Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Category: LGBTQ

Colette

YEAR: 2018
DIRECTOR: Wash Westmoreland
KEY ACTORS: Keira Knightley, Dominic West
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 6.7
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 87%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ This movie is rewatchable. It’s beautiful and funny and interesting, and I definitely want to watch it again!
✔️ It’s easily sex positive. There are feminist issues, certainly, but all the characters have a level of sexual freedom and acceptance of each other’s needs that is admirable and not always present in relationships, even today.
✔️ It also has no problem passing the Bechdel Test. Colette and Missy talk a lot about subjects that don’t involve men, as do Colette and the other women she meets in the Paris salon scene, who are handily introduced to her when she meets them!
✔️ I would also fuck the cast without much hesitation. I have carried a torch for Dominic West since The Wire, which even a dodgy goatee and a dodgier personality can’t entirely extinguish, but Keira Knightley is the star. Colette is witty and intelligent, and Knightley gives her a spark that is frankly irresistible!
❌ But narrowly missing a 5/5 score, it didn’t inspire fantasies. Hot as they may look, I’m not gay so the lesbian love scenes didn’t inspire me beyond wanting hot sex in general, and the dress up scenes with Dominic West were definitely on the creepy end of the hot-or-not scale…

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Netflix, Amazon Prime (rent £1.99, buy £6.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

Poster for Colette, showing a determined looking Keira Knightley wearing a great hat!

Today’s movie was one that I hadn’t seen before this week, and I watched it in the most wonderfully indulgent style – sat on an enormous, ridiculously comfy sofa, surrounded by cheesy deliciousness, wine and good friends. It was perfect! And I was so happy to watch it with these particular friends as Exposing 40 and Haiku are such interesting people to talk to about, well, almost anything, but especially about marriage and different types of relationships – pertinent topics when watching Colette.

Colette tells the true story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley), a young woman from the French countryside who marries a celebrity of sorts from Paris. Her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (West), better known by his nom-de-plume, Willy, is a vibrant member of the Parisian salon scene and is famous for writing stories and reviews…very few of which he actually writes, delegating that part to his ‘factory.’ When Willy’s extravagant lifestyle and infidelities catch up with him, he persuades Colette to write stories for him to increase his output and, therefore, his income. To Willy’s surprise, Colette’s novels about a young girl called Claudine’s sexual and romantic adventures become wildly successful, creating a social phenomenon, but Colette receives none of the credit. They were written by Willy after all. Frustrated and held back by Willy, Colette rebels, learns to become a mime and leaves Willy for Missy, a genderqueer Marquis who shows Colette that women don’t need to be wives or feminine to be accepted by society.

Image from Colette showing Colette writing

The true story of Colette and the issue of marital plagiarism is such an interesting one. The real woman was clearly a genius – a future Nobel prize nominee and author of many best-selling novels after divorcing Willy – but Willy was not wrong when he claimed that novels written by women are less successful as they were deemed to be harder to publish and harder to sell. It’s why Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot rather than her own name in the 1800s and why, even in the 20th century, JK Rowling chose to publish under her initials rather than her obviously feminine real name. And by the time Colette wrote the famous Claudine novels, ‘Willy’ was a brand, as he claimed. His use of ghost-writers was well known within the industry and ‘Willy’ was already rumoured to be more than just that one man. Why risk their main source of income by rocking the boat and confirming what was already suspected anyway?

But, to me, these are simply excuses. And misogynist ones at that! Once the brand was established and once the character, Claudine, had built a diehard fan base, why couldn’t they come clean? In a society where women had so few opportunities to succeed creatively, why couldn’t they take that risk now? Except that, of course, revealing who had actually written his greatest works would discredit Willy. Without her novels, he would be unsuccessful and broke. He would have nothing.

And the power was all on his side and he had no desire to change that. Unless Willy himself gave credit to Colette, who would believe her? Although he does end up asking for them to be destroyed, just in case, Willy is able to look at Colette’s handwritten stories within his infrequent notes in the margin and claim that this is proof of their collaboration. Watching this with Haiku, she was reminded of a similar story from the 1970s where Margaret Keane’s husband took credit for her distinctive big eyed paintings so convincingly that a judge asked them both to paint for him under observation to prove who was the real artist. Marriage laws tend to side with the husband, essentially giving him ownership of his wife and, by default, her creative results. Which is frustrating, to say the least, and I am so pleased that Colette managed to successfully publish under her own name later in life.

