lover Martha who had an injury in the youth mostly looks out for Tony and considers her as a best friend too, On an island she breaks her vegetarian rule and kills a goat to provide the group with the meat.
An evangelical pageant princess from Texas Shelby (Mia Haley), a good Christan girl who always strives to be positive although there is nothing to be positive about but with prejudices towards Toni being a lesbian. Later we find out it is because she is lesbian herself and lives in environment where homosexuality is considered sin, however she overcomes interenlizaed homophobia and eventually gets romantically involved with Toni. Self-aware and responsible Dot (Shannon Berry) doesn't have any illusion on how real life looks like if you are poor – for her life is »give« and »take« transaction. She knows how to handle of everything alone, especially if you only have an ill dad to take care for. On the island Dot is as confrontational as helpful for the group dynamic. There was also Jeannete (Chi Nguyen), Gretchen's infiltrate to spy on the girls, who was badly injured and died while coming on the island.
For us the most interesting is a love story between Tony and Shelby. They are the opposites who attract each other like magnet – Tony with her feisty opinion and honesty breaks Shelby's Christian (shameful and guilty) armor and lets Shelby be finally herself by acting on her attraction towards women she always felt without any fear what their future relationship might bring, while Shelby calms down Toni's anger and leads a path towards positivity to trust her like she never trusted anyone before.
The Wilds is an inclusive and diverse show having African American, native American, Caucasian, Muslim, catholic, agnostic and lesbian girls, however at its heart, The Wilds is really about the many different ways that young women are underestimated, abused, manipulated, commodified, and lied to in their youth.
The Occupied and The Wilds play with imagination of the new possible realities and niether of the two dissapoint with its excellent stories, top notch acting, scenography, music and chemistry among the lead characters.
Ammonite, Happiest Season and Prom
Film Ammonite (Lee, UK, 2020) is about Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a self-taught paleontologist who was known for her groundbreaking fossil discoveries. Anning is gruff and solitary, a kind of human hermit crab, who lives with her ailing mother, Molly Anning (Gemma Jones). One day, an aspiring geologist named Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) turns up, offering to pay Mary if she'll let him accompany her on one of her fossil search. She reluctantly agrees, as she and her mother could use the money. But Mary gets more than she bargained for. Roderick abruptly takes off and pays Mary to look after his young wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), for several weeks. And while Mary finds her burdensome at first the two women quickly bond.
A spark soon ignites, and the two begin to enjoy each other's company. Mary helps Charlotte to heal after miscarriage and Charlotte helps Mary with her work, which both fascinates and energizes her and that is how the two embark on a forbiden love affair. Charlotte returns to her husband and arranges a special room next to her where Mary could stay. However what Mary didn't know is that Charlotte planned for Mary to move in with her and her husband for good. Mary replies to Charlotte that she doesn't know who she is and what her field work means to her and that she should consult her first about her moving plans and then abruptly leaves thus indicating that their love affair may be over.
I my opinion Ammonite is better then Portrait of A Lady on Fire (Sciamma, FRA, 2019) because it gives its main protagonists, Mary and Charlotte, freedom to explore and decide about their relationship. Both women decided for themselves whether they wish to be with each other or not whereas Portrait of A Lady on Fire was in its essence a forbidden love which could never be realized. Both Winslet and Ronan share undeniable chemistry, story unfolds believably and their sex scene is fine. I don't mind even if Winslet smiles only three times in the whole film and that the whole film is a bit grim. The only similarity with Portrait of A Lady on Fire is that it takes place on the windy shores and cliffs of Lyme Regis.
My only objection is that this is a film about an actual people, Miss. Anning and Mrs. Murchison while there is not a single (direct or indirect) evidence of an actual passionate affair between the two of them. It is true that many women in 19th century shared a passionate friendship which could develop into erotic relationship but that was not the case with Anning and Murchison despite being an actual friends during their lives. Therefore I agree with Barbara Anning, Mary's descendent who objected to Lee's depiction of Anning as lesbian despite being a fine arty film. I give credit to Winslet and Ronan for an excellent acting that presented a very believable fictitious love story although it falls short at times.
From drama we go to musical. Musical as a film genre is not my cup of tea but I was pleasantly surprised by Prom (Murphy, USA, 2020). Story is simple. Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Maryl Streep), a diva belter with two Tony awards, Barry Glickman (James Corden), a comedy and all kind of helper type; and Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), who continues playing doll-adorable lead parts even though she should've theoretically aged out of them. Dee Dee and Barry just appeared in a new musical about the Roosevelts that closed after opening night, following weak advance sales and harsh reviews saying the play was more about their narcissism and ego then bringing a great performance and believable story to the audience.
Alen and Glickman hurt by critics they decide on a new strategy that would show them not only as great actors but also as good human beings. They decide to help Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), a lesbian teen from a small, conservative Indiana town to take her high school sweetheart Alyssa Greene (Ariana DeBose) to the prom. Namely, Emma has been denied the right to take Alysssa to the prom. A Sardi's bartender and recent Juilliard graduate named Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) also joins the Broadway trio to the way to the Indiana town which they try dusting it with their liberal magic.
The four of them soon arrive in Indiana and hop in the middle of the school debate between school principle Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) backing Emma's decision to bring her girlfriend to the prom against homophobic PTA president (Kerry Washington) to cancel the event entirely with the support of conservative parents. And that is what is this about, learning about Emma being left by their parents due to her sexual orientation and thus living with her grandmother, having no friends with only the principle being on her side and 'chicken' girlfriend who keeps promising her she would came out when going to the prom with Emma and the Broadway 'quartet' helping her in any way they can with their liberal progressive mind-set and actions. In this sense they educate pupils about what Christian values are really about – about love, acceptance, inclusivity, empathy not prejudices, bigotry, hate, encourage Emma to go to the national television and let people know about her situation to organize an additional prom party where she finally gets to dance with her sweetheart Alyssa while Alyssa finally comes out to her conservative mother who accepts her no matter what.
In addition to this we get a romantic spark between Dee Dee and principal Hawkins who gets disillusioned about her the same way as critics saying she found in Emma only a new energy source to boast her narcissism. Dee Dee gets to use all her charms and persuasive abilities in order to change Hawkins's mind to get another chance. And last but not least, Barry gets to meet and reunites with his mother after twenty years. Namely, Barry left his conservative parents after he came out as 16 years old knowing they would never accept him as gay. He also never got a chance to dance with his high school sweetheart on his prom. This is what fuels his motivation to help Emma in every way he can.
