“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/
The Summer of Sangailė (Sangailės vasara, 2015, LT)
When I wrote an essay about The Future of Lesbian Films I have not watched Lithuanian film Sangailės vasara (The Summer of Sangailė) by Alantė Kavaitė. This could be one of the films on my best lesbian films list. Some film critics compare it to films of Haeneke and Rohmer. Despite watching a few Haeneke's films I could not find comparison except for the slow pace of the story, I have not watched Rohmer's films and can not comment on that though. I however think that Kavaitė's film could be to a degree compared to Tarkovky's films: not only the way she uses the natural elements, such as air, water and the earth, most importantly it is the way how every scene in film we watch is part of a thorough (deep and broad) thought of the story it wishes to convey: it is all well planned and it makes a very plausible film narrative. The main emotional, sensual and sexual aspects are also well thought, the way the nature and space-time is used and portrayed in the film it could easily fit into the main emotional, intellectual and sexual milestones of the film too: like the natural, almost cosmical - space-time aspects coincide with the love story of the main characters – we see this rarely nowadays.
And most importantly, this film is about a female: female gaze, female desire, female pleasure, female obsession and determination and female devotion to her mission and career. Let us go step by step describing what I just wrote: female gaze and female desire. We learn about one of the main character, Austė's (Aistė Diržiūtė) female attraction towards another main character, Sangailė (Julija Steponaityte) from the very first moment Austė sees Sangailė and that is in the second scene in the film at the stunt flying parade. From that point on Alantė Kavaitė brilliantly builds the desire between the two in the most delicate, subtle and smooth way; such as Austė's looks at Sangailė's body and gentle touches when they meet for the first time in Austė's mother apartment where Sangailė learns that Austė likes to be a fashion designer and tells Sangailė to undress in order she takes her body measurements to saw a dress for her - the way she looks and touches Sangalie's body during measurements is a clearly expressing interest and desire for Sangailė but she does that in a profound and non-invasive way: they are focused short glances that swing between purposeful activity that (measurement) need looks and touch of Sangailė's body mixed with Austė's desire for Sangailė's body. Sangailė is aware of all that and she lets it.
Kavaitė allows characters to get to know and care for each other that would prove and 'justify' their attraction towards each other and she does it beautifully and neatly. Austė makes dresses for Sangailė and then takes the photo sessions of her in the nature, at the old abandoned factory and elsewhere: through making dresses and photo seasons Sangailė's learns that Austė loves and accepts her the way she is. Namely, when Austė took bodily measures of Sangailė for the first time she saw Sangailė's cuts on her arms and she did not say a word – she accepted it. And in the next scene when she takes fashion photography of Sangailė with the dress she made for her she gives her long gloves to cover her arms - gloves Sangailė eventually threw away because she did not need them since she faced her self-destructive behavior through relationship with Austė. Well, anyway we got ahead of ourselves at this moment.
Namely, after Austė made her first dress for Sangailė, took some photos of her and they spent a day together, we later in the evening watch as they have their first kisses and sex: the scene is as much as beautifully as delicately done: they both wear dresses with small lights sowen in their skirts which makes them glowing like flash lights and as the sun is going down we watch Austė undresses Sangailė and Sangailė undresses Austė and Austė kisses Sangailė for the first time, Sangailė returns the kisses and then we are faced with a delicate mixture of sensuality and sexuality in the dimness of the light in the midst of a meadow, among high grasses as if their kisses were the sun rays kisses the earth before becoming dark.
Director delicately chose to show shots of upper part of the body and partial objects, the lips, breasts, tights, stomach, hands … , throughout the film, we get shots of shoulders, stomachs, ears and various other body parts. Instead of framing whole bodies or faces of the main characters, Kavaïté offers quick shots of their eyes, their legs, their hands, their bellies and it may be interpreted through Freud's and Lacan's notion of oral, anal, falic drives as being partial - they take bodily parts, such as breasts, ears, lips, hands as their objects from which they derive pleasure.