Image from Colette showing Willy as the toast of the Paris salon

But while the headline plot from Colette is the trouble that she had getting credit for her writing, I was much more interested in the romantic plot and the dynamics of their marriage. Because, until Colette’s fight for professional acknowledgement drove the final nail into the coffin of their relationship, they seemed to have found a balance that sort of worked for them. They had an uneven and not entirely satisfactory open relationship, sure, but a Time biography suggested that it was Willy who finally asked for a divorce and that Colette had been happy in their non-monogamous partnership. They clearly also married initially for love – Colette even jokes that she didn’t bring a dowry. The respect and admiration that they felt for each other was visible in how Knightley and West played the characters, with the Guardian review praising their performances for suggesting that ‘Colette and Willy did enjoy something like a real love affair, and that Colette was never simply a victim, nor Willy simply an exploiter.’ As with so much in life, it was much more complicated than that!

I do believe that they loved each other. I believed that they had a real partnership, not just a marriage of convenience or financial need. And they were sweet together! Willy referring to himself as a ‘pot-bellied stove’ when offering to warm her up in bed really made me smile and there seemed to be genuine companionship in much of their interactions and ease with each other. Having a 10-month old baby who seems to have been snotty for weeks now, there was definitely a note of familiarity in Colette noticing a stain on her dress as they arrived at a party, scratching it and joyfully declaring that it was just toothpaste, and I loved how Willy soon gave up trying to change how Colette dressed and let her wear what made her comfortable.

But despite this easy companionship and mutual respect, we still spent much of the film declaring what an awful husband Willy was! The problem comes because their relationship had such a clear gender imbalance. Willy is in charge; he is the man of the house and Colette is only able to do what she does because he allows it. Yes, he appeared to respect her but their public presence particularly did not demonstrate that Willy thought of them as equals. He would regularly order her around, demanding that they left parties when he wanted to leave, and would lock her up to ‘encourage’ her to write. And he can get away with anything he wants because that’s what men do. Once again, husbands owned their wives and could do what they wanted with them.

This also extended to Willy’s infidelities and sexual indiscretions. ‘Flirtation is what one does!’ he tells her. And later, he tells Colette that she needn’t feel threatened by him seeing a sex worker as ‘she’s no rival…it’s what gentlemen do.’ Willy benefits from the patriarchal society and doesn’t do anything to change it. And there was so much opportunity to be fairer!

Image from Colette showing Willy with Colette and another woman on his knees

As I briefly mentioned in the post on Up in the Air, I am in an open marriage myself but the arrangement that Willy and Colette have is a type of non-monogamous relationship that personally isn’t for me. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different but I’m not a fan of the One Penis Policy. This type of open relationship is not uncommon but I can’t view an agreement where the man can sleep with as many women as they want but the woman isn’t allowed to sleep with an equivalent number of men as anything other than misogynist. The woman can fuck other women, which is OK because the man gets to remain the man of the house? Because sex with women is of less value than sex with men? Because men only get jealous of other men, like they’re a new patriarch trying to disrupt the pack? Because fucking a penis infers a level of ownership that can’t be shared? Sorry, it’s not for me. And it destroys any chance that Willy had of being a progressive husband – even if he does happily let his wife fuck as many women as she wants.

And Colette is very aware of the inequality of their marriage. She asks about opening their marriage completely but Willy refuses. And, of course, this does create resentment. It does foster and maintain inequality. As Missy tells her, ‘it’s a long leash he keeps you on, but it is a leash.’

