Clara Bradbury-Rance Talks Lesbian Visibility in Film

A new cinema text of note, Clara Bradbury-Rance’s Lesbian Cinema after Queer Theory (Edinburgh University Press) seeks to take an overdue dive into the long-standing conversation about visibility and representation in film. Grounding her research to an octet of films—Mulholland DriveNathalie…ChloeWater LiliesShe MonkeysBlue Is the Warmest Color, and Carol—she offers new ways of thinking about the queer moving image.

Lambda Literary recently spoke to Clara about Lesbian Cinema and lesbian cinema alike.

You’ve made a compelling case for the importance in distilling lesbian characters from ‘queer,’ while deploying queer theory as a way of analyzing these figures. Why this distinction, and this collaboration between disciplines?

Well, the answer to this question lies in part in my own personal and political investments. As a lesbian, I have always seen my gender and my sexuality together, and feminism has probably been most central to my life and my politics. Of course, queer at its best truly accounts for gender and sexuality and their intersections. But in practice, the exclusions that are produced by queer theory’s dominance in the study of sexuality often run along gender lines (in fact I think trans people have been the biggest victims of that). I use the example in my book of edited collections about let’s say “queer cinema”, which focus overwhelmingly on gay male narratives. When queer becomes a synonym for gay (or lesbian), it is more likely than not to act as an umbrella term that disguises ongoing exclusions.

And yet, I do find so much of the work of queer theory utterly invigorating. It is at its core framed around political and sexual practices—and writing about them—that reject binary categories of sexuality and gender identity. This has (perhaps simplistically) often cohered around the debate about equal marriage—do we strive to be accepted into normative institutions or to break them down. “Queer” and “lesbian and gay” are frequently positioned on either side of that debate. Queer theory encourages us to question the often normative and often simplistic requirements of so-called identity politics. And yet, the lived experience of gender and sexuality is often the lived experience of sexism and homophobia, so it is inevitably framed (even if just by others) through those same requirements.

Lesbian Cinema after Queer Theory by Clara Bradbury-Rance

And why is this uniquely important for film?

I think that despite the work of queer theory, the debate around lesbian cinema is still about lesbian directors, lesbian authors, lesbian couples, lesbian characters. And this leaves us with a kind of solidification of something called lesbian identity that we’re supposed to be able to recognize in a single character, or scene, or film. But not all lesbians look the same! Lesbianism isn’t reducible to the “coming out” scene—or even to the sex scene. Certainly not to the couple. Desire is always more complicated than that. And that’s why I was interested to see what queer theory could do for lesbian film studies without dissolving the historical, social and political meanings and motivations and investments of lesbianism. You could say I was using queer theory as a methodological tool to push at what we think we know about lesbianism and how it’s made legible on-screen.

One of the many fine points made in Lesbian Cinema after Queer Theory that haunted me throughout my reading was actually posed very early on, in your introduction. You repurpose Valerie Traub’s writings on sex in modernism for contemporary cinema, writing: 

Invisibility is entrenched in the existing discursive field surrounding the history of lesbian representation. Rather than the recipient of a clean break between a historical invisibility and a contemporary visibility, the lesbian is marked by a discourse that foregrounds the relationship between the two. […] In other words, the lesbian stands in for an anxiety rather than for herself.

Yes. Even if we make the claim that lesbianism is more visible on screen that it has ever been (and I do), it still lags behind gay male representations. For instance, the Curzon Soho cinema in London’s gay district showed Call Me By Your Name for about six consecutive months, and that just wouldn’t happen with a lesbian film; and nor is it that easy to imagine a lesbian Queer Eye getting the same kind of mainstream popularity. But still, we’re in a very different situation from even twenty years ago. So what I’m saying when I suggest that there is no clean break between invisibility and visibility is that even if we had more visibility, more representations, we’d still have the baggage of the past that informs the way lesbianism is conceived of in the present. I think in some ways lesbianism still falls between the gaps—just think, when the law in the United Kingdom changed to decriminalize gay sex (at least for some people, in some places…) in 1967, lesbian sex wasn’t included—because it had never been recognized as a phenomenon to be either legal or illegal…

Throughout, I kept wondering if the lesbian spectator is also afflicted by a similar condition. As a film writer, I regularly witness queer women approach forthcoming cinema that possesses a homoerotic element with, given that historical marginalization, a blend of excitement and trepidation. It isn’t uncommon to witness the latter entirely eclipse the former as representational and gaze questions are asked: Is the director a woman? Are the actresses queer? Where do men factor into the narrative? At times, I resent that my anxiety premonitions theirs. A memory: Upon leaving the theater after seeing Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (a work I enjoyed), I immediately texted my girlfriend, “the lesbians are going to hate this.” Sure enough, the dissenting critiques, fearing that pattern between past and present, flowed.

Yes, that’s a familiar story (and a familiar text message).

The ‘clean break’ is futile. But is there a way to encourage lesbian audiences to be aware of, and/or circumvent, this pleasureless way of seeing?

I always think of B. Ruby Rich on Basic Instinct in her original 1992 “The New Queer Cinema” essay: “Basic Instinct was picketed by the self-righteous wing of the queer community (until dykes began to discover how much fun it was).” I’m not saying we should always find the fun at the expense of our politics. But pleasure isn’t simple. Many of us discovered our first lesbian pleasures through the cinema—I certainly did. Identifying with characters, fantasizing desires—and at least when I was growing up these were often framed around what we could call male languages of cinematic desire that Laura Mulvey was critiquing way back in 1975. So I think we need to champion feminist production practices, and feminist curation, as well as feminist criticism. And I think lesbian self-representation is vitally important. But I don’t think I can only identify with the characters in a film made by a woman. I know I will just have to reconcile myself with a bit of ambivalence along the way. The importance of something like #MeToo is that it’s helped us to make viewing choices informed by that. But cinema has always been a site for demonstrating not only the explicit, the celebratory, or the clear ways of doing lesbian desire, but also (and more often) the complexities, vulnerabilities, ambiguities, even ambivalences of it.

