Why literary lesbians are having a moment on screen

From Colette to Can You Ever Forgive Me?, lesbians of letters are suddenly getting their stories told on film. Why now?

12 March 2019

By Sophie Monks Kaufman

Vita & Virginia (2018)

In 2019, BFI Flare opened and closed with two different films about real literary figures. Vita & Virginia chronicles the relationship between two writers in 1920s London: Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton). Both were married to open-minded, intellectual husbands who more or less let them do as they pleased. Virginia’s delicate state of mind is contrasted with Vita’s robust independence, and the drama of this film comes from watching how love works on their different psychologies and, in Virginia’s case, led to a book about her muse: Orlando.

The festival’s 2019 closing film, JT LeRoy, is a fictionalised memoir about a subject that already received documentary treatment in 2016 thanks to Jeff Feuerzeig’s Author: The JT LeRoy Story. The wild tale about a writer, Laura Albert (Laura Dern), who duped the world by presenting as an androgynous blonde man played by pal Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart) is gender fluidity taken to an extreme place. It’s fictionalising taken off the page and into life.

JT Leroy (2019)

The last year has also seen the release of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, an acid and moving miniature about lesbian biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), who turns to literary letter-forging for a fast buck; and Colette, a stylish and celebratory chronicle of bisexual French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) emerging from under the shadow of her husband Willy – who published her bestselling stories under his name – to become her own force both romantically and creatively.

What is it about the literary genre that’s currently lending itself to queer character studies? It’s hard to say what drives the winds of trends. The general allure of the literary genre for screenwriters is that you can have characters expressing themselves with delicious idiosyncrasy and it scans as convincing, even revealing, especially when the subjects are real people with published words out there waiting to be incorporated into dialogue.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

“Yearning is – and I can’t stress this enough – canonically lesbian,” tweeted the writer/humorist/goldmine of queer cultural commentary Jill Gutowitz in February. Regardless of how jokey her tone, Vita & Virginia is a serious hotbed of yearning, with Elizabeth Debicki’s embodiment of the brilliant depressive Woolf leading to moments of exquisite articulation.

“I have a million things not so much to say as to sink into,” she says after initial resistance to Vita’s seductive overtures evaporates and she – frigid in her marriage – stands vulnerable and ready before her more experienced partner. Vita’s infatuation stems from witnessing Virginia at a party talking about how moments of intimacy are “stained by the desire to be loved”.

A Quiet Passion (2016)

These are women who woo through words, which brings a startling specificity to the predictable devastation of falling in love. A sense of the emotional stakes are wrought through words dredged up from the deep in a way reminiscent of Terence Davies’ ode to the poet Emily Dickinson (played brilliantly by Cynthia Nixon) in A Quiet Passion (2016). Dickinson denied herself physical pleasure, so convinced was she that her merits lay in her soul, and that admirers would only be repulsed by her bodily self. Lee in Can You Ever Forgive Me? pushes away past and potentially present romantic interests with the less fraught, more brutal technique of being an acid-tongued bitch.

Writers too often wall up inner space to create a private place for thought, and then flail around in a loneliness of their own making – a loneliness compounded when one’s sexual orientation is only allowed to flourish on the margins. Loneliness was no problem for Colette (at least in her filmic iteration), with writing only one dish on a menu of creative and social interests. She and Vita had this in common. Instead of being solitude-seeking writers, they were socialite/writers and therefore comparatively well-adjusted. Neither waited to be seduced by women; both embodied the cocksure attitude of a pursuer.

Colette (2018)

As Vita says in a radio broadcast: “I enjoy the qualities in myself that could be said to be masculine,” adding, “Independence has no sex.” For literary lesbians, as for so many of us, taking charge of sexual desires is a way to avoid the fate of misery.

Still, not everyone possesses the worldly confidence or physical ease to make such pursuits liable to succeed. Laura Albert claims she could only live her truth by inventing a cipher in the form of JT LeRoy, played by her friend Savannah. The perils of letting your mind dwell in a fantasy is that your body still has to live down here on earth, where self-identification fights an uphill battle with the responses your visual signifiers stimulate in those around you.

While this is an extremely pressing quandary for someone with such a fluid identity as Albert, it’s also relevant to queer creatives who – on the one hand – can express what they like in their art space but still have to navigate how the wider public perceives them. 

Vita & Virginia (2018)

Vita and Virginia move in circles that are as bohemian as they come. However, Vita’s aghast mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), alludes to a London at large that will be scandalised by news of her daughter’s extra-marital same-sex dalliances. There are echoes of this same private/public image tension for Colette. Within the bubble of ’20s libertarian Paris, she is free to explore. However, when she, with a new androgynous look, puts on a personal striptease show, it appals even the supposedly ‘anything goes’-minded punters of the Moulin Rouge.

And so back to the question, of why literary lesbians and their queer counterparts are now trending in the cinema sphere? As the public appetite has not always been primed to appreciate these stories, they have accumulated into a backlog, becoming increasingly ripe for the telling. With any luck, they’ll keep on coming. Quite apart from the quiver-inducing and witty words they reframe and serve hot, these types of films pull out and celebrate the life of the mind, de-emphasising queer identity as something located purely in objective physical desire.

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