And their first sexual scene in the meadow is just for the start: there are a lot of beauty and beautiful natural scenes: shoots of the water surfaces from the bird's perspective are mesmerizing as we watch reflection of small golden vawes on the surface of the lake's embraced by the land which coincides with/follow Austė's embrace of Sangailė after she climbs the top of the building's roof to face her fear of the vertigo or when the girls lay in their sleeping bags in the meadow, holding their hands and watching the night sky full of stars.
This film is a lesson in poetry of the nature's and women's beauty: not only through beautiful nature's scenery, also actresses are beautiful and more then just beautiful, there is something attractive and 'addictive' not only on the visual plane of their faces and bodies but also beneath, it is about the beauty of their characters that shines through. Austė is a single daughter of a divorced mother, she is a determined, confident, focused and down to earth, yet loving, giving and gentle. Austė knows she needs to work hard to get and achieve what she wants. Sangailė is a dreamy, absent, insecure and with low-self confidence while being privileged, having both parents who are successful and rich. Austė helps Sangailė to overcome her insecurities and to build her self-respect by starting working on what she wants for herself – to start working on overcoming her vertigo in order to become a stunt pilot. Austė could achieve that because she loves Sangailė and through love she builds trust and confidence that she wants best for Sangailė. However, before she could do that we see Sangailė struggling to let her be guided by Austė's because Sangailė's character also presents as what we usually could call 'a male, self-absorbed, obsessed ego' with his (career) vision for himself (that is what Sangailė probably got from her mother who used to be a successful ballerina) and while achieving that he puts aside all other interests, relations and that is what we occasionally sense with Sangailė's character too.
Most notably, when she breaks up with Austė for convincing her being able to fly yet she failed that because she has not managed to overcame her vertigo yet. She told Austė not to speak to her again. Austė complies while thinking Sangailė being very selfish thinking only of herself and not being able to see she does everything for her. And that is what she tells Sangailė when she comes back asking her to get together again. In what it comes, we are faced with another beautiful scene where nature is inter-vowen into the nature of their relationship. They are in the forest amidst trees and blueberries and they struggle, Austė trying to show Sangailė must trust her guidance by submitting to her, telling her „you know nobody will understand you better than me“.
In general, girls spend a lot of time in the nature and there are gorgeous pictures of the nature, not only Austė taking pictures of beautiful Sangailė but how they both admire and observe the nature, gooses flying, reesses in the water, mist above the water, the stars on the night sky – all these shows how their relationship does not need anything except being themselves together and being in the nature (nature provides enough beauty, wonder and awe to enjoy, learn and observe).
Kavaitė focus is mainly on the Austė and Sangailė's relationship and also in the relation of the nature while other social relationships are somehow put aside as not as important (it is because of the coming of age period when adolescents do not care as much about their relationship with parents as about what they wish to become as adults and how to achieve that). Therefore, Sangailė's relationship with her parents are shown on several occasions only to show how estranged and disinterested she was in them (mostly in the sense how they were immersed in themselves, in their success and high profile friends) while on the other hand Austė's relationship with her mother was shown in only one scene to show love and care between them and that immense love is gives Sangailė she probably got from her mother. For instance, Austė asks her mother why she makes so many biscuits and she answers because she loves them. Austė's mother is focused on her daughter while Sangailė's parents focus is on them, the fitness, elegance, beauty and success of her former ballerina mother, success of her father and that reflects also in Sangailė character and in relation towards Austė - Sangailė is mainly focused on herself and her aspiration and inspiration while Austė is focused on her relationship with Sangailė while doing her fashion designs and photography. There is no doubt Austė knows what she wants her to be and that is a fashion designer, yet at the same time she also knows she loves Sangailė and wishes to be with her, she invests time, energy, care, she helps Sangailė to love and accepts herself more and not hate herself, she helps her to strive and achieve her dream to become a stunt pilot (It is interesting to learn that Sangailė's origin of self-hatred comes from her family when her mother told her she was unworthy of the family name). So at the end of the film, we see Sangailė climbing high trees, high objects (such as electrical towers) to get used to the height and overcome the fear of the height and when she feels ready and confident she tries again stunt flaying and she succeeds in becoming a stunt pilot.
