Gender Calamity/Gender Possibility: Calamity Jane (1953)

The 1953 musical western Calamity Jane follows an ostensibly heteronormative narrative trajectory in which we see two rebellious young women being tamed and made ready for heterosexual marriage. Wild tomboy and stagecoach guard, “Calam” (Doris Day), gets a makeover and learns how to be a woman, while aspiring burlesque performer, Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), gives up on her dreams of being on stage for the love of a man. But this surface narrative is in constant tension and conflict with the film’s high camp celebration of queer rebellion and non-normative desire which conveys an alternative story that, as Eric Savoy argues, questions “the possibility, or even the desirability of a coherent gender role” (151) or, for that matter, the very existence of “true”, or fixed identities.

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The Lesbian Movie Marathon: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Directed by James Kent and written by Jane English

I was pleasantly surprised by this beautifully filmed drama based on the life of nineteenth-century diarist, Anne Lister (1791 – 1840).  Some parts of Lister’s diaries are written in code which, when cracked, was found to contain remarkably frank descriptions of her romantic involvements and sexual relationships with women. This all rather demolished the idea that unmarried women necessarily had little access to knowledge about sex or lesbian culture before the twentieth century.  It’s apparent that, not only Anne, but also the locals who called her “Gentleman Jack”, had a very good idea of what she was about.  The Lister diaries suggest that there was a well-developed discourse about lesbianism which was available, at least to upper-class women, as a way to understand themselves in the nineteenth century.

One of the most refreshing things about The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is that it doesn’t make concessions to the straight audience: it doesn’t explain, or apologise, or dumb down the lesbian representation, but nor does it use the lesbian theme to titillate the viewer.  There is one sex scene which I thought very well done.  This may be because the producers were aware that only lesbians and people already interested in the history and literature of the period would be likely to watch it, so there wasn’t much point in trying to entice a wider audience.  It was cast thoughtfully with actresses who made credible nineteenth-century lesbians, and I was particularly pleased to see that thought had gone into how a butch lesbian might have presented herself during this time.   Maxine Peake played Anne with tomboyish energy and great charm, Anna Madeley, as her long-time lover Mariana, was believable as a woman caught between her sexual desires and the life she has chosen as the wife of a wealthy man.  Susan Lynch was excellent as Anne’s hard-drinking ex-girlfriend ‘Tib’ who’d still like to be more than friends.  Gemma Jones and Alan David were also lovely as Anne’s slightly bewildered, but ultimately accepting, aunt and uncle.

I really liked the film but found the documentary with Sue Perkins, ‘The Real Anne Lister’, even more fascinating.  In order to make the drama watchable for a modern audience, the writers modified what we know about Anne to make her appear a great deal more sympathetic than she was in real life.  As Sue Perkins reads the diaries she rather struggles to like Anne, who comes across as a terrible snob and not a particularly nice person.  For example, in the drama, her last relationship with the heiress, Miss Anne Walker, is sweetly presented, but in the diaries it seems a far more cynical arrangement based more on Anne Lister’s desire for a submissive wife and her need for money to invest in her mining projects.  Of course money and companionship were considered perfectly acceptable reasons for marriage in the early nineteenth century, but what is fascinating is that the two Annes do seem to have considered themselves married and even managed to get their relationship blessed by the church.  My own feeling is that Anne Lister probably had to become a rather ruthless person just to be able to live the life she lived in this period.

I would highly recommend this drama and the accompanying documentary for anyone interested in lesbian herstory.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon, The Nightwatch

Sarah Waters’s novel, The Nightwatch, interests me partly because I had two lesbian great-aunts, one of whom (like the character of Kay), drove ambulances during World War II, and the other was in the forces and did something to do with anti-aircraft guns.

Andy’s already written a post about the recent BBC adaptation which I’ll try not to replicate too much here, but I agree with her points that, while it didn’t suck and I certainly didn’t hate it, overall, it also left me feeling disappointed.