This is a promising setup, and you can see how audiences might've adored the stage incarnations. The movie hits pleasure spots for devoted theatergoers, mixing self-deprecating observations about how fatuous and self-serving performers can get when they dabble in politics. The songs are mostly serviceable, but there are enough home runs (including Emma's soul-centering, meditative song "Just Breathe") to carry viewers over the rough spots.
Corden succeeds mainly by holding his own in the same frame as powerhouse performers like Streep and Rannells. Streep has played this sort of part before so many times (with and without songs) that she could do it in her sleep, and there are moments where she's seems so tuned into her autopilot tendencies that you wouldn't be surprised if she nodded off. She really only comes to life and shows us new shadings when she's flirting with the school principal. Despite her occasional forays into singing roles, Kidman also falls into the just-OK category, and is much better during non-singing scenes where she's vamping and being minx-like. The Prom is mostly about these three celebrity actors although Pellman's onscreen debut is fine and DeBose is fine as well despite a bit of lack of chemistry between the two.
Last but not least, Happiest Season (DuVall, USA, 2020) is the first lesbian Christmas romantic comedy about Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), a lesbian couple from Pittsburgh. Harper spontaneously invites Abby home to spend the holidays with her family. Abby, who’s yet to meet her girlfriend’s parents, decides that she’s not just going to propose, she’s going to go full-on archaic, as she tells her skeptical gay friend John (Dan Levy), in asking Harper’s father for permission to marry Harper and prove her seriousness. So it’s to more than Abby’s dismay that she learns, just before they’re due to arrive on the doorstep of the Caldwell household, that Harper’s family does not actually know about her existence. In fact, they don’t even know that Harper’s a lesbian, and have been told that Abby’s an orphaned friend. And that is how story starts unfolding in all different awkward ways for five days about Abby fields prying questions, public ex-boyfriend and secret ex-girlfriend — all for the sake of her woefully abashed sweetheart.
It is completely understandable why Kirsten Stewart said that only McKenzie Davis could play the part of her onscreen partner. Who wouldn't remember terrific Yorkie (McKenzie) in San Junipero's episode (of Black Mirror series) with her naivety and eagerness to experience her first love(r)! However, despite of that there is no proper chemistry between Stewart and McKenzie and neither of them truly shine alone or/and as couple. At times you would also expect that Abby would rather go with Harper's first high school girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza) whom she dumped when they were discovered. then forgive Harper's numerous straight pretense to please her WASP parents. And even after a series of comic events and sisterhood competition truth comes out and Harper reveals she is a lesbian we can't really fully accept her misbehavior towards Abby.
I mean, it seems Harper never had any intention to come out to her parents and she even pushed Abby back in the closet when she told Harper's parents that her friend Johan is her ex-boyfriend. I ask whether such behaviour can sustain a relationship? I guess so, since Abby accepts Harper's apology for the hurt she caused and takes her back. Despite everything said it is a fine film if you wish to have some cozy time. After all, it is the first lesbian Christmas film done by an out lesbian director and an out actress although it could be done better. Namely, who likes to watch and re-experience their painful memories of hiding their sexuality and/or her partner. In this sense Prom is a better film. The main character is courages, optimistic and lets the whole world knows about who she is and what she fights for and even if her girlfriend is not as couragious as she is she does what is right in the end.
If there is one thing I noticed in the last few years in LGBT films is that more and more A-listed actresses are willing to play in films with lesbian leading roles. From Kate Blanchet and Rooney Mara in Carol to Kate Winslet and Sairose Ronan in Ammonite, however it seems that only younger generation of actresses who play lesbians identify themselves as lesbians and/or queer as well, like Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose, both leading actresses in Prom. In regard to this I truly hope that soon a great film director is going to give an excellent script to A-list actresses, such as Taylor Schilling and Jodie Foster who both identify as lesbians to play in a brilliant happy lesbian love story.
Therfore let me conclude. Whether you wish to watch a serious lesbian drama on the windy English shores, musical about an average high school girl who just want to attend prom with her girlfriend or a lesbian comedy taking place in the Caldwell household it is worth spending an hour or two of your time despite neither of them is excellent.
This year I discovered South Korean television series. The main preoccupation of the South Korean TV are romance, crime, fantasy and history. According to the numerous TV series I watched I find South Korean society patriarchal and conservative therefore I was pleasantly surprised when I watched drama Hello Dracula (2020) directed by Kim Da-ye. Despite the misleading title – the name is used metaphorically for dark secrets or problems that everyone carries and tries to avoid but as the main character An Na (Seohyun) describes »the best way Dracula disappears is to face Dracula as it is in order to move forward with your life«. In the case of this story Dracula is that An Na, a primary school teacher, is a lesbian and her mother Mi Young (Ji-Hyeon Lee) has been avoiding this topic ever since she found out about it. But when An Na's girlfriend of eight years Soo Jung (Chung-Ah Lee) suddenly breaks up with her An Na's world falls apart and she doesn't want to pretend any more.
However, this two episodes drama is not only about metaphorical Dracula but also refers to the French philosopher Sartre and famous quote in his play No Exit »Hell is other people« – or as An Na says herself »hell of me is from my mom«. This refers to An Na's youth when she was caught kissing a girl in a primary school and the two were dragged into a church where they were condemned and told they would go to hell due to their sinful behavior. However, when An Na tried to tell her mother that she really likes girls and that she would probably always feel loving girls her mother told her it would pass with years and that everything comes down to finding the right boy. Yet An Na's love for women didn't pass, her attraction towards women as a grown up woman has been still the same as she was a young girl.
Because her mother didn't wish to accept her daughter's sexual orientation An Na started thinking there was something wrong having feelings for women. An Na's stance thus coincides with yet another Sartre's observation »By the mere appearance of the Other,« says Sartre in Being and Nothingness, »I am put in the position of passing judgement on myself as on an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other«. And it is exactly because of An Na's mother pretending and ignorance of her sexual orientation that An Na became depressed and emotionally distant while trying to please more her mother then herself.
However, everything escalates when An Na's girlfriend Sojung sends her things via mail while asking she does the same with her things. When An Na's mother see how devastated An Na is she decides to meet Sojung on her own telling her it is shameless sending some one's stuff via mail. When An Na realizes what her mother did she gets really mad at her and that is the point when they both eventually start talking about their Dracula. Mother finally tells An Na there is nothing wrong with loving women and that she loves and accepts her the way she is and An Na's admits she was emotionally distant to her mother but she is going to change that and start including her into her life.
