Looking at Lesbian Desire Through a Cinematic Lens

Water Lilies (2007). Marie, left, stands opposite Floriane, right, on a nondescript suburban street of Paris. Marie is 15, smaller and more childlike than Floriane in a pink t-shirt and her brown hair tied low in a white scrunchie. Her hand is extended forward and held by Floriane, a taller and more mature looking 15 year old with flowing blonde hair and a fitted navy tank top.
Haut et Court

DESIRE: noun — a longing or craving, as for something that brings satisfaction or enjoyment

Desire is the emotion that draws us forwards—it drives one towards their goals and ignites the flame of one’s wants and needs. In its essence, desire is passion in its purest form.  Every living being feels the pull of desire, but lesbians are specific in the way their desires are felt due to the distinct interactions between their femininity and sexuality. Film has a unique challenge of capturing unspoken feelings and sentiments in a tangible way, films dealing with gay woman are not different, but they must also represent the unique ways in which sapphics present their desire in a heteronormative society.  

Filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s films often deal with the topic of lesbian desire and the impact those feelings have on her characters. Sciamma’s debut film, Water Lillies (French: Naissance des Pieuvres), tells the tale of three teenage girls, each experiencing their own unique sexual awakenings. Two of the characters, Marie (Pauline Acquart) and Floriane (Adèle Haenel), develop a strong attraction to one another. Floriane, who has a false reputation for being promiscuous with boys, desires Marie’s help in losing her virginity. Meanwhile, Marie begins to feel romantically towards Floriane. In the end, Marie ends up alone, never admitting her true feelings to the other, and Floriane chooses to turn her back on Marie, leaving her in search of a man to take her virginity. 

Each represent a different aspect of desire in gay women and the struggles that come with it; Floriane is sensuality– she lusts sexually for Marie. Even though she wishes to be with her, society’s insistence on heterosexual encounters being a hallmark of adulthood hold her back. For Marie, her connection is more innocent in nature. She wishes for romance. Much like with many lesbians, her fatal error is loving a woman who is – from her perspective – mentally unavailable to a gay relationship. Although both are different features of the lesbian experience, each present a distinctly rounded view into the desires felt and the impact those desires toll. 

Thelma (2017). Anja (left) and Thelma (right) lie side by side in Thelma's single bed, Thelma looking at Anja's back. Anja is sleeping in a white t-shirt, her long dark hair spread on the pillow. Thelma is awake, looking at her, she has shorter brown hair and wears a black vest. Her hands are tucked under her chin, hesitant to touch Anja.
 SF Studios 

While Water Lillies speaks of experiences, Thelma explores the influence that lesbian experiences have on the world around a gay woman. The titular character of Thelma is an ultra-religious college freshman who has stepped out of her sheltered home for the first time. As she relishes in her newfound independence, Thelma (Eili Harboe) begins to feel for a female classmate – clashing with her religiously secluded upbringing. Thelma pushes these feelings down, and eventually her repressed yearnings express themselves with supernaturally powered outbursts. 

Although superpowers are not normally a characteristic of lesbianism, it is fair to say that many lesbians feel powerless to their desires while trapped in unsupportive households. When finally escaping from those bindings, previously repressed wants will build up– and though they don’t literally end with mystical explosions, mentally it can feel as though they do. 

Pariah follows a teenage butch lesbian, Alike (Adepero Oduye), as she comes to terms with her identity, gender presentation, and relationships to the people closest to her. Having grown up dressing in a more typically feminine fashion, Alike begins to feel comfortable dressing in ‘masculine’ clothing. This, in addition to her hanging around her openly lesbian friend causes Alike’s mother to question Alike’s sexuality. This creates tension amongst her family. Even through the trials that she faces due to her sexuality, Alike realises that she’s discovered her true self. 

Pariah (2011). Bina (left) and Alike (right), two teen girls sit together on a couch, Bina leaning her head on Alike's shoulder as they both laugh, illuminated by bright pink light from an unknown source. Both girls are dressed in sweaters and scarves, though Alike dresses more masculine than her friend, her dark hair is back in short twist braids.
Focus Features 

Even though the familial situation seen in Pariah is heartbreaking, it is a reality felt by many sapphics around the world. This is especially true to women who present themselves in a way that diverges from society’s view of the ‘correct’ woman. Still, a person cannot change what makes them whole.  Once again this comes down to desires. Every human longs to feel the interactions they want and to appear to others in a way that makes them feel complete; the difference comes from the extra considerations a lesbian must take before freely being themselves. 

While these are just three examples of desire in lesbian films, every movie that features gay woman explores the topic in some way or form. Often times these explorations are not what one has come to expect from mainstream films, and that is simply because a lesbian’s experience is different from anyone else’s due to societal expectations. 

While it is simple to assume that all experiences of such a widely felt emotion would be the same, upon looking deeper into the idea of desire through a cinematic lens, it is clear that a lesbian’s longing and craving differs from those around them. 

by Aubrey Carr

Aubrey Carr (she/her) is an entertainment writer with a passion for horror films. You can find her on Instagram @aub.carr and twitter @aub_carr

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