Along with Fingersmith I think this is the most respectful of the adaptations of Waters’s work so far,  definitely the best produced and acted that we’ve seen.   I felt that the novel was being taken seriously and the actors were bringing everything they could to the text.  I thought the performances of Anna Wilson-Jones as Julia particularly good as she only had a few scenes, and also Harry Treadway as Duncan, who made his character more interesting to me than the Duncan in the book.

I do think that making it into such a short film meant that we were treated to much simplified versions of the book’s highly complex characters, with the result that Kay was too nice and good, Helen too wide-eyed and innocent, Julia a bit too predatory, and Viv’s boyfriend too obviously a creep from the beginning.   Also, what happened to the vaguely sinister Mr Mundy who seemed to have turned into the grandfather from the Werther’s Original adverts?

However, appreciating the limitations of time and money, I can live with all of that; my more serious problem with this adaptation lies in the representation of gender and lesbian sexuality, particularly in the representation of butch identity.  In this respect, what I think the adaptation shows is that while we’ve reached the stage of being able to represent lesbians, we still struggle with representing certain kinds of lesbian identity and experience.

Like Andy, I was surprised by the casting of Anna Maxwell Martin as Kay.  Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s a good actress (excellent as Esther in Bleak House), but personally I found her deeply unconvincing as an aristocratic, butch lesbian.

When I see Kay in my mind, I see someone like Valentine Ackland or Radcliffle Hall.

Ideally I see her character being her played by someone like a young Vanessa Redgrave or Tilda Swinton (yes, I know they could never afford Tilda Swinton), but someone who can really occupy space in a convincingly butch way.  I imagine Kay as tall and broad-shouldered, tough, sexually confident, even aggressive, but Maxwell Martin is so tiny and delicate-looking, and there’s something self-effacing about the way she occupies space that just doesn’t feel right to me.  I can’t imagine her having rough, drunken sex with a stranger in an alleyway as Kay does in the novel.  She also came across as too good and nice; Kay is one of the most interesting characters in The Nightwatch and certainly has a heroic side, but I wouldn’t call her “nice”.  The representation was strange in several ways.  Why did the adaptation’s Kay cut off her hair because she was upset about seeing a family killed in the bombing?  This doesn”t happen in the novel where I doubt Kay would ever have had long hair (I expect she would have had an Eton crop).  As Andy says, it makes some link between butchness and tragedy that isn’t in the novel.  It’s also interesting that the adaptation has Kay breaking down and crying and being comforted by Helen, while in the same part of the book we have her drinking all night – I think Kay is the kind of butch who, even if she did cry, wouldn’t have let anyone else see her doing it.  Really the problem here is that the writers didn’t seem to appreciate that a butch lesbian in this period would have been following a certain code of behaviour.  I also felt that the character was desexualised.  Did anyone find this film sexy from a lesbian perspective? I was annoyed that the most explicit sex scene was between a heterosexual couple in a film in which the majority of the characters are lesbians.

Perhaps most telling, though, was the total erasure of the other butch character, Mickey, who is Kay’s best friend in the book, and her replacement with a feminine, heterosexual character in the adaptation.  Possibly they didn’t want to represent another butch character, but I think it’s more likely that the writers simply didn’t see the importance of Mickey, just as they don’t seem to see the significance of butchness.  Mickey is important, not least becasue she’s a happy butch.  Is it possible to represent a happy butch lesbian?

The leeriness aound butchness has plagued other Waters adaptations, such as Tipping the Velvet which had a lot more sex, but cast a woman who couldn’t pass as male in a story in which the whole plot turns on us believing that the character can pass as male.  Affinity was more offensive, turning the butch working-class character of Viggers into a predatory older woman and not at all understanding that the plot turned on the class differences and invisibility of the butch – the point is that no one can see Viggers for what she really is.

It makes me wonder when we will see a really convincing and sexy representation of butchness in mainstream television (haven’t seen Lip Service so don’t know how that was).

