semirational defenses of lesbian movies with sub-7 imdb ratings, a diptych

The movies are Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come and Alice Wu’s The Half of It. I watched each of them in a very particular state and derived from each a sublime near-religious experience, even though I can’t necessarily defend my experience to anybody on the level of craft. I will now try to describe my reasons.

I decided to watch The World to Come on Valentine’s Day. Coincidentally, Valentine’s Day is one of the dates to appear in the film’s epistolary diary voiceover. I got excited as the diary approached my birthday, but it misses by one.

In addition to being spiritually intoxicated by the date, I had smoked half a joint on my porch as one of those dark wicked East Coast storms threatened. I also drank a sugar plum cider left over from Christmas that hurt my mouth for some reason. Perhaps this contributed to my impression, but I’ll defend it anyhow.

I don’t think The World to Come is a lesbian romance. To be clear, there’s obviously lesbian romance in it–actually, the erotic tension between the two lead actresses is moving, palpable. I believe the magnetism between the women in this film much more viscerally than I believe it in most of the 2000s-canon lesbian movies that are better regarded by critics, like Portrait of a Lady on Fire or Carol.

I like it as a character drama about a woman who experiences the great terror of most women of our human history, and many women now, and in fact, many human beings now, though my experience of it is as a woman’s terror. That is, the terror of being trapped on earth in a particular body and circumstance, which cannot be altered but only borne. A terror which is punctuated by two types of extreme experience: calamities that are visited on you at unpredictable intervals but certainly; brief ecstasies that are not certain at all. The terror of the powerlessness of a woman under her husband or God.

The script alternates between two affects. The first is wincing obviousness, delivered unconvincingly by the American accents that I guess have to be period-appropriate although I can’t convince myself of it. I don’t know if that’s Fastvold’s fault or mine. Katherine Waterston’s voiceover suffers from ornate mixed metaphors and lack of subtlety (“I am a library without books. I am a sea of agitation, fear and want.”) Essentially any time it describes a character’s inner state or reiterates what’s happening on screen it fails. To be clear, although I spontaneously burst into tears three times during this movie, I recognize that it fails often.

The second affect is grim restraint that, glimpsed briefly at its best, has a black power. On sober thought, I could attribute my impression of occasional Russian gravity to the content-effect of the snow, the interiors of wooden houses, and masses of sheep. But the occasions when the narration does succeed are striking: generally in the moments when it is allowed to relate events without leaning too hard on them for sympathy (In even tones: “I refused to calm myself, so he tied me to a chair and administered laudanum.”)

Also, when it achieves a particular murmuring rhythm, like a walking meditation. I mean the rhythm you associate with art shorts you see projected into the big windowless niche rooms of art galleries. For instance, in Mona Hartoum’s Measures of Distance. Or in Je tu il elle, while Chantal Akerman eats spoonfuls of sugar and writes her own letters.

Daniel Blumberg’s striking clarinet score sells the severity of emotion. Strange sounds can be coaxed from a bass or contrabass clarinet–I recall Gerard Grisey’s Anubis, which features notes that, because they don’t sound like music, sound like miserable groans, ugly with grief.

The voiceover here is very useful for thoughts I’ve been having about character interiority and exposition in fiction, while I’ve been working on a manuscript I wrote longhand last year. Brandon Taylor recently wrote a newsletter that unlocked some thoughts on it for me.

What I’m puzzling out is how character interiority on the line in the written word is like a film voiceover, or like a caption in a comic. We already “see” the character’s action; the interiority should be laid across it carefully, to reveal more or show something alternate instead of underlining what’s already seen. Like two grids, in one of those animations, which when overlaid and rotated form shifting gravitational dahlias.

This manuscript is one of two I now find I have to type up before I move across the country. I’m frightened they’ll be stolen from my car, or else I’ll drive into a river or something. Anyways, it’s a permutation of a fear I’ve always had that I could lose anything, everything, anytime.

One of those times I began crying was a sequence in which Abigail on her horse gallops up to a barn that is burning with somebody’s daughter inside. The mother’s face is contorted in anger and effort, not yet grief, as her husband wrestles her. She’s shouting, “somebody get her!” But how is anybody supposed to do something like that? You become aware of the unseen body in the very far away loft, of the thinness of the barrier between the body and fresh air. The air is so calm, with pollen floating in it unperturbed. The river, in the foreground of the shot, is full of all the water you could want, and worthless for it.

In some other movie, somebody might try to run in. Abigail herself makes an aborted gesture, but she turns away. We are just witnessing. What else do you do? The barn roof falls in.