Hello Dracula's honest portrayal and change of a daughter-mother relationship reminds me of a French-Romanian philosopher Julia Kristeva's analysis in her essay Black Sun where she suggests that we need not only a new discourse on »maternity but also a discourse on the relation between mothers and daughters, a friendly relation and a discourse that does not prohibit the lesbian love between women through which female subjectivity is born.« (Oliver, 1993: http://www.cddc.vt.edu/feminism/Kristeva.html). Lesbian love means that love is not burdened by the functions of women set by patriarchal society but that women live according to their desires, needs and wishes, and still within the community and in harmony with it.
Similarly, Belgian philosopher Luce Irigaray talks about the nature of individual relationships between women – especially the mother/daughter relationship. Thus she stresses the need for mothers to represent themselves differently to their daughters as from to their sons, and to emphasize their daughter’s subjectivity – taking their subjectivity seriously and allowing them the freedom to be an individual rather than some sort of clone of a previous generation of women, consciously emphasizing that the daughter and the mother are both subjects in their own right who can freely choose whom to love and marry, even if it is another woman.
Despite Hello Dracula isn't about a portrayal of a lesbian couple per se it gets the closest I watched of K-series. Both, Seohyun and Ji-hyeon Lee's performances are brilliant as screenplay is excellent as well thus I am looking forward to the presentation of K-lesbian romance. It would be nice if we watched Seohyun again and saw her on screen kisses another woman in portrayal of an actual lesbian relationship. I am sure she would be terrific as well.
Donovan, K. S. (2003): »Luce Irigaray (1932?—)«. http://www.iep.utm.edu/irigaray/, article obtained 25.11.2020.
Iragary, L. (1985). This Sex Which Is Not One. New York: Cornell University Press.
Iragary, L. (1993). Sexes and Genealogies. New York: Columbia University Press.
Oliver, K. (1998). »Kristeva and Feminism«. http://www.cddc.vt.edu/feminism/Kristeva.html, article obtained 25.11.2020.
Kristeva, J. (1989). Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. New York: Columbia University Press;
Kristeva, J. (1987). In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sartre, J.P. (1986). No Exit And Three Other Plays. London: Vintage, Penguin Books.
Sartre, J.P. (1956). Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. London Rutledge.
Summerland & Moonlit Winter
Summerland (UK, 2020) directed by Jessica Swale is eventually a happy love lesbian story although at first seems to be another cliche about lonely misunderstood bitter lesbian. However, as it turns out the story of the writer, feminist and lesbian Alice (Gemma Arterton) is actually about a story of a young lesbian love that survives through WWII and grows into an old age of a lesbian family with son Frank (Lucas Bond).
Movie starts with Alice shooing children from the door of her cottage (“You know how you can help the aged? You can bugger off!”) so she can return to her typewriter. It is 1975 in Kent, England. From here, we go back in time to the 40s, where the younger Alice typing on the same typewriter. A loner who investigates and debunks myths and folklore, searching for the facts behind the fiction, Alice is viewed with suspicion. The village children think she’s a witch or a spy; even the adults don't trust her and perceive her as odd.
When young evacuee Frank (Lucas Bond) unexpectedly comes to Alice’s, she has no time for him, insisting that he be re-homed. But inevitably a bond grows between the pair, with Alice slowly warming to the new arrival who seems to rekindle long suppressed feelings of affection and connection. Meanwhile, we go back further in time, to Alice’s meeting with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the 20s and the pang of their first love.
“Would you think it was strange if a woman loved another woman?” Alice asks Frank, adding that “most people think it’s wicked”. But Frank is more interested in Alice’s belief that “stories have to come from somewhere” and together they start chasing castles in the sky, mirages that seem to provide a link between this world and the next. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Laurie Rose, who lends a magic-realist edge to down-to-earth details. In the central role, Arterton is terrific, relishing the opportunity to play a character who doesn’t care how others see her and last but not least, we get a lesbian love portrayed as a long-term happy peaceful relationship.
Moonlit Winter (KR, Yunhui ege, 2019) is K-film by Dae Hyung Lim about two women Yoon-Hee (Kim Hee Ae) and Jun (Yûko Nakamura) who felt in love as teenagers but never forgot each other even twenty years after being apart. It is a beautifully shoot film with a love story told through epistolary method, i.e. through love letters. So called epistolary novels were popular in 18. century Europe and some of the most beautiful love stories (such as Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons, Rousseau's Julie; or, The New Heloise and Richardson's Clarissa; or The History of a Young Lady), were told in the form of letters. They usually present unrequited love and this film is no exception to the rule.
Namely “Moonlit Winter” revolves around Yoon Hee, a mother who has spent many years of her life denying her sexuality and living unhappily married to her husband until she finally divorces him and unexpectedly gets a letter from her young love Yun. After being separated from Jun, Yoon-hee says that she’d thought the rest of her life was a “punishment” she had to endure.
The film begins after Yoon Hee divorces her husband and begins living with only her daughter Sae-bom (Kim So-hye). One day Yoon-hee gets a letter from Otaru, Japan and her daughter opens it. After finding out about her mother’s sexuality, Sae-bom is neither disgusted nor frightened. Instead, she tries to elaborately plan a way for her mother and Jun to meet up, even going as far as to suggest to her mother that they go together on a vacation to Otaru, Japan, where Jun currently resides.
As story unfolds we get to know that after the main character, Yoon Hee told her parents she was in love with a girl she had to see psychiatrist as homosexuality was perceived not normal by her parents and was forced to marry a man, however she never stopped loving and remembering her first and only love, Yun. The same was with Yun who after she broke up with Yoon Hee, moved to Otaru in Japan as her parents divorced and her father went to Japan. Yun on and off kept dreaming about Yoon Hee and every time she dreamed about her she wrote a letter but never send it until her aunt finds one of Yun's letter to Yoon Hee and sends it.
After Sae-bom convinces mother to go on a trip to Otaru and sets up a meeting of her mother with Yun we get a glimpse of hope although we don't get to know what they are going to do about their relationship. And not only that, Yoon Hee quits her job and embarks on her whole new personal journey of self-liberation and setting up her life path by herself for herself and her daughter.
Both Hee Ae and Nakamura acting is great as they carefully thread the portrayal of the ex-lesbian lovers who both hide their true identities known only to themselves although people around them notice signs of their sexual orientation when for instance they show no interest in men or marrying a man at all as in the Yun's case.