The adaptation did make me want to re-read The Nightwatch again though, so you may be hearing more about it in the not to distant future.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon, All Over Me (1997)

Written by Sylvia Sichel and directed Alex Sichel

All Over Me is a lesbian coming of age drama focussed on Claude (Alison Folland), a tomboyish 15 year-old girl who lives in an underprivileged area of New York known as Hell’s Kitchen.  She’s desperately in love with her more conventionally attractive (and definitely heterosexual) best friend, Ellen (Tara Subkoff).   The girls share a symbiotic relationship that will be a painful reminder to a lot of lesbian and bisexual viewers of something we experienced as teenagers.   How many of us had this kind of relationship? The over-closeness and unhealthy power dynamic that underlies the relationship between the naively adoring young lesbian and the heterosexual girl who accepts that adoration as her due, and simply doesn’t understand why her friend is so upset by the appearance of a boyfriend, is beautifully drawn in this film.

Warning – some spoilers!

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The Lesbian Movie Marathon: Fire (1997)

Directed by Deepa Mehta

An independent-minded young woman named Sita agrees to an arranged marriage and moves to the city to live with her husband’s family, which includes his brother, Ashok, Ashok’s dutiful wife, Radha, Sita’s disabled mother-in-law, Biji, and the family servant, Mundu.   Her arrival soon acts as a catalyst, bringing the simmering tensions beneath the surface of family life to a crisis.

Sita discovers that her husband, Jatin, is in love with a Chinese woman called Julie who has refused to marry him because she doesn’t want to take on the role of a traditional Indian wife.  It becomes apparent that Jatin has only agreed to marry her under pressure from Ashok who wants an heir for the family because Radha is infertile.   Turning to a guru for consolation, Ashok has taken a vow of celibacy, but still subjects Radha to humiliating experiences in which he uses her to “test” his sexual control.

As Radha and Sita bond and then find themselves falling in love with each other, they also begin question the traditions that have shaped their lives and slowly start to stand up to their respective husbands.   Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das are brilliant in their roles as two passionate women trying to maintain their dignity in a degrading situation.   But there aren’t really any villains in the film; it shows that everyone in the family is trapped by tradition, which seems to be represented in the silent but vigilant figure of Biji who rings her bell loudly whenever she disapproves of anything.

This is a powerfully honest film.  It isn’t shy about the realities of life and some of the scenes are gritty and quite disturbing.   But it’s also beautifully shot and directed throughout.

The way the film uses Hindu mythology is very clever, reinventing the story of Sita, whose husband insisted that she be tested by fire to prove her purity.  It does have a bit of a “fantasy lesbian ending”, but after all the grittiness, that’s ok with me.

It caused riots on its release in India and was banned in Pakistan.

Fire is a brave, honest and passionate film that I’d highly recommend viewing.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon, Bound (1996)

Directed by Larry and Lana Wachowski

Bound is one of my absolute favourite lesbian movies, so this review will contain little in the way of objectivity.

Corky (Gina Gershon) is a butch lesbian ex-con hired to redecorate an apartment in a building where she meets Violet (Jennifer Tilly), the glamorous girlfriend of mobster Caesar (Joe Pantolioano).  The two women begin a passionate affair and come up with a plot to do the mafia out of the $2,000,000 that Caesar is supposed to be keeping safe until his boss Gino comes to collect.  As you might expect, nothing goes quite according to plan and the tension underlying the story centres on the issue of trust.  Can Corky and Violet trust each other enough to pull this off and get away with the money?

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The Lesbian Movie Marathon, Imagine Me and You (2005)

Directed by Ol Parker

I have conflicted feelings about Imagine Me and You.  On one level, I enjoyed watching it but, at the same time, this is the kind of lesbian film that gets on my nerves.

It’s a romantic comedy and I’m not overly keen on the genre as a whole, so I’m probably not the best person to write about it.  Worse, it’s heavily influenced by Richard Curtis and I don’t like his films.  Plus, it’s about self-centred, rich, white, English people.  This is all irritating, but par for the course.  I think what really bugs me about Imagine Me and You is that its the kind of lesbian film that makes people say things like, “That’s how it should be!” and “Thank God there were no stereotypes!” and “It’s so nice to see lesbians represented as normal women!”, as if the representation of lesbians as conventionally attractive feminine women who don’t challenge the status quo isn’t politically loaded, when of course it is, and massively so.