The inequality in their non-monogamous marriage is further exacerbated because Willy keeps secrets and has affairs. He doesn’t tell her who he’s fucking, which in my opinion still constitutes cheating even in an open relationship. Of course, Colette fights back against these slights, but not because she wanted him to stop; she just wanted him to keep her in the loop: ‘I want to be part of things. I don’t want to be a little wife at home.’ I completely understand this attitude. It’s not the open marriage that it’s the problem; it’s the lies. Like the One Penis Policy, they maintain a hierarchy and power dynamic that places Willy in charge and Colette as his inferior. Who wouldn’t fight back against that sort of arrangement?

Image from Colette showing Colette looking fabulous with a lady in her underwear in the background

Particularly as Colette is clearly a bisexual woman with a high sex drive, and I love how this was celebrated on screen. ‘The wild days have just begun,’ she announces when presented to Parisian society and Willy’s peers joke that he’ll have to settle down now that he’s married. She asks for sex and it is Willy who turns her down as he’s too tired; she goes after what and who she wants and is happy to make the first move; and, of course, Claudine’s adventures that make them so famous are Colette’s adventure, her school days and her memories. It is almost the ultimate expression of the patriarchy that Willy thought he could control her just because he married her!

Another aspect of this film that I really loved seeing presented so well was the handling of gender. I would be fascinated to know how this film might have looked if it had been released 10 or even just 5 years ago. Take Missy, for example – at one stage, Colette makes a very deliberate effort to correct Willy when he calls him ‘she,’ implying that Missy had changed his pronouns to a more masculine form of he/his. It was so seamlessly handled, without fuss or really much acknowledgement, that it could easily have been missed, proving to any doubters that changing pronouns is not a big deal and doesn’t need to be a major plot point. ‘Words are either masculine or feminine.’ Colette tells Willy, ‘There’s no word for Missy.’ And that’s all that needed to be said. After all, Missy’s gender isn’t why Colette falls for her, and the scandal surrounding their relationship stems from the fact that they are supposedly two women kissing on stage, rather than Missy’s gender flexibility.

Image from Colette showing Colette and Missy embracing on stage

But I was most pleased to see this small detail in the film as they didn’t need to include it. The real Missy, Mathilde de Morny, was notorious for dressing in men’s clothes at a time when this was scandalous enough, but there is no evidence to suggest she was trans. Rumour, yes, but no facts. So I liked that the writers chose to highlight this pronoun change as it must have been a deliberate choice, and one that might not have been made in the past.

Another deliberate choice that also made me happy when I heard it was Missy’s acknowledgement that it was his financial privilege and status that gave him the freedom to dress how he wanted and act as he did. Even though he created a scandal, his life wasn’t at risk; he was able to survive. When looking back at figures in history who have been trailblazers for sexuality or who have challenged accepted gender norms, it tends to be the stories of those with this kind of privilege that make history – to misuse a quote from the film, ‘it’s the hand that holds the pen that writes history’ – and it made the story of Colette and Missy so much more powerful that this was acknowledged.

Image from Colette, showing Missy in a dinner jacket

So what and who is Colette? The Guardian felt that it was an ‘empowering and entertaining tale of a woman finding her own voice in a society in flux;’ the Telegraph described her as an ‘ahead-of-her-time queer icon with a complex attitude to her own femininity.’

For me, it is a story of progress and is almost a prolonged coming of age movie. Who says we are fully formed once leave home or fall in love, as traditional coming of age films would suggest? Colette needed Willy to find herself; she needed his encouragement to write in the first place, his sexing up of her writing to help her find her style, his freedom and (admittedly salacious) encouragement to fuck around with the women in Paris to discover what she wanted. ‘You’re the only woman I could ever love,’ he tells her. ‘And you’re at your most brilliant with me.’ Their marriage was a disaster, but it was the catalyst that Gaby, the young country girl Sidonie-Gabrielle, needed to become Colette, the pioneer and trendsetter. Colette is a ‘nuanced tale of outgrowing: not just a childish and bullying spouse, but an age of acquiescence.’ Yes, she was scandalous but she helped to change how women are perceived and what they were allowed to do – creatively and personally.

After all, ‘since when has scandal been a bad thing?’