We learn that it took two years to achieve that and at the same time Austė was accepted at the Fashion Faculty by passing the entrance exam. However, we don't fully understand what happened to their relationship in those two years – are they still together, are they going to pursue their careers with or without each other? However, one thing is clear: when Sangailė achieved self-respect the power-dynamics of their relationship changed, at least from Sangailė's point of view, while for Austė nothing changed, Sangailė still hold a special place in her heart and thoughts.
Therefore this film is not only about female gaze and female desire for another female is it about a female desire of what she is and what she wants, what she wants to become as a person and in her career: Austė loves photography and fashion design and she makes an entrance exams to the Fashion Faculty, Sangailė loves flying and becomes a stunt pilot; two women help each other to achieve their 'dreams' and self-satisfaction through love, understanding and acceptance of each other.
Their mutual success, understanding and acceptance is as important as their mutual gratification in intimate relationship. We see that through sex scene where they both come (had their orgasms) and the way after Sangailė hugs tight Austė, their bodies being tightly interwoven into each other is one of the most beautiful expressions of love for another. In my opinion, portrayal of each sex scene in The Summer of Sangailė is far better then any of the scenes from Blue is the warmest color. There is nothing fake or forced about them, everything is genuine and comes naturally, it comes from their beauty, their self-confidence, their insecurities, power struggles, their genuine orgasms and each other gratifications. This is also shown by the fact that actresses does not wear make up because there is no need to pretend, hide or cover anything (about them). They are natural beauties inside out and we love to look at them each other separately and together as they grow, we love to learn and watch their love story.
Kavaitė through this film conveys her attitude towards lesbian and gay love - love between two woman is something natural that happen between two people who feel attraction and love towards each other without any dispute, obstacles or questions (on educational, societal, ideological or religious grounds). (Maybe) Kavaitė chose the coming of age period of the story because at that time people are not fully formed and are not as opinionated as when they are fully adults burdened by pressures to conform to the societal expectations, they accept love as comes to them naturally. I would love to see how Kavaitė depicted love between woman who are over their 40's and in the long term relationship, what drives them, what their aspirations and inspirations are, what their struggles and inner motivation are, what and how they wish to achieve them.
I see parallels with Tarkovsky the way they both portray the nature (meadows, water, mist) and the role it plays in the story and all the thinking behind that (like in the Stalker and Nostalgia); beauty of the scenes with Wai through use of fashion and not only fashion but also through the care for the details and beauty of every scene (like In the Mood for Love), also with Bergman of how the characters are structured and their relationship psychology is (like in Cries and Whispers, Persona). This is my personal view of the film. However, when I watched the interview with the director and the actresses Kavaitė revealed that Gus van Sant's film My private Idaho made quite an impact on her film in the sense how Sant's main character Mike was also broken as Sangailė is, as well as 60's and 70's Japanese cinema (like Fruits of Passion by Masumura, Funeral parade of Roses by Matsumoto). These surely show in some of the structure of story and portrayal of the looks, desire, sex scenes and also power struggle. However, the beauty of art works is that they allow individual interpretations (as well).
P.S. The only common thing I could find with Éric Rohmer (yeah, I watched three of his films in the meantime, Love in the Afternoon, My night with Maude and The Green Ray) is that he shows a lot of nature's scenes in The Green Ray. Film itself is beautiful however the whole film shows the main character, Delphine looking for a new love (a new boyfriend) while The Summer of Sangailė shows subject of love of the main character from the start and film is about their love story throughout the film. It is true Rohmer talks a lot about women in his films, however his representation of women are part of the traditional view on women as indecisive, either talkative or shy and mostly anxious about honestly expressing themselves, Kavaïté on the contrary presents strong, bold, determined women who know from the start what they wish and with whom.
