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.