Next week – Pride and Prejudice

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

YEAR: 1975
DIRECTOR: Jim Sharman
KEY ACTORS: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 80%

SEX SCORE: 3.5/5
✔️ So Rocky Horror passes the Bechdel Test, but this is another example where it can be argued that its passing is ‘dubious.’ It does literally pass the binary test, but all the qualifying conversations between named female characters are still about sex…just sex with a woman.
✔️ It is rewatchable. But I’d recommend watching it at the cinema if at all possible – it is so much more fun that way!
✔️ And I do want to fuck the cast. They’re all either very extreme or very normal, but the characters are so horny that they have an undeniable appeal. Also, I love a man in stockings…
❓ Unsure if this really count as inspiring a fantasy as it didn’t get quite as far as a full-blown fantasy, but this film is certainly the first time that I saw a man in heels and stockings look so good and, lets just say, it changed things!
❌ But considering how revolutionary it was at the time it was released and how important it has been to queer representation, I don’t think Rocky Horror is sex positive. Frank is too predatory; Rocky is too exploited; Janet is not a slut. It’s wonderful but its sexual politics haven’t aged so well.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The poster from Rocky Horror showing Dr Frank N Furter sitting on a pair of red lips

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not so much a movie as an experience. A phenomenon. First released to mixed reception in 1975, it has become the archetypal cult film. Regular midnight showings are congregated by hordes of fancy-dressed diehard fans who add their own lines between those on screen and bring props to interact with the story themselves. It’s like nothing else; Rocky Horror is an institution.

OK before we get into it, let’s try to summarise the plot! Average American couple, Brad (Bostwick) and Janet (Sarandon), have a puncture when driving through the woods in a storm and approach a strange castle to see if they have a telephone to call for help. The castle is the home of Dr Frank N Furter (Curry) and his servants who persuade Brad and Janet to stay the night by singing and dancing and, well, taking their clothes. Frank invites them up to his lab (to see what’s on the slab) where he has created a perfect man – the eponymous Rocky Horror – essentially as a sex toy. Later in the night, Frank tricks both Brad and Janet into sleeping with him and then, well, it becomes a bit chaotic! There’s a scientist in a wheelchair, cannibalism, turning people to stone, more stockings, more songs, a musical number/orgy in a swimming pool and eventually Frank’s servants, RiffRaff and Magenta, turn on him and reveal themselves to all be aliens from Transylvania. They kill Frank, release Brad and Janet, and take off in the castle-spaceship to return to Transylvania. Phew…

Image from Rocky Horror, showing the main characters dancing a chorus line in stockings and suspenders

Now, Rocky Horror is a film whose legend is almost bigger than the film itself, and I knew all about it and its following long before I had ever seen it. My mother used to tell me stories of going to see it in the 1980s, singing and bringing along water pistols to create rain, and it sounded like the most incredible thing I had ever heard. I’m a huge fan of immersive cinema now but it was so new when I heard stories about these midnight showings that they sounded like magic and I was desperate to be a part of it. I wanted to see the movie so much – and I wanted to see it in the cinema, late at night, wearing fishnets and throwing pieces of toast into the air. Except that I was about 10 at the time my mother told me these stories and living in deepest darkest countryside so I couldn’t go even if I were allowed!

Sadly, years and years and years then passed and I still had not seen the film so when I spotted it on TV, I thought I’d give it a watch. And, honestly, I thought it was really weird. It was so bizarre and I didn’t get it. At all. I was so disappointed! But when I mentioned this to my mother, she wasn’t surprised – it is a strange film and it does make no sense, and that’s because it can’t easily be watched in isolation. As Roger Ebert wrote, Rocky Horror is a movie that ‘played as a backdrop to the stage show by the fans.’ It needs the fans and the interaction to make sense! So I tried again. I found a proper showing and, although I didn’t dress up as I was there by myself and wasn’t ready for that, it had everything else and it was in-credible. Over the top and immersive and hysterical, and I loved it. And now I won’t watch it any other way!

An image from Rocky Horror showing Rocky wearing gold hotpants

For me, this was the first introduction to how powerful community can be, particularly kink, queer and sex positive communities. Although Rocky Horror isn’t perfect, it was one of the earliest mainstream representations of queerness on screen and these midnight showings ‘provided a place where the socially and sexually marginalised could gather each week and rejoice in each other’s company.’ Even in otherwise pretty conservative cities, showings of Rocky Horror would allow people to gather together and express themselves in a way that would often be frankly dangerous in other circumstances: ‘It was a family. A loose, cliquish one divided into participants and gawkers, to be sure, but a community nonetheless.