With Moonlit Winter we come to know how people in South Korea perceive homosexuality as attitudes about the LGBTQ community slowly evolve and we learn that power of love transcends obstacles such as nationality, race, age and gender. However, when we compare the stories of Summerland and Moonlit Winter we see that nowadays South Koreans are regarding LGBTQ rights as Englishmen were in the middle of the previous century. They still have a long way to go to recognize equal rights of same sex couples, acknowledge their love as equal and make them comfortable by just being themselves.
Showtime's The L word generation Q (USA, 2019) is here and lesbians have finally some TV representation again. Of course, nowadays it is a queer TV show, in 2004 it was a lesbian TV show, nonetheless it is show about women who love and have sex with women and that is the most important. Of course, it is a bit of a different show with promoting lots of inclusivity and diversity. We can read about a lot of different opinions and comparisons between this and 2004 show. However, how and was it any different in 2004 when show was promoting lesbians and women of colour, black and Latino and military lesbians? Most importantly how and if the main characters have changed in the meantime?
Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals) is always a bit of domineering and authoritative figure with sexual energy and friends abundant, only this time she runs for a mayor of L.A. and she is single (divorced) for the first time while trying to be a role model parent for a teenager daughter Angie which is not easy since it publicly came out that Bette was having an affair with a former married female employee Felicity while she was CEO of the California Arts Center and with whom she reconnects and continue having an affair with for some time. Bette's affair affects her daughter's life as Angie's classmates keep teasing about her mother's behavior to which Angie responds angrily. All that escalates when Felicity's husband comes to harass Bette and Angie. Because of all that, Bette's ex-wife Tina comes to visit in order to calm things down. However, we learn that Tina is going to get re-married to her girlfriend Carrie and the news was not calming for Bette at all. Despite obvious attraction between the actresses playing Tina (Laurel Holloman) and Bette (someone did a great casting job!) it is great that Tina finally gets her own life independent from Bette. I also believe it is true what Tina said how she felt while being married to Bette, feeling not being her own person and that everything always revolved around Bette. This is a great step forward for Tina. I hope we get to meet Tina's future wife as a caring, faithful, loyal and nurturing wife which she deserves in second season.
Alice (), now having her own TV show, is as usual dating someone politically correct, this time a divorced mother of two kids. However her girlfriend Nat (Stephanie Allynne) has no ordinary ex-wife, Gigi (Sepideh Moafi) is from west Iran (let us recall that Alice previously dated soldier Tasha which was actual due to military LGBT ban in USA at that time). Alice through parenting learns that Gigi is a great mom and that Nat still admires and misses her. Thus at one point Nat, Alice and Gigi became throuple couple which Alice ended it because she felt used by Nat and Gigi getting back together although Nat finally decides that she wants only Alice after all. Therefore this is happy ending for Alice.
And who in million years would thought that Shane (Katherine Moennig), who just returned from Europe, would be married to Quiara (Q) (Lex Scott Davis), a famous singer. However we soon learn that her marriage wasn't blissful at all and her wife filed for divorce while Shane was still in love with her wife. This time it seems Shane does not want to go for old self, having sex with random women everywhere she goes but she does sex with one of her ex lover's, Lena who seems to be still in love with her. However, as we learn through the episodes Quiara is still in love with Kate too and wishes to have a family with her. If Kate agrees and she does, Quiara is more then willing to stay with her. For sure, Quiara makes a big difference from Kate's previous singleness and macho speed dating style to being a 'loyal' wife, I just don't feel passion and spark between these two characters and I don't feel sorry that/if Quira finally broke up with Kate.
Speed dating style lesbian is now portrayed in the character "Finley" (Jacqueline Toboni) though. Finley is Alice's executive assistant, coming from a religious family who first slept with Rebecca for a while, then had sex with Kate's bar manager, Tess (Jamie Clayton) until she kisses her best buddy, Sophie (Rosanny Zayas) and now she has to decide whether to pursue a relationship with Sophie or not. However, this means Sophie should break up with her fiancee Dani Núñez (Arienne Mandi). Dani is actually a new major character in this L word sequel, a prominent latino PR executive lesbian coming from a wealthy influential Latino family. Her heteronormative father loves and appreciates Dani a lot, only not as a lesbian, and consideres her lesbianism a phase in young woman's life. Dani of course disagrees with her father and instead proposes to her girlfriend Sophie and the two have a big engagement party with Sophie's family and as suggested by Dani they should get married in Hawaii. There is just this one thing with Dani – Bette (as Finley is with Sophie). Dani offers her services as a political campaign manager to Bette. Bette being very progressive and politically correct at first turns her down but eventually hires her. And thus we finally starting see cracks in Sophie and Dani's relationship: Dani is so immersed in Bette's political campaign and that it is all she can think of. Maybe because Dani is more then just inspired by her employer and maybe because Sophie admits having feelings for her best buddy, Finley with whom she kisses? I believe the situation with Sophie's grandmother just brought up what was going on between Sophie and Dani for a while: all little misunderstandings regarding the wedding ceremony, different lifestyle and upbringing finally showed all their differences and their true affinities with other people. And perhaps all that is because it is set up for Bette and Dani to eventually hook up in season 2?
Sophie and Dani also share house with Micah Lee (Leo Sheng), a trans man who starts dating Jose (Freddy Miyares), a building manager. Micah is an adjunct professor and art lover who struggles with his mother to truly accept him as a trans man. And not only Micah should be accepted as he is by her mother, his lover should have been honest with him too. Namely, Micah discovers Jose has a husband. I believe there are going to be arguments between these two in season 2. as well.
As far as the stories go, the show presents some stories from the past as well as some new ones. I must say that I don't like the sequel a lot. It is not only stories are unbelievable and luck passion, acting is not very good as well. We don't care or love the characters as we used to. Kate, Alice and Bette are not the same as they used to be, and new characters, Dani, Sophie and Finely are even less memorable.
In Céline Sciamma's debut film Water Lilies (FRA, 2007) we were faced with society's gaze of teenage girls, in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (FRA, 2019) we experience a female gaze of another woman. Again Adèle Haenel, Sciamma's muse (and ex-partner), now experienced and acclaimed actress, plays the main role as Héloïse who returns from the monastery to pose for a portrait intended for her future husband.