At the beginning of the film a bland yuppie called Rachel (Piper Perabo) is about to marry another bland yuppie called Heck (Matthew Goode) in a big bland yuppie wedding.  As she walks up the aisle, she suddenly sets her eyes on her florist, Luce (Lena Headey), and falls in love with her at first sight.  Now Rachel has a big problem, being newly married at the same moment as she realises that she’s a lesbian.  The rest of the film is basically them sorting it out and Rachel deciding whether to stick with Heck for loyalty’s sake, or to follow her heart and take the consequences.   Since this is a romantic comedy, you can probably guess which way she goes.

Imagine Me and You is an uneven piece of filmmaking.   Some scenes feel natural and work well, while others are so stilted and flat that you can almost hear the director shouting “action” and “cut”.  The scene in which Heck and Rachel try and spice up their marriage by having sex on Clapham Common and run into two gay men trying to do the same thing is genuinely funny, but the scene in which Rachel storms into Luce’s shop to confront her just feels contrived.  Some of the dialogue is witty, but some of it is incredibly clichéd.  The character of Cooper brings a crude, misogynistic humour to the film which doesn’t sit well with the light fluffiness that characterizes the rest of it and prevents it from serving a useful purpose as the lesbian film you can watch with your family (because in all other respects the relationship between Rachel and Luce is extremely, even annoyingly, chaste).

The plot is hardly original.  Once again, it’s based on the fantasy of turning the straight woman which I’ve mentioned in relation to Claire of the Moon and When Night is Falling.  In fact, the plot is lifted pretty much wholesale from When Night is Falling, and while it works fine there as a drama,  it creates a problem as a comedy because the basic story just isn’t funny.   Heck is played as such an innocent, nice guy that it’s impossible to be amused by Rachel brutally dumping him for someone else a few weeks after their wedding.  To deal with this problem, the film turns him into a saintly figure who voluntarily releases Rachel to her true love, when let’s face it, at the very least the locks would have been changed and her stuff would have been thrown into the street.

So, what’s to enjoy?  I’ve decided that Imagine Me and You is pulled through in the end by some strong performances, without which it would definitely fall into the category of atrocious lesbian films.  On paper Rachel and Heck are utterly boring, but Piper Pirabo and Matthew Goode somehow manage to make them rather charming and likeable.  Lena Headey also puts in a good performance as Luce and is, let’s be honest, hot.  Celia Imrie and Anthony Head are amusing as Rachel’s parents, even though the characters they’re playing are little more than British stereotypes.  Sheila Johnson also shines in a few scenes as Luce’s mother.

Overall, it should be worse than it is, but manages to provide a decent first date movie, or Saturday night with a bottle of wine movie for when you really don’t want to watch anything challenging.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon: Show me Love (1998)

Directed by Lukas Moodysson

Agnes lives in the dead-end small town of Amal in Sweden.  It’s her sixteenth birthday; her family moved to the town a year previously, she has no friends, and is in love with the beautiful, popular Elin.  Elin, meanwhile, has a reputation as the “school slut” but hasn’t actually “done it” with anybody yet.   She hangs out with her older sister Jessica and gets drunk to block out her boredom and frustration.   Agnes’s well-meaning, but clueless, mother organises a birthday party, which only increases the distress of Agnes, who knows that nobody will come.  Elin and Jessica decide to stop by on their way to a much cooler party and in an act of thoughtless teenage cruelty Jessica dares Elin to kiss Agnes. Afterwards, Elin is overcome with guilt and returns to Agnes’s house to apologise.  The two spend the evening together wandering the streets of Amal and discover they have more in common than they thought, but will Elin be able to admit her feelings for Agnes after they go back to school?

I am impressed that a middle-aged, male director did such a good job of representing teenage lesbian subjectivity.   This is what it feels like to be a 15 year-old lesbian stuck in a small town.  Of all the films I’ve written about so far, I feel the strongest emotional identification with this one.  I grew up in a conservative small town and I felt like Agnes when I was 15.  I had no friends for long periods while I was at secondary school, a situation I can now see had a lot more to do with my sexual orientation than I realised at the time.  I remember the sense of terror that life would never get any better.

