BOOK REVIEW – LESBIAN CINEMA AFTER QUEER THEORY

REVIEW OF LESBIAN CINEMA AFTER QUEER THEORY BY CLARA BRADBURY-RANCE. EDIBURGH: EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2019. 194 PAGES

REVIEW BY POLINA ZELMANOVA, UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK

In her first monograph, Clara Bradbury-Rance addresses the contentious issue of lesbian legibility in cinema of the 21st century. Set within the contemporary discussion on visibility politics, the book both celebrates and troubles the increased presence of lesbians on screen. Asserting that visibility is “neither linear nor consistent” (7), Bradbury-Rance challenges the assumption that visibility inherently means progress. To demonstrate this, she particularly interrogates the sex scene’s role as the dominant visual signifier of sexuality, proposing alternative forms and locations of sexuality’s representation.

The book’s discussion is indebted to a variety of theoretical discourses, including feminist film theory and its relation to lesbian images in film history, visibility politics, lesbian cinema, and queer theory, which are succinctly laid out in the introduction. Bradbury-Rance works through the parallels and tensions both within and between these discourses, which is one of the book’s great strengths. The success of this interdisciplinary discussion is particularly notable in her main framework which marries lesbian and queer politics, which are often framed as two oppositional stances. Rather than picking a side, the value of this book lies in the author’s ability to develop a methodological framework which sets out a “mode of relation between the two that is mutual rather than either synonymous or substitutive” (15). This productive relationship is what allows for the expansion of the borders of lesbian representation and leads to one of the book’s main interventions which is the theorisation of homoeroticism as the queer potential of lesbian cinema.

Lesbian Cinema after Queer Theory is divided into six chapters, each of which uses specific narrative feature films as case studies for demonstrating different areas of the discussion. Whilst each chapter focuses on a maximum of two films, they successfully incorporate a wider, albeit mostly Western, film corpus. What works particularly well is the dialogue Bradbury-Rance builds not just between different filmic texts but between the chapters themselves. The first two chapters follow on from the introduction to contextualise lesbian cinema within Hollywood’s history of lesbian representation and delve deeper into visibility politics. In doing so, Bradbury-Rance explores the relationship between visibility and progress, particularly in relation to explicit lesbian sexuality through a fascinating comparison of Nathalie (2003) and Chloe (2009) in Chapter 2. The subsequent chapters shift the discussion to the ambiguities of erotic desire in lesbian films. These chapters explore tensions of identification and desire through examples like Circumstance (2011) in Chapter 3 which also addresses the effect of identification in a non-Western setting. Chapter 4 explores the evocation and control of lesbian desire in films about adolescent sporting culture, while Chapter 5 expands on the theorisation of desire. In particular, this penultimate chapter explores ‘queer affect’ as a way of interrogating the function of the sex scene in relation to lesbian desire. Here Bradbury-Rance uses the example of Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) in an engaging discussion which moves beyond the controversy of the film. She concludes that the film and the debate around the explicitness of its sex demonstrates the issue of confining sexuality to the instance of sexual encounter, which consequently obscures our ability to see beyond it. What sex obscures, she argues, is “the radical set of spatial and temporal disorientations that boldly convey sexuality’s complexity” (100) which are dispersed throughout the whole film.  

The final chapter brings the book full circle, referring back to lesbian image history discussed in Chapter 1. Here, the author offers a reading of Carol (2015) which itself reveals a circularity of lesbian visual regimes, particularly as it draws on mid-twentieth century cinematic homoeroticism. Whilst discussions of the gaze and spectatorship are a recurring motif of the book, Bradbury-Rance’s analysis of Carol puts the gaze at the centre of the argument. By moving beyond Laura Mulvey’s model of spectatorship (1975) and instead following the trajectory developed by Patricia White (1999), Jackie Stacey (1994) and Teresa de Lauretis (1994) in relation to cinematic lesbian desire, Bradbury-Rance develops the possibilities of an expansive gaze. This gaze takes us beyond the object of desire both spatially and temporally, as the “affect lingers beyond the visible acts” (123), freeing lesbian desire from the confines of the cinematic image, which is the book’s most significant input.

Bradbury-Rance’s development of a framework that challenges a traditional image-centred location of lesbian visibility is a unique contribution to the field. The book offers new ways of thinking about lesbians on screen beyond the limited engagement with lesbian legibility in terms of lesbian characters or directors, which only goes so far in a discussion on something as abstract and subjective as desire. Whilst this work is a brilliant contribution to the field of lesbian film studies, it also offers exciting potential in terms of generating discussions within the broader study of sex and sexuality on screen beyond image-centred practices.

Polina Zelmanova (she/her) is currently completing her Masters by Research in Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. She is interested in the representation and politics of sex and sexuality on screen as well as broader frameworks of queer and feminist screen studies. Her thesis research explores the sexual politics of coming-of-age films made by women. More broadly, she is attracted to work on the politics of the body on screen, pornography studies and feminist film festival practices.

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