This is a film that will slowly but steadily nail you to the screen, both with the picturesque scenery of the Breton rocky coast with the roar of the waves, as well as the exuberant excellent play of the main actresses who present in front of us and in us the landscape of their emotions and irresistible attraction to each other. The film is an aesthetic and emotional delicacy and a lesson in passion and desire. Once again, I draw a parallel to the initial comparison: if we were dealing with a controlled environment of the pool and the social perception of the main characters in Water Lilies, we are dealing with a violent nature and the raw emotions of the main protagonists who resist the social perception of women, but only partially succeed in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Their love, though consumated several times, has since been devoted solely to memory and longing. It is certainly no coincidence that the main character's name is Héloïse who came from the monastery to get married. Héloïse is a French symbol for the unrequited love between Héloïsa d'Argenteuil and philosopher Peter Abelard who had a forbiden love affair between pupil and teacher. After their affair was discovered Héloïsa went to monastary and the only contact between her and Abelard were through letters in which they passionately remembered their love for the rest of their lives and which French philosopher Jean J. Rousseau depicted in his epistolary novel Julie, or the New Héloïse. The French Héloïsa d'Argenteuil is as symbol of unrequited love as the English Juliet Capulet.
At the same time, it seems that Sciamma wanted to 'object' to the portrayal of female sexuality as percieved by men, such as Kechiche in Blue is the Warmest Color (FRA, 2013) since it does not show one whole scene of sex in the film between Héloïse and Marianne (Noémie Merlant), but we clearly feel the passion and lust between the two heroines and we can easily imagine what they are doing between the sheets. This is because Sciamma roots for a 'deep' passionate love that remains in us for whole life or as Sciamma said in an interview: "I wanted to write not only a memoir about a love story, a film dedicated to love ... but, above all, the politics and philosophy of love." And in the film, we undoubtedly recognize ideas of the Belgian philosopher Luce Irigaray, her idea of a speculum, and last but not least, by sending Héloïsa's portrait to a future suitor, we recognize Irigaray's idea of women as a commodity on the market and what Sciamma wants to resist. Film with refined story telling and aesthetics has undoubtedly earned the best screenplay award and queer palm at Cannes.
What Is A Good Written Lesbian Character?
French TV series Call My Agent (Dix pour cent, FRA 2015-) presents the daily events at one of the two biggest (fictional) film agencies in Paris: Agence Samuel Kerr, or ASK. Mathias and his colleagues, Andréa, Gabriel and Arlette power struggle both among themselves and in the wider film industry. Call My Agent is hilarious and funny by portraying famous French actresses from Isabelle Adjani and Monica Bellucci to Isabelle Huppert – each playing a very believable yet fictional version of themselves despite those being crafted after real life experiences: namely, material for all of it comes from co-creator Dominique Besnehard, an actor and director who spent two decades as the most well-known agent in France and worked with almost everyone that means something in French film industry.
However, I wonder if their agents are also crafted after themselves? Namely, I seriously wonder why and how can they have a lesbian character Andréa Martel (Camille Cottin) since she makes so many irrational and irresponsible decisions that I wonder if screenwriters know any real lesbians at all. In first season we get to know Andréa who was once straight and then discovered she is actually attracted to women - this seems plausible. However, Andréa is notorious for having one girlfriend after another until she meets firm's new accountant, Collete Brancillon (Ophélia Kolb). Collete seems familiar to Andréa who can't seem to remember from where. Collete reminds her that they first met online where Andréa bluntly dismissed Collete as unattractive. Andréa tries to correct her previous behavior and seduces Collete. Collete at first resisted and finally gave in. Andréa scored another win and conquered another trophy and as soon Collete gave in and declared love for Andréa, latter couldn't resist cheating on her at another party of attractive actresses and their busy agents. Andréa tried to apologize and convince her it was one time mistake. Collete due to Andréa's previous behavior with other women didn't believe her and broke up with her. And if that wasn't enough the screenwriters of the second season made it even more unbelievable when Andréa slept with her boss and got pregnant. What at first appears to be Andrea's flaw, namely her behaviour like some mach men who changes woman after woman, later appears as nuisance. We never learn where that personal trait or affinity comes from - is Martel's character perhaps designed after Shane's from L-word? However, Shane at least doesn't have sex with men, she has sex with woman after woman whereas when in one of her many partying nights Andrea has sex not with some random woman but also with man who becomes the next director of Kerr. How that could happen to a lesbian? Does Andréa having sex with man serves as a plot of making a lesbian mother? Well, what if we turn this logic around and write straight female characters having sex with women each time they don't wish to have a baby? Would screenwriters use this plot device as well? I bet no. This is how implausible their lesbian storyline is.
And if that wasn't enough Collete forgives Andréa in order to raise a child together and be a family. And then she goes again, after she finally persuades father of her child to give up his parenting rights to Collete and Andréa and Collete are the sole parents, Andréa goes to work with toddler and let it be babysited by some random assistant while she had meeting with some of her demanding, 'neurotic' client(s)/actress(es). I wonder who would entrust her baby with a total stranger in order to have a business meeting?
Examples of good writing a lesbian character are Ana Torv's characters Alex in Mistresses (UK 2008-2010) and Wendy Carr in Mindhunter (USA 2017-). These two lesbian characters don't change their sexual orientation regardless of the situation and time period and they portray lesbians as they are. It is true that Mistresses as series deals with cheating spouses, straight as homosexual alike. Alex cheats with Jessica (Shelley Conn), a straight woman who felt compelling attraction towards another woman and discovers love for the first time, even if that love is between two women. Jessica who met Alex as part of her job as a wedding planner also changed men after men until she met Alex, her true love. Alex had an affair with Jessica for a short while before and after she got married (and) until she recognized/decided that her priority and loyalty is to her wife. In Mindhunter (USA 2017-) screenwriters built even more plausable character. A young ambitious academic Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) had a relationship with a senior female (lesbian) academic in 70's who encouraged her to pursue an academic career instead of a practical field work in Quantico. Wendy disagreed and left the academic life to start working for the FBI. While working at Quantico she met Kay Mason (Lauren Glazier), a lesbian baretender in local pub with whom she had relationship for a while. Over a round of bowling, Wendy talks up about her most formative personal relationship — one where she dated a professor of hers who had significant control over how Wendy felt about herself but Kay allows Wendy to explore a romantic encounter free of toxic power dynamics.