In Lesbian Cinema’s second chapter, you tackle the queer re-routing and domestic incompatibility of lesbian desire in Atom Egoyan’s Chloe. The two lead characters, a beleaguered wife (Julianne Moore) and the prostitute she hires to ascertain her husband’s fidelity (Amanda Seyfried), engage in an erotic exchange built on the foundation of this arrangement; in a moment of physical contact at its climax, Seyfried is shoved from the window of Moore’s home, by Moore. You write: 

in Chloe the home itself literally precipitates Chloe’s death, as she falls through a window of the house following a final embrace […] Rather than the de-eroticization of the lesbian relationship that Lee Wallace (2009: 131) argues is the home’s modus operandi, what we observe here is the forcing of lesbianism into conformity because the primary lesbian subject (Chloe, the initiator) is killed off by the home itself.

A recent film that came to mind where a lesbian relationship grows from some unseen patriarchal connection — and is punished by architecture — is Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite (2018). Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), carries on an affair to perpetuate a war in which her husband is a major player, and is evicted twice: once by Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) from the palace, and again from the country. Do you have any thoughts on the film’s positioning in lesbian cinema you’d like to share? 

This is a great comparison—of course, in a film about royalty the questions and connections surrounding house/home and royalty/country are enlivened and provoked. I have the same reservations that many will, that the most high profile lesbian films of recent years, celebrated in criticism and by awards ceremonies, have been directed by men. (I make the distinction that they are directed by men since of course, as we know, film authorship can never be reduced to directorship. The centering of the director is part of a problematic canonization that we’d do well to keep challenging—to take “Todd Haynes’s” Carol for instance, Haynes shares authorship quite visibly with Patricia Highsmith, Christine Vachon, and Phyllis Nagy.)

All that notwithstanding, The Favourite is a film about dislike and competition and envy and jealousy and cruelty—but it is also about desire, and lust, and erotic fascination, and identification—all things that lesbian viewers have taken pleasure in for many years. It’s one of the casualties of the visibility discourse, I think, that we stop taking pleasure from the margins. It’s complicated, sure. But so is desire.

You began this project, which centers eight films but references hundreds of others, in 2011. Tell me a bit about your research methods, especially pertaining to screening. Alone, a second or third helping of Blue Is the Warmest Color, which runs just under three hours, is quite ambitious. 

Actually they’ve changed a lot. All of the films I looked at for my PhD, which turned into this book, simply had to be seen in the dark of the cinema. And then of course I’d watch and re-watch them (though I’ve had entertaining conversations with some of my favorite film scholars about the perils of mis-remembering key moments pre-DVD—which just goes to show it’s hard to take subjectivity out of it).

I saw Blue Is the Warmest Color in the cinema before I’d read any of the news reports about it. And my writing about that film has been situated firstly in that first viewing, which wasn’t on a laptop with Twitter news stories cycling along the side, but in the rather solipsistic space of the cinema. And in turn, the films I write about in this book all center what I call intensified spectatorship, moments or encounters that draw our attention to processes of voyeurism. As I say early on in my intro, I started by wanting to find films that I could call lesbian cinema and say that a new wave of lesbian cinema had been born. But it’s more complicated than that. So the book in its final form isn’t an account of celebration, or an encyclopedic documentation of lesbian visibility’s forerunners—but rather a theoretical interrogation of some complex representational terrain. I chose those eight films because in different ways they challenge the easy commodification of visibility for instance in the sex scene, the couple, or the coming out scene.

In new work I’m thinking much more about contexts and conditions of production, particularly in the digital realm—I’m writing about the filmmaker Desiree Akhavan, who began making work that was streamed on a WordPress blog, and funded by crowdfunding. When someone like Stephen Spielberg kicks out at the inclusion at festivals of films distributed by Netflix, for instance, he ignores the increase the part that streaming has had to play in the diversity of films and filmmakers being promoted. I was very much a cinema purist in 2011—There are now very different currencies at play that I think we need to attend to.

On that note, I’m reminded of the acknowledgements in Patricia White’s Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, where she thanks her partner for “timely reminders that movie sisters really are just sisters.” It’s a humbling question, but: When working, did you have moments where you desired to envision phenomena that weren’t quite there?

Oh yes. Often. Even as a child I projected my fantasies onto many a female star. But, to bring my viewing pleasures a little more up to date—yes, I think we bring all sorts of hopes to cinema, but we also find these hopes in places we weren’t even looking. Or maybe I’m always looking.

Let’s talk cinema in 2019. What films, out and forthcoming, are exciting you?

I can answer that easily—Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki, doing the rounds now, is a wonderful film. It’s received a lot of publicity as the first Kenyan film to be screened in competition at the Cannes film festival in 2018. It’s also visually exciting, tender, funny, and does not shy away from the political importance of its story. It is accessible, but it also subtly experiments with form to get at the complexities of representing desire on the screen. I’m also really excited about Céline Sciamma’s new film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which screened at Cannes this year. I haven’t seen it yet but my book has a chapter on her first film, Water Lilies, and her filmmaking never fails to grab my attention.