Femme Representation on Screen a Reflection of the Male Gaze
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Hollywood (here a metonym for the entertainment industry in general) likes its female characters gorgeous, girly, and pliable. From Bond girl Pussy Galore to Samantha from “Sex and the City,” female characters are treated as sex objects for the male gaze, with matching expectations for the actresses who play them about the need to exude “sex appeal” to male viewers (paradoxically, this is true even in the case of movies whose intended audience is female). A direct consequence of this chauvinistic approach to female representation is that Hollywood almost exclusively depicts queer women as “high femme”: long hair, make-up, high heels and dresses. To Hollywood, queer female characters are almost indistinguishable from straight female characters; both have to conform to the male ideal of what “feminine beauty” should look like. (And in fact, the line becomes so blurred that ostensible lesbian Pussy Galore sleeps with the irresistibly masculine James Bond and man-eater Samantha has a Sapphic dalliance.)
The depiction of the queer female community on both TV and in movies as being almost exclusively composed of high femmes, of course, has been a longstanding point of contention for the queer female community. It is an extreme skewing of the community’s demographics that disproportionately represents the presence of high femmes at the cost of literally everyone else in the community. According to metrics from the dating site match.com, only 8% of lesbians self-identify as “lipstick lesbian” (also called high femme or “ultra femme”). Given that 11% of lesbians self-identify as “butch,” this leaves around 81% of the queer female population falling somewhere else along the spectrum of gender presentation. Whether they identify as “chapstick lesbian,” “androgynous,” or any other label (this article is not about what qualities define each category, so it is to the reader to make their own judgment), the point is that only a fraction of the community is represented by characters depicted as high femme.
While many articles over time have identified examples of good butch representation—for example Big Boo on “Orange is the New Black,” Denise on “Master of None,” or Corky from the movie “Bound”—as a way of counteracting this overrepresentation and encouraging Hollywood to add more diversity of gender expression in its queer female characters, Hollywood’s historical obsession with the “straight-passing lesbian” suggests that even high femme representation is not automatically positive. For example, what queer American woman above a certain age could forget the travesty that was hitwoman Ricki (played by Jennifer Lopez) going straight for Ben Affeck in the movie “Gigli” in the early 2000s? The point is, if Hollywood insists on continuing to make the majority of its queer characters femme as part of its obsession with a certain ideal of feminine beauty, then these characters should be more than just women in dresses who act as either a foil to straight male characters or a visual amuse-bouche for straight male viewers. In real life, femme lesbians operate, like all queer women, within a distinct subculture that colors how they interact with the world, and a good femme character should reflect that: they don’t exist to titillate men, they’re simply women who love a good pair of high heels and other women. If there is one single characteristic that might define a “good example” of femme representation, then, it might be that the character does not exist primarily for the male gaze.
What specific characters might be held up as good examples of femme representation? One might easily point to femme characters in features directed by a lesbian and intended for lesbian audiences, as these features automatically remove the male gaze. These would include, as just a few examples, Tala from “I Can’t Think Straight” (director Shamim Sharif) and Vivian from “Saving Face” (director Alice Wu) in movies, and Maybelle from the webseries “Maybelle” (director Christin Baker). Even the presence of a queer woman as a writer or producer can result in positive femme representation regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of the director, for example Mel and Liz on the webseries “RED.” (Of course, a queer female presence in the crew is no guarantee of a positive example of femme representation. One can make valid arguments on both sides about whether femme representation in “The L Word” or “D.E.B.S.” were to at least some degree exploitative and titillating.) Even when there’s no obvious queer influence in the cast or crew, however, it is possible to provide good queer femme representation simply by avoiding the same sort of objectification of women to which straight female characters also fall prey. An example of this would be the Israeli film “Ha-Sodot” (“The Secrets”), which took a completely sympathetic and female-driven approach to storytelling despite having a male director.