Another good example is The Counterpart's lesbian character Nadia/Baldwin Fierro from Alpha and Prime Worlds. Namely in the Counterpart (USA 2017-2019) we follow stories in two different yet intertwined worlds and in both worlds Nadia/Baldwin is a lesbian. She does not change her sexual orientation in any of the possible worlds because sexual orientation is part of her personal identity. Therefore in Alpha world we get to know a lesbian Nadia Fierro (Sara Serraiocco) whose one part of the doubles, its doppelganger lived in a happy lesbian relationship being a virtuoso violinist Nadia but in the other, Prime world is now a villain, Baldwin who has a girlfriend Greta (Liv Lisa Fries).
Torv's and Serraiocco's lesbian characters are consistent with their personality, job, gender and sexual orientation and never ever even thinks of having a sex with man or for the sake of having a child.
“Gentleman Jack” Breathes New Life into the Period Genre
If there’s one thing that the British entertainment industry seems to love, it’s period pieces. From “Downton Abbey” to “Harlots,” “The Crown” to “Call the Midwife,” the Brits have a strong sense of nostalgia about the past. British and other Anglo viewers alike seem particularly entranced by the Victorian era: the time of corsets and petticoats, Jack the Ripper, manservants, and a British Empire still in the ascendant. Shows set in this era tend to focus on the foibles of the upper class, romanticizing their lives to provide viewers an opulent, vicarious experience of life at the top of the food chain. The rich gowns, impeccably furnished manors, and leisurely lives represent a lifestyle that viewers can only imagine. But how many iterations of “Pride and Prejudice” can there really be (there are at least ten set in the right era) before viewers get bored? The more content produced set in the 1800s, the harder it is to find new, untrod material.
That’s what makes “Gentleman Jack” so impressive: it takes a well-known setting, with archetypical, almost stereotypical, characters, and tells an utterly unique story. What’s even more remarkable is that it’s not a fictional story. It’s history. Anne Lister, the protagonist of “Gentleman Jack,” was a real person, and the TV show hews relatively closely to her actual life (it’s based on 27 volumes of diaries that she wrote detailing her life, including romantic trysts with women that she wrote in code). The show is set in the latter period of her life when, tired of seeing her female paramours marry men to avoid the social stigma of “spinsterhood” and to fulfill societal expectations about marriage and motherhood, Lister decides to find a woman with whom to settle down who won’t abandon her for a more socially acceptable male partner. Like a male character out of a Jane Austen novel, she sets her sights on a local heiress with a reputation for being of feeble mind and body. What better a match for her, she reasons, than a single woman of great independent means? After all, it’s what she would seek if she had been born a man. Thus begins her wooing of Miss Ann Walker of Yorkshire.
At a time when women were often carefully supervised and controlled, when they didn’t know that same-sex female relationships were even possible, it’s astonishing that Lister managed to bed as many women over the course of her lifetime as she did. And little seems more impossible than her pursuit of Walker. What were the odds that the heiress next door would not only be something less than heterosexual, but that she would be willing to become the “wife” of another woman at a time when men were still publicly hanged for sodomy? And yet it’s no great spoiler to say that Walker did respond to Lister’s advances. The relationship between them forms both the heart and the central conflict in “Gentleman Jack”: how will two women living in a man’s world possibly overcome all obstacles to be together? The chemistry between Suranne Jones (Lister) and Sophie Rundle (Walker) is spot on. As a couple, Lister and Walker are captivating and dynamic, full of empathy and longing. Move over, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, the lesbian community has Anne Lister and Ann Walker!
Famous female protagonists from the literature of the Victorian era seem to fall into predictable patterns. Austen’s protagonists, for example, are mostly plucky, clever heroines making their way through constricting social norms and marital expectations. Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre is similarly intelligent and independent. But they still act in ways that, while perhaps “quirky” for the time, were not altogether scandalous. Lister, on the other hand, who comes from the earlier Georgian era, while intelligent, is nothing like them. She’s a maelstrom: she marches into rooms, issues imperious demands, challenges the world to treat her as an equal to men, and unapologetically runs the affairs of Shibden Hall as its proprietor. She’s not plucky, she’s competent…and softly butch, with a hobby of flirting with ladies. While anyone else would have been socially ostracized and shunned in the face of even a hint of sexual impropriety, she manages (on the show, at least) to sidestep rampant gossip about her lesbianism through her charisma. Altogether, as a character, Lister is a wonderful queer hero. She’s the brash, assertive, take no prisoners beguiler we didn’t know we needed. Jones does a wonderful job bringing Lister to life, and the ebullient energy with which she imbues Lister is contagious. When she winks at the camera and flashes her winning smile, she ensures we’re all in on the joke together.
Walker, on the other hand, is like a fictional character from the Georgian era: she has a nervous temperament and bouts of hysteria. Her relatives believe she’s so sickly that she must be protected and kept apart from the world, a judgment that she both accepts and plays into. She’s like a chipped piece of china: beautiful, delicate, and slightly broken. She’s Lister’s polar opposite, and that’s part of why she’s so drawn to Lister: while she sees herself as parochial and sheltered, Lister is worldly and adventurous. Together they’re like night and day, and the dynamic works beautifully. Kudos absolutely must be given to Rundle, who has called the role the hardest work of her career, and rightly so. She does an exceptional job of creating a vulnerable, insecure woman trying to find the bravery within herself to follow her heart. Although TV awards have typically not favored roles like hers to win, she does an absolutely outstanding job and she deserves to be recognized for it.
As to the rest of the show, the secondary characters play into typical archetypes: the gossiping relatives, the aged father, the helpful but jaded servants, and even the evil banker, who necessarily must embody the corrosive effect of capitalist greed. The manors and farms, too, will seem familiar to viewers who have watched other shows set in the 1800s. The only thing—apart from the queer content, of course—that doesn’t fit the usual format for the historical genre is the repeated breaking of the fourth wall by Lister (and once or twice by her sister Marian). It’s an unexpected artistic choice that is a nod to the original source material. Just as readers of Lister’s journals are privy to her inner thoughts, viewers, too, are occasionally let into her plans and intentions through direct address.
The last few years have shown a notable uptick in the quality of queer characters on Anglo TV, concomitant with the increase in diverse storytelling. One of the great benefits of this opening of TV to more minority representation is that we see three-dimensional, complex queer main characters in all but previously unseen scenarios. Queer women in 1800s England is one of these. True, queer women were at the heart of the BBC’s 2002 miniseries adaptation of “Tipping the Velvet” (set in the 1890s), but “Gentleman Jack” from the first episode vastly exceeds it in complexity and depth of characters. And it promises more. After eight episodes of season one, another eight episodes of season two have already been commissioned, which promises to tell more of the story of Anne and Ann. As with the groundbreaking BBC show “Killing Eve,” one wonders how such an exciting, unexpected first season can possibly be matched by the second, but writer/director Sally Wainwright (also the writer of “Last Tango in Halifax”) is known for the quality of her work, and “Gentleman Jack” has been a pet project of hers for well over a decade. Whatever happens next season, it is sure to be full of adventure and humor.