The importance of this community cannot be overstated. It was a safe space at a time when there weren’t enough of these available. Frank is a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania and he is awesome! He’s wearing make-up and stockings and heels and he is powerful. And within the hyperactive and bizarre context of the movie, he isn’t a joke; he makes sense. I cannot imagine how freeing it must have been to ‘see someone like Frank-N-Furter be the leader of a society and be unapologetically confident and sexually ambiguous.’ Not only him, there is gender queer representation all over the place with femme and masc presenting observers among the TimeWarp dancers. Alongside this, Brad and Janet represent the more vanilla, mainstream attitudes so everyone could feel welcome: ‘It is an opportunity to see oneself in a film, it provides a place for self-expression, and it gives meaning to peoples’ lives…Brad and Janet embody the more conservative audience of the film, while Frank-N-Furter and his servants give a voice to those who have never felt represented by characters in film or television.’

An image from Rocky Horror showing a dancing troupe dancing to the Time Warp

I am very fortunate because I have never needed a safe place like this as being myself has never carried the same risks as those faced by LGBT people in the 1970s and 1980s, but I still recognise how much having a community of like minded people has changed and supported me. Interacting with people who share my less mainstream values on sex, non-monogamy or kink has given me the confidence to accept those parts of me with less shame or concern than I would have if I’d faced them alone. So I can completely understand how watching Dr Frank N Furter up there on screen and then making friends with others in the audience who experienced the same challenges would have encouraged a sense of belonging and confidence that helped people accept themselves, and maybe accept themselves enough to come out.

An image from Rocky Horror showing Brad and Janet opening the castle door and shaking hands with RifRaf

But the world is different now and so is Rocky Horror’s place in it. In 1975, Rocky Horror was released into a pre-AIDS world where homosexuality had only been removed from the American Classification of Mental Disorders two years previously (something the WHO wouldn’t do until 1992!) and where Pride movements were still in their earliest stages – the rainbow Pride flag would only be adopted three years later. In 1975, queer communities needed this movie and this safe space as they had so little else.

Now, in 2019, while there is obviously still much work to be done, society is more accepting of queer and trans people, and so Rocky Horror has lost some of its power. You could say that it’s done its job! But now that it’s no longer a ‘boundary breaker,’ what is it?

Well, as dominant cultures tend to do, it’s been appropriated by the mainstream! Rocky Horror has been described as ‘LGBT cosplay for straight people’ and as a ‘chance for the comfortable to dip their toes in their perception of LGBT culture.’ It is no longer a groundbreaking safe place; Rocky Horror is a circus act.

And when viewed in this way, it starts to look much more problematic. Take Frank N Furter as an obvious example – he is extreme and over the top, but outside of the over the top context of the movie and the historical context of the time, he is just a predator. His aggressive form of sexuality can even make him look like ‘a caricature of the LGBT predator conservative lawmakers are so intent on convincing us is real.’ He manipulates Brad and Janet into sleeping with him by hiding his identity until the last minute, a clear consent violation; he builds Rocky to have sex with and literally chases him around the castle when Rocky tries to escape, suggesting Rocky doesn’t really consent to fucking Frank either. And don’t forget that Frank kills and then eats Eddie when he looks elsewhere. He is a monster! As the Houston Press so descriptively put it, ‘remove the singing and he is basically Buffalo Bill with better fashion sense.

Image from Rocky Horror showing a snarling Frank N Furter

In fact, Jef Rouner, writing for the Houston Press in 2017, now has very strong views about the problematic nature of Rocky Horror in the modern world, describing how his relationship with the movie has changed. He went from regular performer and disciple to hesitating to share the movie that means so much to him with his daughter as he’s not certain it contains messages he wants her to hear. ‘Screaming “slut” whenever anyone says Janet’s name is arguably the single most basic call line in Rocky Horror history,’ he explains, and even though she has no more sex than the other main characters, she is the only one to get labeled.