Right now, male-dominated Hollywood is facing a crisis: women on both sides of the camera are increasingly calling out the entertainment industry for its sexism and are demanding greater gender equality. Actresses are challenging what they perceive as the imposition of a male gaze, and developing their own projects that will enable more balanced and equal storytelling that does not objectify women. The future of representation for queer women who are femme, butch, and everything in between will to a large degree depend on who wins this culture conflict: the old boy’s club or the new feminist wave. So long as the male gaze persists and male Hollywood insists that female characters must all have long hair and wear dresses in order for movies to be successful, then the queer female characters that we will see will continue to be femme women who appeal to men. Should women win even a partial victory, however, we may see greater diversity of representation, with more gender diversity and less of a focus on the sexual appeal of queer female characters to men. Having femme queer women on screen is good, because they do represent a large part of our community… but we need more diversity and less fetishization at the same time.
“Nina” and Socio-Political Messaging in Lesbian Films
by Karen Frost, contributing writer
The Polish movie “Nina” has several interesting ideas. For example, its overarching plot is symbolically about how barrenness can lead to a form of rebirth: a heterosexual couple in their mid to late 30s unable to have children and stuck in a stagnating marriage attempts to woo a young (it turns out) lesbian to act as a surrogate for them. In the course of this clandestine wooing, the wife, Nina (Julia Kijowska), falls in love with the hoped-for surrogate, Magda (Eliza Rycembel), and an illicit same-sex love affair ensues that shakes up Nina’s life completely. Nina’s icy exterior melts and a newer, more vivacious Nina emerges to pursue a totally different future. And what attracts upper middle class intellectual Nina to Millenial airport security guard Magda? On the surface, they are worlds apart, so perhaps this is another symbolic representation, reflecting the irresistible allure of youth to humans as we age. If this symbolism was unintentional, nevertheless it exists naturally in the plot and adds additional food for thought about how life can inadvertently take on aspects of symbolism.
“Nina”’s true strength is in its excellent use of contrasts to bring out the personalities of its characters. Nina is a stiff high school French teacher who seems constantly on edge and whose first introduction on screen suggests she’s more likely to be the film’s villain than the protagonist. Her husband Wojtek is a rough, working-class mechanic and Magda, in striking contrast to both, represents the libertine, free-spirit of one’s early twenties: in an open relationship, unencumbered by familial expectations, and hardly thinking about life past the next beer. The relationship between these three characters, and Kijowska’s performance as Nina in particular, in fact, is what makes the movie worth a watch, more than the plot. While the movie isn’t perfect, its interesting combination of acting, storytelling, and cinematography (combined with a very subtle commentary on Polish society that foreign viewers are likely to miss) transcends its labeling as a “lesbian movie.”
Many queer female themed movies like “Nina” feature love stories centering around a woman who formerly identified as heterosexual coming to terms with a shift in her sexual identity. What sets some of them apart, as is the case with heterosexual love stories, too, is the vision of the director to layer additional meaning into the story. For “Nina,” this comes in the form of subtle fantasy: the setting is a slightly idealized Poland, in which a fictional lesbian club in Warsaw full of out and proud lesbians coexists with the gritty, industrial environment of a former Soviet state and a French teacher can live happily ever after with her security guard lover if she chooses to. Thus for Olga Chajdas, the lesbian director and writer of “Nina,” the film shows what Poland’s lesbian scene could look like, in an alternate universe: a relatively safe space for lesbians to dance and be together openly.
In contrast, Deepa Mehta’s movie “Fire,” set in India, takes elements of a Hindu epic poem, the Ramayana, to tell the modern day story of how two married sisters-in-law abrogate social norms in order to find love in a highly patriarchal society. “Fire” is deeply critical of India’s treatment of women, and uses its same-sex romantic element as part of a broader look at how women are denied agency by their society and families. The American movie “AWOL” tells its lesbian love story through a powerful class lens that both sympathizes with the lower class and rebukes the entertainment industry for its obsession with only telling the stories of the upper middle class (Brazil’s “Good Manners” also starts with a commentary on class before redirecting to a fantasy horror). Israel’s “The Secrets” offers multiple layers of meaning, from challenging expectations for women in an ultra-orthodox society, to the relationship between women and religious texts, to the coexistence of modern Israel and longstanding Jewish practices, and even the morality of helping others from another religion. Most recently, “Disobedience,” set in an ultra-orthodox community in London, tried use its love triangle to shed light on that community, although the movie’s ultimate political message was muddled by the sympathy shown to the male member of the triangle.