With her lover Tallie killed by a husband of typically drawn brutishness, Abigail faces the prospect of being trapped alone in her own mind for presumably the rest of her life. She has a husband, of course, but they are alone together on a stark plot of land, in an estranged part of the country. She has a daughter, but one can barely imagine a more worthwhile life for her than for Abigail–perhaps just implied in the title, on which more later. In Tallie, Abigail briefly glimpsed the nearly unbelievable possibility that her one life on this earth could be an experience of fulfillment instead of, or at least as well as, mute passivity and servitude. She considers taking Dyer’s shotgun to kill Tallie’s husband, accepting, presumably, the end of her life in death or prison. “I imagined,” she writes also, gazing out at her daughter and husband, “banishing forever those sentiments of my own that she [meaning Tallie] chastened and refined. I imagine resolving to do what I can for Dyer. And I imagine continuing to write in this ledger, here, as though this was my life. As though my life was not elsewhere.” (See, here the narration is pretty effective; from whence the library without books?)

But Fastvold turns the screw one more time. In the final scene, Abigail and Dyer sit together on the roof of the farmhouse. Abigail says: “I can’t imagine what more we could do for one another, under our constraints.” Dyer: You can’t? Abigail: “I can’t.” Then she leans back in exhaustion onto the roof of the farmhouse. But when the shot turns, we see not Dyer but Tallie, miraculously alive, who says: “Well, then– it’s a good thing we remember that our imaginations can always be cultivated.” The clarinet spirals up in terrible joy, and the women embrace.

Maybe it’s only the thereness of every image on a film screen that turns this reverse shot into the implication of a Gothic madness–that Abigail really believes Tallie is present, just as we really see her on the screen. The other interpretation here is simply that she hopes to see Tallie soon in heaven (the world to come). But in that instant I can’t help but imagine the rest of Abigail’s life lived in this hysteria of longing: ecstatic, in delusion, with her grotesquely resurrected dream-wife; still imprisoned, in reality, to some other being’s ruttings and whims. Like Winston writing 2 + 2 = 5 on the bar table, exquisitely happy.

This movement is so keenly horrible and so well-executed that I give a lot of grace to the rest of the work. A huge sensitivity resonates in it that you can hear like the ring of a tuning fork.


I watched The Half of It while drunk on an entire bottle of my roommate’s father’s homemade Pinot Noir, which was pretty good I thought, though I’m no sommelier. A date had cancelled on me, so I took the bottle anyways, ordered myself food and watched Michael Haneke’s Amour. Obviously, that smarted. That’s the mindset I went into The Half of It with around 9PM, so once again, you have to forgive me.

If The World To Come is not a lesbian romance but a character drama, The Half of It is its natural complement: a movie that could have been a character drama but kills it all to be a lesbian romance. I’ve never liked that the movie has Ellie kiss Aster and leaves the relationship on a hopeful note. Why should they fall in love? How many of us fall in love with our high school crushes?

I prefer the moments in the movie when you understand that these characters are very young, that someday this will be a story far in their past, about one of those insane things you do when you’re early in your apprenticeship to sociality that in hindsight seem so outrageous and for which you accept all karmic punishment. This distance is conveyed, for instance, in a key scene at a hot spring, by the musical choice of “Seventeen”, by Sharon Van Etten, in which the singer reflects on being 17 years old from the perspective of a woman “halfway through this life”. (Not that any of us know when we’ve hit halfway.) (The Half of It?)

So I like to think that Ellie (Cyrano) and Aster (Roxane) never see each other again. I like to think that Aster goes on to tell the story on second dates with other women, who decry Ellie vociferously: who does something like that? And Ellie goes on to tell the story on fourth dates with other women, who cringe in memory of their own stupid mistakes in love, and halfheartedly make comments to help her justify her actions. I mean, who does do something like that?

Many people in Aster’s position, I think, wouldn’t be able to overcome the way their relation began. We see it in the moment the revelation comes out, in the flash of nearly apoplectic despair clamped down under practiced composure that Alexxis Lemire manages to convey: everyone in her life is trying to trick her to get what they want. Is Ellie’s trick more forgiveable because she might be correct in her observation of Aster’s inner depths? Maybe, maybe not. Aster is written basically to submit to Ellie’s imagined fantasy of her, the viewer’s imagined fantasy of her, and that’s what I object to. In essence I think the movie should be about something completely different.

In an early shot, the English teacher character is delivering a lecture about Sartre’s No Exit. What she has written on the board is, of course, “Hell is other people”. What she says, though, is, “We are our own Hell.” The surprise of the outright contradiction between these two statements draws our attention not only to the written thesis and its spoken antithesis but to the implied synthesis that the movie wants us to think through. (Because it’s a YA romance flick, the town’s nickname is “Hell-quamish”, to double-knot the bow on the point.)