An image from Rocky Horror showing Janet and Rocky wrapped in a blanket

When asked to justify the use of this sort of language, Rouner used to respond with ‘righteous indignation,’ citing tradition and the ‘unique cinematic experience’ of Rocky as reasons why the complaint held no merit. Now older, he has realised that he had been wrong to disregard their concerns: ‘Looking back at it now, I sounded like freakin’ GamerGate. I sounded like every other aggrieved son of privilege beating his chest because his toys made other people uncomfortable. It’s a weirdly conservative mind-set for something that was supposed to be about breaking boundaries.’

So what is Rocky Horror now?

Well, to me, it’s a testament to progress. It is dated and it is problematic – but as are so many other movies from the 1970s. The 1970s were a problematic time! We do live in a different time now, thank goodness, and we can’t expect media from the past to represent current attitudes. It can still be enjoyed if we look at it critically and understand what was important and what is important, and what we can and have learned from it.

And it is definitely ‘encouraging that the world no longer needs Rocky Horror the way it did in decades past.’ So maybe it is now just the ‘richest sources of holiday costume ideas’ to come out of the history of cinema. And maybe it is an excuse for the conservative and conventional to drag up and maybe it too problematic to be anything other than a bit of fun.

But, oh, what fun it is! I still love watching this film and still love to dress up and sing along. And maybe, just maybe, there are still people who will benefit from seeing ‘two conventional young sheeple having their eyes opened to all the possibilities of absolute pleasure’ by going to the movies and spending ‘two hours in the dark with a bunch of other weirdoes!

Next week: Colette

Thank you to ‘Rainbow Revolutions‘ by Jamie Lawson and Eve Lloyd Knight for providing a great history of the fight for queer rights. Definite recommendation!
Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Imagine Me and You

YEAR: 2005
DIRECTOR: Ol Parker
KEY ACTORS: Piper Perabo, Lena Headey, Matthew Goode, Celia Imrie, Anthony Head
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 6.8
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 34%

I’m so happy to be posting another guest post from another fabulous sex blogger, Amy Norton from Coffee and Kink! Amy writes hot erotica, detailed sex toy reviews and insightful personal essays – do go and check out her writing!

SEX SCORE: 4.5/5
✔️ Passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Main characters Rachel and Luce are shown talking about a wide range of topics from flowers to football.
✔️ Fuckable cast – Lena Headey (yes, as in Cersei Lannister) as a dorky lesbian florist? Sign me the fuck up. Piper Perabo is also super hot. The men don’t really do anything for me; Matthew Goode’s Heck is cute enough but not my type, and Darren Boyd’s Cooper is way too obnoxious to be hot.
Fantasies inspired – Half a point here. No specific sexual fantasies from this one (there’s hardly any actual sex in it!) but definitely plenty of romantic fantasies. This movie was the first piece of media which gave me hope that queer women, too, could have cinema-worthy mushy happy endings.
✔️ Rewatchable – Endlessly. I’ve probably seen this film at least a dozen times by now, and it’s a frequent cheer-me-up choice when I’m sad or sick.
✔️ Sex positive – This was difficult to decide. I’m torn primarily because there’s a major theme about cheating, which is hard to classify as sex-positive. However, it’s also a story about following your heart when your sexuality turns out to not be quite what you thought, and it’s unashamedly queer-positive (despite coming out only two years after the end of Section 28.) So, yes, it gets the point.

As ever, this post contains spoilers, so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Shockingly, this film is on neither Netflix nor Amazon Prime. It is available on Sky for £3.49, or you can buy the DVD for around £5 on Amazon. For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The Imagine Me and You poster, showing Rachel laughing with both Luce and Heck behind her

When I was an undergraduate, a decade or so ago, we had monthly LGBTQ film nights. As a baby queer of nineteen, I’d seen almost no LGBTQ cinema before. These evenings introduced me to some films which I still love years later. One of them was Imagine Me and You, a British queer rom-com starring Piper Perabo as Rachel, a young newly-wed who feels inexplicably drawn to florist Luce at her wedding… and eventually begins to wonder if the love of her life might not be her new husband, Hector (“Heck”), after all.