Moodysson treats all of the kids with great tenderness.  You understand why even the bullies are the way they are.  They really reminded me of the kids I grew up with.  We used to say that if you didn’t get out by the time you were 21, you would never get out, and we believed it.

The two leads put in blistering performances.  Rebecka Liljeberg as Agnes conveys the heart-rending loneliness of a middle-class, “smart” girl who is told that she has a future, but just wants some friends in the present.   Alexandra Dahlström is utterly believable as the pretty, working-class girl who’s expected to trade on her looks and find satisfaction in male attention, but is hiding her desperation beneath bravado. (The film manages to suggest that the question of who gets perceived as “smart” and as having a “future” has more to do with social class than anything else).    The other kids are great too, especially Erica Carlson as Elin’s sister and Mathius Rust as her bewildered boyfriend.

It’s gritty stuff and at times painful to watch, but Moodysson gives us a happy ending which has a tinge of fantasy while just about remaining within the realms of possibility.  I like to think so anyway.   What I particularly liked is the representation of lesbianism as itself a source of hope and potential happiness, an end to anguish rather than a cause of it.

Highly recommended.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon: When Night is Falling (1995)

Directed by Patricia Rozema

I love When Night is Falling.  I think it’s a beautiful film.  This is despite the fact that I also think that it is, in some ways, a flawed film.

Camille is a theology professor at a Christian college, engaged to another theology professor named Martin.  She and Martin are offered better jobs at the college if they agree to get married.  The ultimatum, along with the death of her beloved dog, brings Camille to a crisis.  At this point she meets Petra, a free spirited circus performer.  The two develop a powerful attraction which Camille initially tries to resist, but in the end she gives in, and goes to the circus where she and Petra spend the night together. Then she has some decisions to make.

Warning – some spoilers!

What I really like about When Night is Falling is the amount of care that’s clearly gone into it.  It is beautifully filmed and produced, well-directed and the performances are all excellent.  It makes you feel valued as a lesbian viewer and that’s very nice.

Although this film was released in 1995 it has a second-wave feel to it and I suspect it may be based on experiences from much earlier in the director’s life.  I would say that the feminism of When Night is Falling is the feminism of the late 1970s rather than the mid 1990s (look out for the feminist performance art).

The sex scene is over-romanticised.  Don’t get me wrong – I like it!  But,  well, it’s not very realistic.

The film is also oddly color-blind. The fact that Camille is white and Petra is a woman of colour is not allowed to be an issue in the film when it almost certainly would be in reality (see The Watermelon Woman). It also erases an aspect of Petra’s identity in a way that probably serves the interests of the white lesbian audience.

One of the things that strikes me about the film is a basic plot device which is quite common in lesbian films – the ostensibly heterosexual woman who has NO IDEA that she’s a lesbian until she meets THE RIGHT WOMAN.  I find this interesting because it seems to be based on a fantasy.  I will discuss this fantasy narrative more when I get to Claire of the Moon and Imagine Me and You, but I think it could have its roots in a number of sources – the influence of political lesbian feminism being one of them.  It may also have something to do with the fact that many lesbians have had the supremely painful experience of falling in love with straight women.  This fantasy allows us to imagine that it could work out, that within a desirable but oblivious heterosexual woman is a lesbian desperate to get out.  This is rarely the case!

I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to Camille’s heterosexuality and also to her religion.  Clearly her Christianity is a hugely important part of her life – she’s a theology professor after all – but she seems to throw it in with remarkably little angst to run off with Petra and the circus.  Petra seems kind of pagan, but this isn’t really addressed either.

And no one is butch. Femme experience is privileged and neither Camille nor Petra present themselves in such a way as to threaten the status quo.

The ending is an out-and-out lesbian fantasy with tons of symbolism.

Overall, I think the best way to treat When Night is Falling is as an enjoyable lesbian fantasy film, one to curl up with under a duvet with your girlfriend and a nice mug of hot chocolate (or whatever you like to drink).

