was a few minutes late to see A Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I went with my dear friend Caitlin and it was a last minute decision, spurred by her spontaneity and after a dinner she expertly pulled out of the refrigerator and cooked for me. Can I tell you how much I love this woman? How much she does for me, face to face? Real and loving? I’m not sure I’d have made it through this winter without her. Caitlin, this essay is for you. It takes a village to keep a sad lady going, and so here I give thanks to all of you — Matt, Jason, Lynn, Phillip, James, Suzanne, Karen, Joelle, Catherine, Allie, Jill, all Amy(s), Brendan, Alex, and Twitter. Thank you, and if I’ve forgotten you, I’m sorry.
I felt frustrated from a first date that was mostly small talk that ended with the very cute queer person saying they felt no chemistry with me. I get it, but I am not myself on first dates. How can there be chemistry in a brightly lit café while we talk about our jobs and exes? I hate first dates.
Caitlin told me to come over, fed me, and bought our movie tickets, but we were late, and ended up sitting in different rows because my middle-aged neck needs to face forward. It was crowded, so I moved to the front row where I got to stare at the poreless faces and cleavage of four very cis, pretty, white able-bodied femmes.
Lesbian twitter was pretty happy about this movie. Or Twitter. Or whatever those things are.
The movie is shot for shot gorgeous and it sneaks up on you. When you get to a certain moment in the movie, it’s likely you will cry. There’s a lot of waiting and suspense and bosom-heaving and the whole thing looks like a painting which is fitting because it’s about painting and what it means to truly see someone and how we open ourselves to love even under the tightest constraints (corsets, 18th century Brittany, straight arranged marriages, the aristocracy). The four characters — Marianne (the painter), Héloïse (her subject), Sophie (the maid), and the Countess (the mother) are all riveting, and played by talented actresses (Noémie Merlant is Marianne, Adèle Haenel is Héloïse , Luàna Bajrami is Sophie, and Valeria Golino is The Countess).
When I looked behind me in the packed Brooklyn theater, I saw a sea of what looked like cis straight couples, queer couples, and queer friend groups. It had the same vibe as the packed theater for Blue is the Warmest Color, which I also saw with Caitlin. I really loved that movie, but it got a lot of shit for the explicit male gaze sex scissoring scenes and the actresses confessed that they were uncomfortable and coerced on the set, and so that rightly killed the movie for most of us. Still, I loved the actress Adèle Exarchopoulos who plays a character of the same name and falls in love with the much-more-out Emma, played by Léa Seydoux. I have joked with friends that Exarchopoulous is the best crier in the history of cinema, and crying is hard to do well. Hers was full-on: face puffy, snotty, and real.
Watching Exarchopoulous cry on screen made me cry. Looking back, now that I’ve experienced my first queer love and come out, I see it through the lens of this joy and suffering, of finally getting what you want, and also losing it too quickly. This grief feels deep to me. Will I ever get over this woman? My first queer love? I don’t know. For those amazing four months, I was happier than I’d been in a long time. I also felt part of a queer community. Since then, like Adéle, a queer community has eluded me. This may have something to do with my bisexuality, of never being or feeling queer enough for the queer community, or it might not. I know it’s a common experience amongh bi/pan people, so I mention it here.
I remember Eileen Myles, “poet, novelist, public talker and art journalist, author of twenty books, and my favorite queer person ever, tweeting as they watched Blue about how much they hated it. From what I remember, they wanted some real fucking, and were disgusted by the straight male gaze of the movie. At that point in my life, I hadn’t yet fucked a woman, so maybe I didn’t quite get it, but I love Eileen, so I believed them.
I thought of Eileen tweeting about Blue, as I watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Aside from a gorgeous bush shot and some post-orgasm tits, we really see nothing of their queer fucking. For some reason, maybe based on the hype, I thought we’d see a hand sliding into a pussy or a mouth going down on one. Afterwards, I found myself thinking of The Little Hours, a hilarious comedy set in a convent full of horny women, some queer, some not (played by Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, Molly Shannon, and Aubrey Plaza). This movie is somehow hotter than either Portrait or Blue because it’s not prudish and it’s funny. There’s not much sex on screen, but there’s a full-on admission of horniness and queer love in convents.
Why can’t we have more people fucking in movies? Especially queer people? I’m guessing it’s because mainstream award-winning movies by lesbian directors are going to play it safe. Because the movie can’t risk an X rating. Because Sciamma is smart and she knows what kind of a movie she wants to make, and if there are shots that are a homage to Titanic, she’s definitely aiming for a big audience.
If I want those things, I can watch porn, but I don’t want porn. Or, rather, porn is great, but I want a story that involves fucking. Characters and people reveal themselves through their fucking and sex and the intimacy that can come from it, are ways of knowing. There are things my body knows that my brain can’t access.
There are acts of intimacy, even staged ones, that can tell us something about character, personhood, and how the self interacts with the world. If you don’t believe me, then go read Cleanness by Garth Greenwell, Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, or anything Eileen Myles has ever written.