Perabo is a wedding dress, laughing with Headey why stands back to back, looking over her shoulder towards her m

There isn’t much actual sex in this movie (it’s only a 12 certificate, after all!) It’s really a film about the fluidity of sexuality, and about sexual and romantic tension rather than sex itself. But that’s part of what makes it so delicious! Rachel’s attraction to Luce is immediate and overpowering, and she spends much of the movie (which spans a period of a few months) trying desperately to deny her growing feelings. That said, sex is alluded to plenty, including in some of the movie’s most memorable moments:

Heck: [When Rachel wants to have sex in a park late at night] “We’ve got a flat. It’s a good one! And I’ve confiscated your mother’s key so she can’t sneak up on us any more. I swear that woman’s got a sex radar.”

In this scene, Rachel and Heck run into a gay male couple who also seem to be getting ready to have sex in the woods. The two men explain that they have only just met, and there’s a hilarious, excruciatingly awkward handshake and exchange of names. (This movie does painful awkwardness so, so well – just search Youtube for “Imagine Me & You supermarket scene” to see what I mean.) This film even manages to poke fun at outdated puritanical beliefs about the supposed “degrading and offensive” nature of pornography:

Heck: [After nearly catching Rachel watching a lesbian porn film she has “accidentally” rented from the video store] It’s porn, right? It’s degrading. It’s offensive.
Rachel: God, yes.
Heck: Yeah… Let’s watch it anyway! Come on, Rach, I mean, things have been getting slack in that department recently. I know it’s my fault, but…
Rachel: No, it’s mine… I… uh… but I don’t want to watch this.
Heck: Why not?
Rachel: It doesn’t turn me on.
Heck: Makes one of us.

We’re also reminded of the hypocrisy of the heteropatriarchy in the form of Heck’s best friend, Cooper. “Coop” is an obnoxious womanizer who believes himself “the cure for lesbianism” and proudly boasts about all the married women who have cheated with him. (Real talk: in reality, these two men would never be best friends. They have nothing in common!) However, when Heck confides that Rachel has fallen in love with someone else, Coop realises the person in question is Luce and doesn’t hesitate to chew her out for “wrecking another couple.” Please remember: Luce and Rachel have shared exactly one kiss by this point in the film, and Rachel has tried to end things and decided to stay with her husband. Coming from a man whose answer to the question of what to do if you like someone who’s already in a relationship is, “me? I shag ‘em”… the hypocrisy and double standards are thrown into sharp relief here. Luce, to her credit, basically tells him to fuck off.

Headey is in her flower shop with Goode looking in at her

But again: the sex jokes are fun and the movie occasionally makes a serious point about sex, but this is really a film about the slow burn of sexual and romantic tension leading to blossoming love. Rachel and Luce repeatedly find themselves in each other’s orbit – ironically, Heck keeps making efforts to throw them together, thinking that Rachel could use more female friendships in her life. There are a number of moments where something so nearly happens, and then doesn’t. In one particularly exquisite and painful moment, the two women come inches away from kissing at the end of an evening out together, until Rachel breaks the spell and runs off.

When I watch this scene I am always viscerally reminded of times, before I was quite ready to come out, when I might have had the opportunity to kiss a girl but wasn’t yet able to deal with what it could mean about me if I did. Experiences like this are, I think, a near -ubiquitous part of the coming out process. I’m sure that’s why so many young queer women say they see themselves represented in this film. As the newly-out, newly-adult queer woman I was when I watched this film, Rachel’s coming-out story resonated profoundly with me. It still does.

The tension and slowly escalating pull Rachel and Luce feel to each other is so beautifully executed that when they do finally kiss, it brings tears to my eyes every single time. A heartbroken Rachel tells Luce they can no longer see each other because she is married, goes to leave… then rushes back into Luce’s flower shop and kisses her passionately. This scene is hot, tender and funny (“Thorns! Thorns in my bum!”) all at the same time. Just like the best sex, the best kisses and the best relationships in real life.