Season 5 Shows “RED” is Still Getting Better
I love “RED.” “RED” is the little webseries that could proof that artful, quality content can be made on what is, comparatively, a shoestring budget, when made by the right hands. Completely crowdfunded and a labor of love for everyone involved, “RED” immediately transcended its Brazilian, Portuguese-language setting at its debut to reach a global audience, breaking the Anglo hegemony on queer content and introducing viewers to a slower paced, more emotion-driven form of storytelling. “RED” is not only a (justifiably critically acclaimed) study in cinematography, acting, and directing, it’s a model for how webseries’ can capitalize on the international queer female community to generate viewership and support.
Through its first four seasons, “RED” managed to strike a careful balance between plot, character development, and emotional impact, always ending on a cliffhanger. As we enter season five, which was released in mid-June and is set a year after the events in season four, here’s a reminder of where we’ve been (Spoiler Alert!):
Season 1 introduces us to the two characters around whom the series centers: Mel, a married bisexual woman, and Liz, a sort of Brazilian Shane McCutcheon who’s a recovering addict. The two develop an attraction while starring in a film together, and the season builds up to a climactic kiss that sets the stage for the subsequent seasons: is this just a fling born of working closely together, or is it true love?
In Season 2, Mel tries to hold onto her marriage despite her feelings for Liz, while Liz is frustrated by the attraction she’s not allowed to act on. Just as it seems that the two will finally come together, Mel discovers she’s pregnant, and Liz caves in to temptation to use drugs again. Is this the end for them just as it’s finally beginning?
Season 3 explores the struggle of trying to have a relationship when neither side is well-positioned for that relationship. Mel has left her husband for Liz, but worries that Liz will reject her pregnancy. Liz, meanwhile, is an unstable partner falling ever deeper back into addiction. When Mel miscarries, it has the potential to ease one strain in their relationship, but will they make it through?
In Season 4, Mel and Liz move in together, but it’s not happily ever after. Both are struggling with their own issues, and while they’re trying to make the relationship work, it seems to be falling apart around them. When they break up at the end of the season, viewers are left wondering how they can possibly rebuild and find the happiness they lost.
Season five opens with a question that is an obvious foreshadowing for the season: If you could start a relationship over again, knowing it failed the first time but that you’ve changed since then, would you? But is the relationship inferred the one between Mel and Liz, or does it have to do with their exes, who re-entered the picture in season four? With each season, “RED” has widened the focus of its storytelling. Each new season introduces additional characters and subplots, and the world of “RED” is growing as a result. From an initial tight focus on just Liz and Mel, we start to learn more about the people around them. (In an unexpected surprise, in season five, the most interesting character may well be Rafaela, “Rafa,” Liz’s ex.) This is an entire mini-world, populated by (almost exclusively) women with nuanced and complex lives of their own. As the show has matured, it has developed confidence in its ability to juggle multiple themes and narratives in the same season. Thus we see characters in season five of “Red” struggle to make ends meet, consider single motherhood, grapple with depression, and come to terms with ghosts of relationships past.
There are a few things that distinguish “RED” from other webseries. For one, the direction: director Fernando Belo is not a twentysomething shooting on an iPhone. He’s a skilled professional with an artistic eye who is seamlessly able to integrate visual texture, sound, and emotion in a way that amplifies the script. “RED” isn’t a mass manufactured, by-the-numbers Hollywood series; it’s an artistic experience that immerses the viewer. Second is “RED”’s bold approach to sensuality: unlike the majority of Anglo products that cut away at the first hint of a bra strap, “RED” embraces the sexual nature of relationships. Women initiate and enjoy sex. They show skin (tastefully). The show is very much a celebration of female relationships and sexuality. And finally, the characters are human. Their flaws aren’t cute and forgivable things like “forgets to put the cap back on the toothpaste.” They use drugs, they use each other, they make bad decisions and they suffer the consequences. The show empathizes with all of its characters, but is honest in its portrayal of human fallibility.
“RED” isn’t for everyone. The themes are heavy when compared to light-hearted, feel-good webseries alternatives. Almost all of the seasons have been downers, with characters sinking under the weight of their self-destructive (or more aptly put, “self-undermining”) behavior. This is the primary downside to the show: like a Russian play, there are few moments of unmitigated joy and happiness. Despite living by a beautiful beach, no one runs into the surf laughing. Depressing scenes are rarely punctuated by scenes of hope. In consequence, “RED” reads as fiercely pessimistic when it comes to relationships. Everyone who is in a relationship is miserable, while people not in a relationship are still negatively impacted by their past relationships. One may assume this is unintentional, an accidental side effect of trying to inject drama and realism into the plot, and may explain why the season add-on “Shades of RED” is more lighthearted and romantic.
Without spoiling the season for viewers who haven’t seen it, “Meliz” fans will find that at the end of a drought, there appear to be rainclouds ahead. But is there a rainbow for Rafa?
Favourite The Favourite
On the costume drama and its discontents
“The script was amazing, and then you just do what’s written down, I think. Without the writers, without words, we are just bumbling around, miming. So if the script is good, it’s allthere. I think.” (Olivia Coleman, in Sardo 2019)
In her first interview after winning the Oscar for the role of Queen Ann in The Favourite, Olivia Coleman succeeded - amidst obligatory chatter about emotions, husband, and kids - to mention one thing that truly matters about The Favourite, but is often forgotten: the script.
It took 20 years of meticulous historical research, and an international team of three foreign-born producers, a Greek director, and an Australian screenwriter to transform “a spec script from a first-time writer” into a film that has won the most prestigious prizes in the western world. The film tells a story of three women at the centre of the court of Queen Anne: the monarch herself (Olivia Colman); her lover and trusted adviser Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), who in this telling essentially ruled in Anne’s place; and servant Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who supplants Lady Sarah in the royal affections, stealing her position.
