Out of the Celluloid Closet

Love for queer respectability lies bleeding, at last

When film critic Drew Gregory — dispatching from Autostraddle, — invited me to participate in a poll of best lesbian films of all time, I met the task with the easy pleasure with which one might approach a Sunday morning crossword. Though I had only recently recovered from the utmost privilege and exercise in futility of contributing incision-like selection’s to Sight & Sound’s iconic poll, I confess I can no longer recall the choices I made. Gregory’s had taken me thirty minutes, and thirty minutes more afterI realized I should sub out Barbara Hammer’s Nitrate Kisses (1992) for Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses (2024.)

Then I bore witness to the politically and artistically important godlessness of Rose Glass’ Love Lies Bleeding

This freak-on-freak fantasy — masterfully disguised as horror genre spectacle as taboo as it is overdue — forced me to contact Gregory a final time to modify my list, which no longer felt like a list. Love Lies Bleeding is not the highest rung of queer cinema. It is a crowbar, demanding our full attention and deployment in future filmic fare.

We’re living in a time where, in order to feel something, queer people must perversify the portfolio by damning it all and owning the slurs we are being called. This is Love Lies Bleeding’s exsanguinated valentine.

Rose’s sophomore feature opens with Kristen Stewart’s Louise fisting a clogged communal toilet. Shot on 35mm from within the porcelain throne, the spectator becomes the stagnant mass of sh*t the chain-smoking Lou is liberating. We aren’t the only ones keeping this mulleted gym manager company: There’s a junkie blonde, Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov) mewling at the ad hoc plumberess from outside the stall, seeking attention for attention’s sake and some of the blood money her estranged father (Ed Harris) has amassed in the desolate, nondescript desert that surrounds them.

When Jackie (Katie O’Brian), a musclebound stray, rolls into town with bodybuilder title dreams as pure and glittering as the New Mexico skies, every last viewer in the cinema will have been desensitized to what they’d ordinarily consider grotesque were we not in the sacred privacy of a dark room. A woman with shoulders twice as wide as her hips and forearms the circumference of cochon de lait, she inspires Lou’s loins as much as she does our voyeurism. The grotesque is an imperative as lesbian spectator: It gets children out of the theater so the adults can have some good, clean fun. The communal sanctuary of a new lesbian narrative subtext may only be realized through spectacle; one that equally distracts and mesmerizes the curious pedestrian viewer while covertly delivering what every auteur from Akerman to Dunye to Sciamma worked towards, in extremely disparate and at-times counterproductive ways.

We’re living in a time where, in order to feel something, queer people must perversify the portfolio by damning it all and owning the slurs we are being called.

When extending the invitation to participate in Autostraddle’s poll, Gregory thoughtfully noted that she was defining ‘lesbian’ as the goddesses intended: liberally, to one’s own interpretation, must she insist upon splitting hairs. In the fifteen years I’ve spent writing about lesbian movies, I’ve ornerily avoided being described as a ‘lesbian critic.’ During this same time period, I have become more and more averse to such queer splitting of hairs. The community organizing practice, historically linked to queer moral urgency and survival, now seems connected to conflicting emotions: a sense of inadequacy about one’s homosexual-ish, female-ish identity; and a heart-wrenching ache for community. This sort of surgery, already an anathema to one’s self and one’s community is an anathema to American cinema: a far cry from the delicious body horror of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future (2022.)

It is hard to put into words Love Lies Bleeding’s importance for this very audience without some subcultural history. Here is but a tiny selection of populist bones over which lesbians have fought — against lesbians, and the world at-large — and settled for the past two decades: Ceaseless, ongoing revivals of The L Word. Infinite quibblings and concerns about Blue is the Warmest Color, including poet Eileen Myles’ absolutist diatribes. An anemic iteration of Wonder Woman who couldn’t even muster a canonical “Suffering Sappho!” An app called Lex bastardizing the utilitarian On Our Backs classified. Lee Daniels’ Billie Holiday and Tallulah Bankhead fanfiction. The wroughting of Taylor Swift’s sexual orientation into a QAnon-style community builder disguised-as-game. The censorship of the word ‘dyke’ on Meta platforms. Netflix’s cancellation of Sense8. A renowned children’s book author’s parasitic relationship to those who want trans women dead and gone. An excessive commitment to Cate Blanchett’s Carol Aird-as-enshrined modernist cinema heroine. I Care a Lot. Barbie grifting the Indigo Girls. Ryan Murphy’s take on Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers. The influx of popular queer lyrical memoirs regarding in-community abuse that are necessary and of the moment, but needlessly possess the optimism and charm of lead poisoning-via-Victorian wallpaper. The absence of adaptations of Rubyfruit Jungle or the novels of Heather Lewis, or a serious biopic on Alice Dunbar Nelson. The under-use of Brittney Rodriguez. The existence of a documentary on Andrea Dworkin. Clea DuVall’s turn as an auteur. Ultimatum

These are the terrors that keep one awake at night, breaking a sweat over whether one even wants lesbian community to exist when popular contemporary lesbian art more closely resembles a cobweb-covered Hitachi massager. My sins: As a result of needing to see actresses in motion on-screen beyond the grating trope of the newly self-actualized heroine running a la Frances Ha, and more instances of actresses putting on substantive amounts of physical mass mass as men have in the history of great American films, I’ve defended some equally godless though nowhere near as satisfying fare, fraught production environments, politically incorrect spectacles, dull queer thrillers, and female characters who choose violence because those films at least hold the line that an imaginative film like Love Lies Bleeding would be uniquely poised to clear, and then some.