Perado and Headey smiling and hugging

And this is of the reasons the Rachel/Luce relationship is so compelling. They genuinely seem to like each other! Laughter is a major part of their interactions. Despite its unusual beginnings and the strange circumstances, their relationship seems based on genuine affection, mutual respect, and a deep sense of fun and friendship.

Films need conflict, of course. Otherwise there is no story. But the conflict in Imagine Me & You exists internally for each of the characters – Rachel as she battles with her changing sexuality, Luce as she struggles with the guilt over loving a married woman. Their relationship itself, though? It consistently strikes me as one of the healthiest on-screen romantic relationships I can think of, gay or straight.

Speaking of conflict, I do need to address the “cheating” element of this story. Having been on the wrong end of it, I feel comfortable saying I take a harder line on cheating than most. And, yes, Rachel does cheat on Heck in this film. What redeems it for me, though, is that the film does not glorify or romanticise cheating. Rachel fights her attraction to Luce every single step of the way and attempts to put physical distance between them when it seems that something is about to happen. Luce doesn’t push her to do anything, and also wrestles with her own guilt for wanting someone who is already married… even to the point of nearly leaving the country to put distance between them when she believes Rachel has chosen to stay with Heck.

When the two women do share that amazing kiss in the flower shop (and are nearly caught by Heck, coming at precisely the wrong moment to buy some flowers for his wife,) Rachel realises what she is doing and again tries to put an end to it. Later, she tearfully confesses to her husband.

“I went crazy, Heck. I went crazy for someone and it wasn’t you.”

Additionally, the scene where Rachel and Heck eventually split up is heartbreaking – for both of them. Heck, and their marriage, are not treated as disposable or easy to throw aside in favour of the “new shiny.” They genuinely love and care about each other! However, Rachel has come to understand something new and profound about herself and her sexuality, which is incompatible with the continuation of their marriage. Heck, I think, realises this very clearly while Rachel is still vainly trying to deny it to herself. He chooses to step aside, over allowing his wife to stay with him out of guilt or a sense of obligation when her heart is elsewhere. To me, it’s his last act of profound love towards her.

“What you’re feeling now, Rachel, is the unstoppable force. Which means I’ve got to move.”

I think this storyline represents an extremely common experience for queer people in opposite-sex relationships who cheat or who break up with their spouse for a same-sex partner. The new love, the new understanding of sexuality, does not negate what came before or make it somehow less real. It’s a difficult, painful, heart-wrenching decision to make. It’s wrapped up in guilt, loss, shame and fear of leaving the known for the unknown. And this film just shows that reality so beautifully.

Perado and Goode smiling at each other at a bonfire party

Finally, this storyline gets a pass from me because it neatly avoids two tropes: bisexual women as serial cheaters (she does it once and she feels terrible about it!) and the idea that the husband should be chill with the affair because relationships and sex between women “don’t count.”

Thinking about it, avoiding tired queer cinema tropes is one of the things this film does best and one of the reasons I love it.

My best friend and I like to watch LGBTQ films together. Last time we did this, we challenged ourselves to find queer films that featured none of: Death of any queer characters; violent homophobia; an AIDS storyline. It was shockingly difficult to find anything (my favourite film of all time, Pride, doesn’t clear this test either but gets a pass for being a true story.) I don’t want to diminish the fact that these things are all big, important, painful things to grapple with, which were and are a major part of collective queer history. However… we don’t necessarily always need to see that misery on-screen All The Fucking Time.

Bury Your Gays” is a trope many of us are sick of, and lesbian and bisexual women often get the worst of it. (It’s almost like homophobic patriarchy views queer women as expendable, or somehow only acceptable when made into tragic figures.) Imagine Me & You turns all that on its head. Instead, we get two happy women kissing in the middle of a busy street while a love-song plays, and then having a stable and functional relationship.

I might be a tad jaded in many ways, but I’m a hopeless romantic at heart and a sucker for a happy ending. I love so many things about Imagine Me & You but one of them is that everyone – including Heck, Rachel’s now ex-husband – gets a happy ending. And goddess knows we need more happy endings.

Next week: Up in the Air

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All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.