Anne was the Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland between 8 March 1702 and 1 May 1707. Under her reign, on 1 May 1707, two of her realms, the kingdoms of England and Scotland, united as a single sovereign state known as Great Britain. She continued to reign as Queen of Great Britain and Ireland until her death in 1714. The story of The Favourite is, says the publicity for the film, a true story. It was literally discovered by the film’s scriptwriter Deborah Davis, who came across the seeds of the story in a newspaper article: “It was like a snippet. The snippet was, everyone knows that Queen Anne was having an affair with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. I’m a keen historian but I didn’t know anything about this” (Gant 2019). Later she discovered other primary sources, including letters between Sarah and Anne, and Sarah’s memoir “about the breakdown of her relationship with Anne and how Abigail became the absolute favorite….”
This is a nice paradox: the film publicizes the discovery that the founding British monarch was a lesbian, but the actress impersonating this monarch in the film needs to promote herself through a small-talk about her husband and kids.
Not every historical period likes costume dramas. First, they are extremely expensive to make. The cinematic preferences for costume dramas alternate in time with much less expensive contemporary narratives, filmed on location in a documentary-like fashion that permits new unknown authors to enter the filmmaking and also to try out innovative approaches. Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of The Favourite, emerged in the period when the love of the times was on the side of on-location real-life films.
Apart from their high costs, the costume dramas also have a significant advantage, they contain imagination - of course they require imagination, since their audiences have no experience of what they are about, but they suppress it at the same time, since they put it into a historical context, a “true story” brand. This is an important advantage since the times that favor costume dramas are the times that favor fantasy and imagination, so other, more potentially courageous and subversive genres blossom too. The costume drama is the most politically correct among the fantastic narratives, from musicals to science fiction to animated superhero movies.
The “true story” label curbs the imagination by referring to reality. But reality itself remains within the realm of imagination. As we have learned from nouvelle histoire and its’ critique of historicism, what people believed has always been more important than presumed “reality”. Classic example is Alexander the Great - while traditional historicist method would be to search for the indications about how he “really” was, the nouvelle histoire proved that this is completely irrelevant, because people acted according to what they believed about him, and they believed Alexander the Great was - great, that is, strong, courageous and a womanizer. Another thing that we see in this example very clearly is, that historical imagination is shaped by social structures and power relations – the imagining of Alexander the Great incorporates the dominant values of western society such as physical force, masculinity, heterosexuality. Historic imagination is shaped by power relations and imagined attributes of a historic person reflect the values of the society that does the imagining, its’ preferences and its’ desires.
For this reason, I believe Yorgos Lanthimos was the right choice to direct The Favourite. He bent the socially shaped imagination of the iconic British queen a little more, a little further than a traditional approach to costume drama would permit. In his own words, “I like to construct films in a way that makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, but so you’ll still be able to enjoy them, be intrigued and start to think about the meaning of things.” (Ramsey2019). Lanthimos started by directing TV adverts, music videos, short films, and theatre productions, in 2004 he was part of the creative team behind the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens Olympics.
Visually, his films are designed to perfection, and the beauty of his images is in direct contrast to the actions and situations of his characters, individuals often struggling beneath the control of a perverse, morally abhorrent system or institution. I think the best name for this distinct aesthetics is visual cynicism, since he meticulously constructs an ideal, polished, familiar universe, and then makes it completely estranged by only changing a small detail. Here, his work resembles David Lynch, think only about the intro to the Blue Velvet, a family house surrounded by a garden, with a white fence, on the green grass, and in the midst of the grass - a cut off ear. Only the Lanthimos’ films are much more extreme. An excellent example is the Dogtooth (2009), inspired by the case of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian who for decades kept his daughter locked in the cellar of his home. In Dogthoot, three children, all now in their twenties, are locked from the world, in a fenced compound for the entirety of their lives. As they are made to believe that they will be released once they lose a dogtooth, at a certain point they actually start pulling their teeth out. This cynicism permits Lanthimos to critically challenge social conventions without directly engaging with politics.
Unlike the Dogtooth, he did not write the script for The Favourite, so his space for creating a fictional universe was limited by historical facts, but his visual cynicism still enabled him to critically address the mainstream politically correct narrative and imagining. Far the most visually appealing element is the stock of pet white rabbits in the Queen Ann’s bedroom, and the way they are applied throughout the film to outline emotional developments, up to the point when Abigail secretly squeezes one with her heel. On the other hand, such slightly out-of-the-ordinary moments, halfway between historical truisms and Lanthimos signature, are present all through the film, for example the scene in the fully packed coach when the man, sitting in front of Abigail, takes his penis in his hand. The Favourite is not the best Lanthimos film but he did establish a distance from the mainstream cinematic narrative of a costume drama.
So much so that, actually, there is too much distancing made possible by The Favourite. First, the distance from politics. Politics is a serious activity and ever since the dangers of global warming began to become real, more and more people are aware that thisdemands at least minimum engagement with politics from every single person. So it makes sense that a queen is portrayed like any other person, no doubt this is one of the reasons for the popularity of The Favourite. What I do not like is, that serious historical events, international relations, war, and peace, are interpreted as a matter of personal whims. Female personal whims, to be exact. Such interpretation makes politics a sort of tabloid affair, but at the same time keeps serious civic engagement with politics at a distance. In a similar way, by apparent proximity, the film also keeps at a distance its presumed main topic, female homosexuality. The female homosexuality is the least socially accepted among all sexual identities, and this is in strong conflict with the mainstream request for tolerance. The Favourite, according to my opinion, provides a way out of this conflict, since it projects the uncanny to the past, to the British, to the Royals ... However you look at it, “they” are “not us”. This is the reason why the film is so popular, at least in Slovenia, among the traditional guardians of the status quo. With The Favourite as their favourite film, they can be tolerant, politically engaged, concerned for the others, and still be in charge of what is right and what is wrong, without any risk of a change, without renouncing the traditional values and ways of living, and without re-distributing the cultural, social and political powers.
Gant, C. (2019) 20 years in the making: The story behind Bafta front runner 'The Favourite’. Screen Daily, January 10. Obtained at: https://www.screendaily.com/features/ 20-years-in-the-making-the-story-behind-bafta-front-runner-the-favourite/5135627.article
Ramsay, J. (2019) 7 Yorgos Lanthimos Movies Ranked From Worst To Best. Taste of Cinema, February 20. Obtained at: http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2019/all-7-yorgoslanthimos-movies-ranked-from-worst-to-best/
Sardo, M. (2019) 91st Oscars Backstage Interview. Olivis Coleman. Popaxiom. Obtained at: https://www.popaxiom.com/91st-oscars-backstage-interview-olivia-colman/