Lesbian movies are often easy vehicles for social commentary because queer women already exist in a marginalized space. It is thus easier to make a statement about marginalized groups including and in addition to queer women and societal attitudes and behaviors related to them. Interestingly, however, to date most lesbian movies seem to have avoided overt political commentary about country-specific discrimination. One exception to this is the movie “Freeheld,” which is based on a true story and centers on the refusal of a county in the United States to pass pension benefits to a detective’s same-sex domestic partner. For the most part, however, the role of national governments in institutional discrimination has been glossed over in movies, possibly because it is safer for filmmakers to challenge a faceless “society” than a government with the ability to exact retribution for criticism.
The vast majority of lesbian movies are directed by women, naturally giving them a “female gaze” (as opposed to the much criticized “male gaze”) and perhaps a more interpersonal-oriented approach to storytelling. This is notably different from at least the US film industry, which is massively dominated by male directors. Although female directors probably are no more or less likely to embed socio-political themes in their work than male directors, how they play out relations between two women in love almost certainly differs. This is particularly true of the controversial lesbian film “Below Her Mouth.” Critics claim this movie crosses the line from cinema into erotica. To them the movie is, in a word, smut. One might convincingly argue, however, that the movie’s raw and unapologetic sexuality is exactly the point: that for the protagonist to come to terms with her sexuality, she must truly experience sex, and that Hollywood’s attempts to muzzle a woman’s sexual pleasure on screen is an inherently political act that “Below Her Mouth” seeks to challenge.
As a parting thought, it is worth noting that the queer female community—as is also true of the heterosexual community—as an audience seems to prefer movies that lack socio-political commentary. Historically, the most popular lesbian movies have been romantic comedies, light popcorn fare without any deep message. “Freeheld” in particular was an utter failure at the box office, raking in just over half a million dollars to recoup its $7 million budget. This doesn’t diminish the importance and need for these movies, but it does suggest that filmmakers seeking to make a point should expect to attract a smaller audience.
Queering (Canada, 2018 -)
Queering is a very nice Canadian TV-mini web series of a young lesbian, Harper (Sophia Graso) and her mother, Val (Susan Gallagher) who comes out as bisexual at the age of 60. Harper also has a best friend and roommate Devon (Diana Oh). Series was created and directed by Leticia De Bortoli.
At first we get to know Harper's love story in a lesbian bar where she talks to her date about her former relationship with her ex-girlfriend McKenzie. McKenzie left Harper for her new girlfriend Katrina (nickname George) which Harper understood as boy George and thought she was left for a men. This was the first instance we learn about Harper's attitude towards bisexuality (she is devastated not only by the fact she was left but that she spent nine years of her life with a woman who was actually a bisexual – she never thought she would be dumped and replaced by man). While talking her date about her experience woman says that her story reminds her of a story she watched on Internet (youtube video) – a story of 60 years old woman who came out as bisexual and was married to a man most of her adult life.
We move on the next scene when Harper meets her mother, Val tells her she separated from her father, Frank and won't host Christmas this year. A woman from bar comes to visit Harper when she sees Val and recognizes her from her coming out video as bisexual and she just poops in the flat to make Selfie of her and Val. And then Val tells to Harper that she is bisexual. Harper is at first shocked and in denial: she reasons she is probably just bored and searching for a new excitement in her life after she retired. However, Val insists that she is a bisexual. And how she knows that? Val tells Harper and Delvin about experience with Julliet, her lesbian pilate's instructor whom she was constantly looking at and felt obvious attraction for her.