Recommended, but don’t think about it too much!

The Lesbian Movie Marathon: The Watermelon Woman (1996)

Directed by Cheryl Dunye

The Watermelon Woman is a pseudo-documentary (mockumentary) about the adventures of Cheryl, a young, black lesbian who works in a video store and wants to be a filmmaker.  She becomes obsessed with her search for a black actress who she’s seen appearing in old films from the 1930s.   This actress is billed only as the ‘Watermelon Woman’ and Cheryl suspects her of being a lesbian.  She sets out to discover the truth about the Watermelon Woman.  On the way she has an affair with a white woman called Diana, which causes tensions in her relationship with her best friend Tamara.  Through her search for the Watermelon Woman, Cheryl comes to realisations about racial politics in the lesbian community and discovers the history of black lesbian culture in Philadelphia.

I really enjoyed The Watermelon Women, but in order to get the most out of it, there are a few things you have to accept from the get go.

Spoiler alert!

This is the director’s debut film, it looks amateurish and the acting is generally quite bad.  Dunye herself is engaging and Lisa Marie Bronson as the Watermelon Woman is wonderful, but almost everybody else is wooden.  However, I think this is due to lack of money (and having to employ friends) rather than any lack of filmmaking talent.

Personally, I am totally prepared to forgive the bad acting because I think the Watermelon Woman has what really counts, and that’s the storytelling.  This film has a moral centre and knows what it’s trying to do.  You can also tell that it’s a labour of love for the director.  I found myself absorbed in Dunye’s quest and wanting to know more about the Watermelon Woman, although I knew she wasn’t a real person, but was standing in for a whole range of “unknown” black actresses from the 1930s.

The film also has a lovely light touch in its humour.  The Watermelon Woman makes fun of feminism, but it doesn’t have the horribly cynical undercurrent of say, Itty Bitty Titty Committee.  Here we have Camille Paglia being a good sport, sending herself (and white academic feminists) up something rotten.  Then we have Sarah Schulman, a lesbian feminist author I love, doing a cameo as the archivist in the ‘Center for Lesbian Info and Technology’. When Dunye asks if she can take some photographs away, the CLIT archivist says something along the lines of “I’ll have to check with the collective. We meet once every other month. I’ll let you know if we reach a consensus” (anyone who’s had experience of the ah slow decision making processes in collectives will know Cheryl isn’t getting those photographs anytime soon). Even Diana, the white woman who only dates black people, isn’t eviscerated; she’s treated as a kind of ridiculous figure and Cheryl has enough self-respect to just walk away from her.

Another treat in this film is seeing butch lesbian experience being centred and valued — a surprisingly rare occurrence in lesbian films which mostly privilege femme characters or have feminine actresses doing a rather unconvincing job of playing butch lesbians. Dunye found some amazing butch women to take part in her film.

Cheryl discovers the Watermelon Woman’s “real” identity (as Fay Richards) and her love affair with a white woman movie director.  She finds this fascinating and wants to know more, but eventually she receives a letter from Fay’s other lover, June Walker, exhorting her not to see Fay’s life only in the context of her unhealthy relationship with the white woman, but rather in the context of her much longer partnership with June and life as a much loved member of the black lesbian community.  Fay’s lover is voiced wonderfully by African American poet Cheryl Clarke.  It’s a moving ending which reiterates the importance of history and community, affirms Cheryl’s sense of identity, and puts her own experience as a black lesbian in context.

And there’s even Toshi Reagon as a street musician at the very end.

Recommended

Lesbian Movie Marathon: Saving Face (2004)

It may come as a surprise to you to find out that I’m not a huge fan of romantic comedies in general. I know, I know, but I find they tend to be a bit lacking in the zombies and vampires department.  Still, I’m going to make a big exception for Alice Wu’s 2004 directorial debut Saving Face.

