My name is Cathy Brennan. I am a queer trans woman and I’ve been lucky enough to join the Time Out film team for the London Film Festival. Immediately upon arrival, I felt like Menna Trussler at the end of ‘Pride’, asking ‘Where are my lesbians?’, only to then be bombarded with metaphorical hugs from said lesbians. The festival has featured many films about women loving women, and they have come in various shades.
Films like ‘Rafiki’ and ‘Carmen & Lola’ tell familiar stories of young love from parts of the world that are rarely represented on the big screen. ‘Carmen & Lola’ is set in the Spanish gypsy community, whereas ‘Rafiki’ is a Kenyan film about the blossoming relationship between the daughters of two local politicians in Nairobi. Both of these women-directed works feature sweet performances from young actors. At the same time, the films do not shy away from issues of homophobia and portray the way this uniquely manifests in their respective communities.
For ‘Carmen & Lola’, the titular characters must navigate the pressure to marry young, while in ‘Rafiki’, the local church is implicated in the ferocious homophobia facing the main characters. Although these films acknowledge the potential perils of being visibly queer, the emphasis is on the love shared between the two couples. The final shot in both films sees our female leads hand-in-hand: an optimistic message for pessimistic times.
The British and American lesbian films, on the other hand, lean into a more sombre tone. Both ‘Colette’ and ‘Lizzie’ see their protagonists endure abuse from a male authority figure at the turn of the 19th century. Keira Knightley’s heroine, Gabrielle Colette, finds herself being used by her husband Willy (Dominic West) to sell books and assorted merchandise. He even exploits her affairs with women. Despite being set 100 years ago, this true story echoes the way Pride parades have become somewhat corporate events in recent years.
Patriarchy comes in the form of the husband in ‘Colette’, but in ‘Lizzie’ that ominous figure is the father. The film is based on the real-life case of Lizzie Borden, who was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892. Through a flashback-laden narrative, we see Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) form a relationship with the household maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart). Both women find some semblance of comfort in each others’ love; offering a hope of escape from the mental and sexual abuse inflicted on them.
Despite being period dramas, ‘Colette’ and ‘Lizzie’ couldn’t feel more timely in their grappling with themes of abuse. The film industry is, of course, still responding to revelations of widespread sexual misconduct. Although the films do not feel like a direct response to #TimesUp, they do suggest that change is coming.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest, ‘The Favourite’, also deals with abuse, though this time between women. Set in the royal court of eighteenth-century England, Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne as a woman decimated by grief, while Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone play courtiers who fight for power over her. Compared to the sweet romances of the previous films, ‘The Favourite’ depicts lesbian seduction as a merciless power struggle. Weisz’s character brutalises Anne with blunt honesty, while Stone uses sweet lies to manipulate the vulnerable queen. The film is troubling in the way it depicts women tearing each other down, but it is also refreshing to see these characters as active agents while the male characters are peripheral to the narrative.
The representation of women on screen was reflected off-screen as well. Being a trans woman means you often fear being an unwelcome presence, particularly as transphobia in the UK has become far more vocal in the last year. Thankfully, I have had the privilege to meet and befriend so many wonderful women during my time here. They include screenwriters, actors, festival volunteers, and of course, fellow critics. I suspect that the feeling of camaraderie we experienced through sharing our love of cinema will come to be the defining memory of this wonderful festival.
Byline: Cathy Brennan