Harper is still in denial and while Harper and Val have a conversation about bisexuality on the bench in the park a bisexual jogger, Brit (Ana Stan) comes along and when recognizes Val from the video she compliments her for courage to come out as bisexual and invites them to the LB-party. In the meantime we hear a lot about usual stuff regarding bisexuality, such as that lesbians and LGBTIQ-community in general don't accept bisexuals because they swing for both teams, that they are unreliable and just looking to use LGBT-people for fun and excitement. Meanwhile. Harper's friend Devlin is very supportive of Val's recently discovered attraction towards women and they go shopping for Val's new outfit and even make her a Tinder dating profile.
Then Harper, Val and Devlin go to the underground LB-party where women DJ'ing and read their poetry. Harper is again confronted with her prejudices regarding bisexuality: when meeting Brit they talk about it but then they make out. However, when Harper meets her ex-girlfriend McKenzie and her new girlfriend Katrina at party she finally finds out that she mistook Katarina for George and she is just devastated again realizing that McKenzie didn't love her any more, yet she still loves her.
At the same time Val is confronted as being an attractive woman and when she was about to have a kiss with another woman she freakes out and lies that her husband waits her. She then doubts herself if she is indeed a bisexual or she made up a fantasy about her being bisexual. Harper finally accepts her mother's bisexuality is real and encourages her to allow herself a new experience. After talking to Harper, Val gathers courage and have her first kiss with another woman.
There should be more such light 'hearted' web series and humorous too. Just because it’s filled with heart doesn’t mean it’s lacking humour. Devon is a standout when it comes to this, with a refreshing wit and ready talk about anything. There’s a conversation between Devon and Val about sex that’s as hilarious as it is wonderful.
I also like portrayal of a mother-daughter relaxed, understanding and supportive relationship, especially as daughter is lesbian. And even if at first Harper can not quite cope with mother's newly discovered bisexuality she accepts it. Prejudices and stereotypes regarding bisexuality are accurately presented but only to be dismissed.
And what makes Val such an important character is the fact she’s an older woman in her sixties, now coming out. As it may sound odd but it does happen in life that more elder women freely express their sexual orientation now. It also comes as revelation that it has been Val's a long standing wish, an attraction she felt even at college, it just didn't occur to her what it was about. Val's bisexuality is a facet to the queer community that is rarely represented in media, if at all.
Stella Blómkvist (ICE – 2018-)
Icelandic crime noir TV-series is a unique in the spectrum of Scandinavian-crime-noir drama (such as Trapped, Wallander, The Bridge …) because it is much more fast-pace and action based and its main character is bold, beautiful, smart and sexy. Stella Blómkvist (Heida Reed) is also the only openly bisexual main character of this sort of genre (for instance, Saga, the main character in The Bridge is overly heterosexual and in European version of the Bridge,The Tunnel, Elise, the main character falls in love with woman she investigates, however her love for another woman is presented as something she is caught by surprise, as something not considered or known to her before). But Stella Blómkvist is presented as bisexual from the start.
At the beginning we follow the story of the murder of Halla's Einarsdottir (Kristín Lea Sigríðardóttir), PM's assistant, Sverrir Kristjansdottir (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). The accused of her murder is a small drug dealer Saemi. Stella Blómkvist is called in as his lawyer but she is soon replaced by president's sister Edda Kristjansdottir (Steinunn Ólína Þorsteinsdóttir) who is also an attorney. Rumor goes the accused is only a cover up for the real killer who must be someone important. Namely, Halla was fixing private parties for the PM, Sverrir and she also filmed some of the parties therefore it was known to some she could blackmail quite a number of important people in PM's cabinet and also many of his influental friends. It was also known she kept the videos in a blue bag.