Wil (Michelle Krusiec), a young Chinese-American surgeon begins a relationship with her boss’s daughter, a dancer called Vivian (Lynn Chen). Then all hell breaks loose when Wil’s 48 year-old widowed mother, Hwei Lan Geo (Joan Chen), is discovered to be pregnant and is banished by her traditionalist father until she remarries or proves immaculate-conception. Wil is dismayed to find herself landed with her mother for a roommate, not least because she doesn’t want Ma finding out about her own secret lesbian relationship with Viv.  So, she starts trying to set up her mother with every eligible bachelor she can find.  But who is the father of Hwei Lan Geo’s baby? And is Wil ever going to stand up to her mother and save her own relationship before Viv gets tired of the excuses and flies off to a job in Paris?

Saving Face is a refreshing film, not least because lesbian films tend to privilege white lesbian experience, so it’s great to see a different perspective.

The script is very intelligent, funny and does not rely on stereotypes. It’s light comedy, but it touches on just enough serious issues to prevent it from becoming superficial, unlike say, Imagine Me and You, which is little more than a piece of fluff (post about that one to follow at some point). Saving Face takes a look at culture clash and immigrant experience and shows how these issues intersect with Wil and Viv’s specific experiences as young Chinese-American lesbians.

Lynn Chen and Michelle Krusiec are both excellent as Viv and Wil, but its Joan Chen’s performance that holds the film together. She’s absolutely wonderful, giving a beautiful, nuanced performance as a middle-aged Chinese woman who’s fallen in love for the first time and is caught between two worlds.

There are some good twists and finally everyone has to question to their assumptions and prejudices. It does have a big ‘Lesbian Fantasy Ending’ which stretches credibility, but overall, I think this is a great film.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon: Better than Chocolate (1999)

I’m going to start my lesbian movie marathon series with Canadian Director Anne Wheeler’s 1999 comedy, Better than Chocolate.  This is the story of Maggie, a college drop-out who meets and falls in love with itinerant artist, Kim.  Everything goes very well for them until Maggie’s mother and brother (to whom she is not out) descend for an unexpected visit.

Not wanting her mother to know that she’s practically homeless, and a lesbian, Maggie borrows an apartment from a lesbian sex educator friend, pretends it’s her own and that Kim is just her roommate.  The film also features a sweet love story between Frances, the uptight owner of the local lesbian bookstore and Judy, who is a transwoman.  When Maggie’s mother arrives, all kinds of fun ensues and ultimately everyone is able to make genuinely heart warming progress in their lives.

Spoiler alert!

Better than Chocolate features a narrative convention common to lesbian movies.  I’m going to call this convention ‘The Lesbian Fantasy Ending’.  Right at the end of the movie, there is a break with realism (I use the term loosely here) and suddenly the film veers into fantasy territory.  The family accepts the lesbian characters and their relationship, the lesbians get everything they want and everyone lives happily ever after.  This is not a criticism; I just think this convention says a lot of about lesbian life. Lesbian viewers desire this kind of wish fulfilment because in reality, it doesn’t happen very often and family approval usually remains more or less qualified.  At the end of Better than Chocolate, our heroines live happily ever after, becoming an artist and a writer respectively, Maggie’s mother becomes so accepting that she actually gets involved with the community and starts performing in the local gay bar, Judy and Frances also get married and live happily ever after.  It’s all just wonderful.

Overall, I enjoyed Better than Chocolate, but I do have a few reservations. For a start, this movie centralises white, middle-class experience.  No one else seems to exist within the terms of the narrative.  Also, the bisexual character is a one-dimensional stereotype — sexually insatiable and kinky! I think this would be pretty offensive to a lot of bisexual woman.

It was great to see a trans woman represented as a multi-faceted person who is allowed to be legitimately angry in the narrative, and the film pulls no punches when it comes to representing the prejudice of others, including feminists (there’s a truly horrible scene in the toilets). However, I can’t help but wish an indie film like this had cast a trans woman actress in the role rather than a male actor.  My anxiety about the casting of cis actors as trans people is that it quickly becomes all about the actor’s performance – oh, wasn’t so and so amazing as a trans woman —  rather than about the issues being addressed.

So, a couple of reservations, but overall a good lesbian date movie