After the movie, I bumped into a colleague who is a sister in activism and teaching. We hugged and sighed a lot about the movie. We both agreed that we might just go home and be sad. She said she was glad to see me because I understand sadness, and I felt a lump in my throat.
I suppose this is true, and February was a tender, sensitive time for me, but it felt like she gleaned that from my writing more than from my actual life. It made me pause, and though I knew she said with love and solidarity, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Afterwards I joked with Caitlin that I feel like people’s sad mascot. I have also recently in my relationships with queer people been feeling like a “sexual support animal.” People do not like this jokey term I’ve created, but it feels apt to me.
I sexually transform you, open you up, give you the best orgasms of your life, and you, well, you disappear or treat me like your dog or move in and partner up with your next lover. Do I sound bitter? It’s because I am, and I know it’s not a great look.
I suppose sad is one of the things I do very well in my writing, also fucking, and truth, and mess, and writing in three genres to pretty lovely and devoted, but small fan base. None of those things kept my agent from dropping me four months after my debut novel came out.
Books are a business and if the excellent work by Myriam Gurba and #DignidadLiteraria shows us anything is that there is a very white and very straight group of gatekeepers who decide what will get money and what will sell. I wonder what would happen if we had different gatekeepers (more queer, more of color, fatter, disabled, sex positive, kinky, you get me)? How many more sad, sexy stories and movies might we have?
One of the trickier things about writing about your life and publishing that writing, is that people think I AM the essays and novel I’ve written. I made those essays and books, but they are not exclusively me. They are parts of me, often quite older parts of me, and if you read me, that doesn’t mean you know me. Though it’s also true that sometimes when I first start dating someone, I want to give them the essays to read because it is a kind of shorthand for a history I no longer feel like telling. This is a paradox I don’t aim to solve.
As Caitlin and I wandered around the nearly empty BAM, hoping the bar was open and looking for chocolate, she said the smartest thing about the movie — the most radical part of it is the abortion that centers the story. She’s right. That bit of autonomy and womanly authority is smuggled into the movie, and is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
After the servant, Sophie’s abortion, when none of them can sleep, Héloïse stages a pose for Marianne to paint: Héloïse kneels before a prone Sophie, her arm extended between Sophie’s legs, and her hand covered by the sheer gauze of Sophie’s nightgown. In this moment, Marianne, paints what we the audience can never see. It feels erotic in its staging, a moment when the models shape the pose, and the closest we get to a hand sliding into a pussy.
Portrait is also about mothering and the tangle between mothering and queer relationships. It’s the mother that hires the painter to make a portrait of her daughter, and it’s only when the mother leaves and opens up a void in the house that the two women can come together. As the Countess says good-bye to Héloïse , she asks her to kiss her like she did when she was a child.
The camera frames their profiles, as Héloïse kisses her own fingers, and wiggles them out to her mother’s lips, like a butterfly in flight. It’s such a tender, subtly erotic moment. Marianne looks on. That kiss is the good-bye to the mother, so that the lover may be kissed too. What we want or didn’t get from our mothers, we will always be looking for in lovers.
The most radical thing of all about the movie is there’s not a single man in it. I needed that, if only for two hours.
Caitlin and I went home to our separate apartments. It was a cold night, and I wanted to be in my bed. I was lonely, but it was manageable. It mostly is, except for when I have PMS, and I can’t stop crying. But that’s for another essay, coming soon, to a very small, fiercely feminist journal near you.
The next day I wrote a new Lex ad, and asked for something more explicit.
Tired of First Dates? The small talk? The coffee? The not really
connecting? Or the interview like nature of it all? Instead, if we like
what we see on Insta, let’s get a drink and sit side by side, thighs
touching, and make out? Or see a movie and hold hands? Open to fun
and partnership if its right. Single for now.
Some cuties responded (mostly younger, I have to stay that my style seems to go over much better with a younger crowd), and that day I found myself making out with someone at a bar, thighs pressed together, while taking breaks to talk about autofiction. We went to their place, after a quick stop at a discount store so I could buy potholders and some pretty tin mugs (this person was really indulging me and I was thankful), and then I put my hand inside of them and licked and licked. It was so nice and healing to be a good little fucker.
Their roommate inexplicably knocked to ask a question about a dog and the spell got broken. We both lost our boners and decided to try again soon.
If I have felt like I’m living in a movie of my own making, it’s because there aren’t enough movies to make some of us feel seen. If I have wanted movies to feel more like life — slowed down, boring, fragmented, with interruptions of action — it’s only because I remain suspicious of Aristotle’s belief in catharsis. Or perhaps I’m tired of the flattening of stories to fit one particular arc. There’s nothing wrong with an arc, it’s just that there many ways to make movement, just as there are many ways to make someone come.
I am a lady who is only on fire when she’s having a hot flash or it’s summer in New York City and the garbage reminds you to keep your head up, but with an eye out for rats.
I am not much of a lady.
This is for Caitlin.