Like many movies about an outsider character learning to relate to other people, there is a certain amount of warranted ambiguity in The Half of It about whether outsider status is something that you yourself can change by accepting others or whether other people also have to change in order to accept you. Ellie’s alienation is self-inflicted to some extent–she seems to look down on her fellow students and to feel she has life all figured out without needing input from anyone else. But at the same time, her isolation is obviously shaped by real lifelong markers of differentiation from the other people in her town–her status as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, as well as her failure to inculturate into gender “correctly”: her interests, her practical unshowy style. And those markers also cause people to treat her poorly, which is the source of her alienation just as much as her own attitude.

This movie is intended to be a sweet fantasy, and the moments in which it shows other characters reaching out to Ellie feel the most like sweet fantasy. For instance, Munsky defending her to a gang of hecklers, or giving her ungirly fashion advice; the girl at the party who recognizes her from class and invites her to play a drinking game. (The actress here really plays it like she’s been trying to wheel an oblivious Ellie for several years.)

These scenes almost hurt. They appear to be intended in a spirit of optimism and encouragement, but also seem to hector lightly: see, if you weren’t so smug, it would be so easy to become normal. But often weird, lonely, off-putting girls do reach out for new experiences in the best spirits and are rejected. They go to parties and just sit there alone for half an hour until they get their moms to come pick them up, not that I would know.

(Yet on occasion the sweet fantasy does become real. I wish that I could tell anyone how to make it happen; it finally happened for me, many times over, and it is as shocking and beautiful as promised.)

All this is beautifully set up in the first half of the movie and we are looking forward to exploring the ideas further through a performance by Leah Lewis that, particularly in her moments of flinching pain, opens up into something very tender, subtle and incisively observed. Then it stumbles through a kind of rushed, contrived back half about which I don’t have much to say.

Yet much like The World to Come, The Half of It’s very final movement is concise and perfect. Ellie is sitting on a train out of Hell. She looks around at all the people there. There seems to be no reason to focus briefly on the other passengers in shot after tender shot, except to evoke one of those moments you have sometimes where you suddenly realize that everyone in the world is alive like you and you feel dizzy with loving them. You realize that every stranger has a lockbox in their heart, the contents of which they themselves do not know, and you want to be there with them to open it someday. The return to Ellie’s face as the final shot–and not in a conventional narrative three-quarter, but in a nearly documentary frontal–implies that she herself, to herself, is the last of these strangers.

People like Ellie, who live primarily in their minds and not their bodies, intelligent people in small towns, are often lonely. They resign themselves early in childhood to the sense that they are totally illegible to everyone around them. In The World To Come, stoic and precise Abigail travels a parellel way — Abigail who is punctured by an unheard-of emotion, a type of ecstasy she previously could not fathom, when Tallie kisses her the first time, in a really stunning kiss.

(Is there a female particularity to this sense, as women are often presumed to be intellectually small, incapable of understanding serious topics, even by other women, even by themselves? A lesbian-female particularity? Bechdel: “Since earliest childhood, I knew I was different from other girls … for a long time, I thought I was just smarter.” There’s a particular moment when Ellie’s correspondence with Aster has become especially involved and dreamy when the relative shallowness of her peers is emphasized by a cut into a women’s bathroom. Ellie washes her hands while two girls talk at length in the background about a new shopping mall the next town over. That we don’t cut to a football match or a PTA meeting is purposeful and raises difficult rich questions about the relationships of women with one another.)

The title of The World to Come may be an eschatological reference, or a reference to Heaven, but it also implicitly invites us to consider the distance between the period of the movie and our present. And The Half of It also projects from a dismal diegetic present into a better future, the future of Ellie and Aster’s adulthood, most likely somewhere else, but who knows. But at any rate, into a future where they will not be alone. “Someone, I tell you, will remember us, even in another time.”

After the night when I watched The Half of It, and I cried liters and liters, so that I was shocked I didn’t dehydrate or melt into a puddle, I woke up feeling better than I had in months. The July sunlight brimmed in me the second I opened my window; my chest was a crucible. (A library with books.) The prior day, I had been jilted. (Or the prior day was Valentine’s Day and I was smoking weed and watching a lesbian movie alone.) But that day, I was going to go out surfing with a bunch of friends, and their friends, people who liked me and invited me to go somewhere. I was alive, free, loved, alive, alive. I was so spontaneously happy that I did a full sun salutation, bending and lunging and lifting my arms, so I’d have somewhere to put my feeling, so by inverting myself I could pour the excess out onto the floor.

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