So no, Love’s Jackie doesn’t split hairs: she splits skulls. Lou, a sucker for a stray, takes the lunk under her scrawny little wing, plying her with egg whites and steroids while kicking her smoking habit. Stewart may have smartly weaponized star power and innate tomboy charm, but O’Brian is the dizzying centerpiece; her performance is unlike anything I’ve seen in a narrative since Darryl Hannah in the remake of The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman: she bounces along on neurotically precise screenwriting and subliminal images, becoming, through a curious actress’ genuine performance of rage, more vulnerably resonant and, as consequence, a perfectly codependent attack dog for anyone who f*cks with her bodybuilder dreams or new chosen family. As the bodies begin to mount, Lou gets to cleaning and reckoning, in so few words, with her own generational trauma; none of it having to do with being a promiscuous bulldagger.

Love Lies Bleeding stealthily covers a lot of ground. This is due to the spectacle it creates and the American culture it acknowledges by its backwoods 1980s setting. Call Love is Bleeding what you wish, but those who call it exploitative should be poised to make themselves the first enemies of a new and necessary feminist artistic sensibility. That clunking sound you hear beyond the windows? It is the sound of girls arming themselves with this kinetic crowbar of a film.

Perhaps in apology for kicking her first feature to the curb in favor of it on my Autostraddle films list, Love Lies Bleeding’s spectacle summoned a series of aphorisms by Susan Sontag about the malignant social complex of being a girl under which all of us buckle and some of us survive through learning pugilistics. Behold Sontag speaking, in 1972, to the raw nerve of the apocalyptic American present—the sexed-female-at-birth body, which was Sontag’s body, prior to her first cancer diagnosis; a body that had experienced at least one abortion, borne a child, and recovered, to seemingly finite subsequent thought. As a result, we witness a mind inventorying a Western world that has placed barriers to where her body can go, where it can be, what it can become, what it has been denied and can never fully reclaim: “When they do exercises, women avoid the ones that develop the muscles, particularly those in the upper arms. Being “feminine” means looking physically weak, frail. Thus, the ideal woman’s body is one that is not of much practical use in the hard work of this world, and one that must continually “be defended.” Women do not develop their bodies, as men do. After a woman’s body has reached its sexually acceptable form by late adolescence, most further development is viewed as negative. […] Improvement as such is not the task. Women care for their bodies — they conserve them. (Perhaps the fact that women in modern societies tend to have a more conservative political outlook than men originates in their profoundly conservative relation to their bodies.)”

O’Brian is the dizzying centerpiece…she bounces along on neurotically precise screenwriting and subliminal images, becoming, through a curious actress’ genuine performance of rage, vulnerably resonant.

Witness how Sontag succeeds in building solidarity with trans people without putting their intimate subjectivities on blast, or needlessly insulting those who conceive womanhood and sex as mutually exclusive; note the divorced nature of reproduction from her feminism: Love Lies Bleeding picks up what Sontag put down and casts those restrictive systems aside. Thus, we are submerged into the reliable temple of physical amelioration: an iron-and-adrenaline gym, one that would never dare to presume a girl can’t call for a spotter, or be one, when necessary. Signs with primitive inspirational slogans litter the walls, further stressing this liberation from not only thinking of self-determination and development as negative, but the thought being fiercely, intentionally removed from the picture’s utopia-within-a-dystopia. To write about what this movie does for the lesbian imagination—from the petty universal dramedies of queer life to the ways in shying away from what we conceive as grotesque and thus shying away from the best of ouverselves—would be to put the queer communities most destined to connect and create art and community as a result of this very public feature’s existence, at risk. But what can be said openly is that O’Brian’s physical composition is one that is not mythical. In fact, were we to abide by Sontag and change the game so we’re all a little less corseted, there’s not really a precedent for what our bodies, juice or no juice, are capable of. Paradoxically, the lowbrow, vaudeville-to-American Gladiators archetype of the strongwoman has been the subject of revelatory century inventories — the documentaries Pumping Iron II: The Women (1985) and Transformers (2017), the New School exhibition Picturing the Modern Amazon, and Joël-Peter Witkin’s posing of bodybuilder Lisa Lyon as Kroisos Kouros, a Greek statue that once guarded the tomb of a fallen warrior — but these artifacts are not built to grace the populist masses; this is a job for narrative cinema.

When broaching conversations about Love Lies Bleeding with those fated to love it most, the query I’ve constantly received is, “Do they die?” We all die, kittens. But the girls are very much alive and well. While fascinating to witness a film’s aggressive title in tension with a trepidation of a cultural demographic, this question is now beneath us. That Stewart’s next turn as character actor will be as Susan Sontag in a biopic touted as a “movie-in-a-movie” should come as no surprise. Stewart, once branded “highbrow no homo” by a lesbian critic, not waiting on anyone to call her grotesque, would elect to artfully shatter Sontag’s glass closet.

As with the public intellectual’s early fiction, scant time has been paid to Sontag’s obsession and origins within the picture shows, not to mention her own contributions. Premiering at New York Film Festival in 1969, Sontag’s first feature, Duet for Cannibals, was immediately branded as both ‘grotesque’ and ‘political’ in the press. These umbrella terms kept Duet’s homoeroticism from being acknowledged. That we now know Sontag held an unrequited love for the film’s ingenue, Adriana Asti, makes Sontag a queer monster rivaling Jackie. The question should not be: Do they die? But: Where to next?

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