Expressions of Desire and Water in Lesbian Cinema

Over the past decade the amount of films exploring LGBTQ+ relationships has slowly increased. This has created some new emerging tropes, one of which is the repeated presence of water during the development of queer desire. This is discussed in detail by Fernando G. Pagnoni Berns in relation to gay men in Brazilian cinema, where he provides the helpful hypothesis that ‘Since water favours nakedness …relaxation, and playful attitudes, queer desires can be tested outside the boundaries of the ‘dry’ socially regulated world without fear of reprisal.’ However, water can also be seen to play a significant part in films dealing with lesbian relationships; such as in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Thelma, and Céline Sciamma films Water Lilies and more recently Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

These films utilise rivers, lakes, and swimming pools to create a build up of romantic tensions between women. This happens in a unique way in each film, but the one thing which is true across the board is that these queer relationships would be missing something vital without the presence of water. It is a fluctuating substance, in contrast to the more heterosexual constructions of solid and liminal spaces within these films. Water allows movement, and a lack of constriction of desire. It creates the prospect of a sexuality that is fluid, and a longing that is socially acceptable as the presence of water encourages nakedness. It splits bodies in half, allowing the alluring possibility of visually experiencing the secret parts under the surface. It is also symbolically connected to emotion, which has been historically described as something you can ‘dive into’ or allow to ‘wash over you’. The films play with these concepts in a captivating way worth delving into.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a dark fairytale which deals with adolescence. In it, water is connected to Valerie’s dream state, representing a form of healing. It also provides her with an alternative to heterosexuality as she goes through a narrative puberty. Early on in the story, Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) walks by a river to the sound of bells tinkling harmoniously and happy folk music. She encounters a group of women wearing white, who play erotically in the water. They kiss each other and one puts a fish down her dress. Valerie watches, touching her own chest. Right after this scene she is transported to her kitchen, where she licks her fingers. This provides an innuendo, which foreshadows her later sexual encounter with a woman. Water provides a space where these women, who are dressed similarly to Valerie and appeal to her, can engage with their sexuality playfully, in contrast to the sinister black cloaked men throughout the film who often present a threat to her. The naturalness of this female desire is reinforced through the images of nature: the grapes they feed each other, the sparkling water they frolic in, and the flowers they offer each other as a token of affection. These women in white beckon to her from the water, a joyful prospect of a different outlet for desire. 

Thelma veers more into the realm of horror, as the emergence of the protagonist’s sexuality is interlinked with the slow exposure of her psychic powers. There is something different about Thelma (Eili Harboe), something unnatural and dangerous — a familiar sentiment for queer girls leaving the rigid boundaries of home and experimenting for the first time. The supernatural element succeeds brilliantly in making her more relatable, rather than farther removed from reality. Water is encoded throughout her journey towards acceptance of her powers and sexuality in several different forms. There is a beautiful symmetry in these moments, as all the shots of her in lakes or pools are long shots with her in the centre of the screen, surrounded by empty space. The first scene shows her as a little girl with her father trudging through a frozen landscape. She looks down at the fish in the lake underneath her feet, trapped in the water under the icy surface. There is a reverse shot of the fish looking back up at her, trapped above the water by the same ice, unable to connect with it. When Thelma meets her love interest, she is a teenager and now partially immersed in the swimming pool. Anja is still on solid ground, but leans closer towards the water to exchange long coded glances and smiles with her. Water is integral to the rest of the development of Thelma’s identity. It becomes symbolic both of her sexual attraction to Anja and of the harm she is able to cause to anyone who stands in their way. In the most climactic final scene, after her father says Anja doesn’t truly love her, Thelma psychically sets him on fire on a boat. He is forced to jump into the lake and drown so he will not burn alive. She walks into the water dressed in white, a haunting ghostly figure, and dives down into the deep dark blue. Somehow as she plunges herself into the depths of her desire, the water begins to lighten and she resurfaces in the swimming pool. There she is reunited with her lover, and they kiss each other, soaking wet. 

Céline Sciamma also has the theme of water running through two of her lesbian romance films. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse share all of their most intimate moments by the sea. It is initially only out there in nature, free from the confines of the house they stay in and social conventions imposed within it, that they can truly express how they feel about each other. Their romance blossoms as they have long walks on the beach, and eventually have their first kiss to the sound of crashing waves. When Héloïse discovers Marianne has secretly been painting her marriage portrait and feels betrayed, she strips off all the layers of clothing that anchor her to the land and heterosexual pretense, walking into the sea in her white shift. This is how Marianne sees Héloïse in her daydreams, haunting her in the lead up to their separation. So in the final gallery painting of Héloïse as Orpheus’s wife, she is floating towards the expanse of the ocean, which encapsulates their desire for freedom in love. 

Water Lilies has even stronger liquid imagery. The narrative once again follows teenage girls going through puberty and exploring their sexuality for the first time, but the majority of the film is set in proximity to water. Floriene is a synchronized swimmer, and the camera functions as Marie’s gaze, tracking her through water and locker rooms. She watches her swim with unwavering focus, gazing at each part of her body, and when their relationship becomes closer Floriene invites her into the pool so she can see the performance better. Rather than observing the troupe from a sports’ perspective above the surface, Marie dives under the water to watch what is hidden become visible. She stares at the movements of Floriene’s legs, and the soundtrack and diegetic noise fade to silence. Later there are close ups of the girl’s faces wearing intense expressions as the sexual tension rises while they do each other’s hair and make up before swimming competitions, and there are some exquisite focus pulls that capture the sexual potency of them watching each other changing. The film forces you to hold your breath, afraid of how strong Marie’s feelings are for Floriene and unsure if their attraction will sink or swim. 

In all four films water is a space where women feel safe to explore their desires for each other. It provides them with an excuse for wearing less clothes than usual, and a reason to watch each other undress, if only down to the recurring white dress most of these women seem to possess. It has sexual connotations as they get wet, and emotional ones as they dive into their feelings.  Rivers and lakes are a part of the environment, emphasising the naturalness of their attraction. Next time you watch a coming of age lesbian film, look out for the water, and notice what it’s telling you. 


by Anita Markoff

Anita Markoff is a freelance journalist and published poet, who is currently doing a Creative Writing MA in the frosty north of Scotland. She spends any fragments of free time watching lesbian films or horror films or even better, a mix of both. Her favourite films all seem to include a club sequence with blue or red lighting where people are dancing and laughing to indescribably sad music (VictoriaWater LiliesNinaThelma). Outside of film and writing she has no interests besides astrology and Charli XCX, who she frequently tweets about alongside obscure film jokes at @rozaem17. Her letterbox is not worth naming as her reviews go something like: spooky & feels gay. 

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