Blómkvist was for this reason taken off the case but she starts her own investigation regarding Halla's death when she gets an anonymous phone call by a female and meets with a man who gives her a letter what she needs to find (letter mentioned blue bag with usb). Blómkvist soon finds out who her informant and new client is, Dagbjört Konradsdottir (Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir), a minister of internal affairs. Dagbjört tells Stella to find a blue bag with video files (photo/video evidence of the sex parties with hookers, drugs and alcohol). Stella also learns that earlier the night Halla was murdered she was with PM and his cabinet at dinner with high Chinese officials to negotiate 150 mil. deal between Iceland and China. As a success of the deal with Chinese Halla organized a sex party for Chinese and some of the cabinet members at the Ministry.
Meanwhile, a drug dealer Saemi confessed to a murder of Halla's Einarsdottir and Blómkvist started looking for blue bag with help of her friend, Gunna (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), an IT expert and code cracker. Blómkvist went with Gunna to Halla's mother Lena and she found the little blue bag on the shelve among Halla's Barbie collection. In the blue bag was an usb with videos but they were all password protected. Stella informs Dagbjört that she has the blue bag but all video files are password protected. During Stella and Dagbjört meetings we soon sense that they are mutually attracted to each other and for Dagbjört Stella's quick-witted, successful and bold navigation between danger and resourcefulness are especially turn on which leads her having sex with Stella.
The information that blue bag was found soon spread, also to the Chinese cultural attache Guo Dai (David Yu) who came to Blómkvist's house, pressing her to give him the usb. Blómkvist told Dai that all files on the usb are password protected and that her friend Gunna needs more time to crack it. How serious Dai is in getting that usb he demonstrates by cutting Gunna's finger off and getting her unconscious.
Stella informs Dagbjört that Dai got an information about the blue bag and pressured her to give him the blue bag for a large sum of money and that he also suspected someone from the embassy was a spy for the Icelandic government (Icelandic Negotiation Committee). Indeed, there was a spy at the Chinese embassy and who happened to be Dagbjört's childhood friend, Sara. However, Dagbjört withholds the information of the spy and tells Stella she could protect her from Dai if she gives her the usb.
In the meantime an audience founds out that Halla was not killed by Saemi or by PM who was her lover but by one of PM's employees, Haukur Karlsson (Hannes Óli Ágústsson) who shared some negotiation information with the Chinese official at the sex party. Halla saw that and blackmailed Haukur to resign from his job which Haukur didn't want to. Instead, he asked Halla to delete the file but she didn't wish to and that is why he killed her and tried to cover his murder by accusing PM killed her while being under the drug's influence. And not only that, someone also murdered Dai and Stella was seen to be the last person in contact with him for which reason she was the prime suspect of his death. Stella goes into hiding and Gunna finally succeeds in obtaining the password from Halla's work computer and opens the video files of Sverrir's sex orgies. Stella goes to Dagbjört's house happily sharing video files with Dagbjört and has also sex with her. There Stella discovers that spy was actually Dagbjört's friend, Sara. Stella rushes to Sara's house to confront her. Sara reveals that Dai found out she was the spy and blackmailed her and her family. When she saw Stella going with Dai to the toilet at the party of Chinese and Icelandic government she seized the opportunity and killed him with the peanut butter, knowing his allergy to peanut. As soon as Sara shares the information she is Dai's killer Chinese officials come and seize Sara and her family.
After Dagbjört got hold of the video files Sverrir Kristjandottir resigned and Dagbjört Konradsdottir became a closeted bisexual as a new Primer Minister of Iceland. It is interesting to note that in reality Iceland was the only country in the world that had an openly lesbian Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir who led Icelandic government from 2009 until her retirement from politics in 2012.
There is no doubt of a mutual attraction between Stella and Dagbjört which serie portrays in a very believable way plus the main character is played by Heida Reed, more known for her role of Elizabeth Chynoweth in BBC drama Poldark (2015-2018). Uniqueness of Stella Blómkvist series is presented also in occasional neon style lighting, electro-lounge music, Stella's drinking and smoking, something that is rather the opposite of the Scandinavian noir crime fiction where characters are highly rational, composed and rarely seen in any kind of sexual activities.