Why I love Notes on a Scandal

Notes on a Scandal was released on DVD this week. I’m not sure I’ll actually buy the disc, but I did love the movie. There. I’ve said it.

Much has been written, here on AfterEllen and elsewhere, about the “negative lesbian image” of scheming schoolmarm Barbara Covett (Judi Dench). I agree that she’s not doing us any favors as far as media representations go. And I do think that’s an important issue. Percentage-wise, there are way too many lesbian psychos in movies. That’s just a fact.

But it’s a fact I sometimes happily ignore. Because when I watch movies, I’m not just a lover of women. I’m also a lover of many other things: suspense, horror, drama, exceptional acting. I’m even a lover of something you might call trash, be it unabashed prurience, unflinching sadism, or stylized I-shot-Marvin-in-the-face masturbatory shlock. Trash can sometimes, in the right hands, rise to the level of art. Notes on a Scandal has an exquisitely trashy element — a seedy, pulp novel feel — and Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench knew exactly how to handle, cradle, fondle it. That’s why I found the film thrilling, upsetting, and ultimately satisfying.

Doesn’t that matter? Putting aside the question of how lesbians are represented in the media, doesn’t it matter that I as a consumer and viewer am interested in, and entertained by, stories that might be said to represent the margins of human experience? To me, that’s one of the great things about being gay: We’ve had to get past notions of “normal” in order to figure out who we are, and as a result, we’re often willing to explore other kinds of so-called deviations. Not for ourselves, necessarily — I really hope I have nothing in common with Barbara Covett on a personal level — but for the intellectual and emotional rewards of pondering mind-opening provocations, curiosity-heightening challenges and even wince-inducing affronts to everything we hold decent.

That’s why I’ve always liked movies about lesbian psycho killers, with the possible exception of Butterfly Kiss — and again, I’m making a personal exception there, not a political one. (It just kind of depressed me.) Ultimately, I believe that it can be useful and even edifying to cross over to the dark side for a couple of hours. I realize that the heterosexual male gaze (and its accompanying box office dollar) is often seeing something else entirely during those same hours, and I agree that sites like AfterEllen should and can point out and combat that problem. But I’ll still be willingly drawn in by — even when I’m also sickened by — virtuosic portrayals of women like Barbara Covett and Aileen Wuornos. There’s a reason they call it “profoundly” disturbed: When someone like Judi Dench brings it to life, disturbing can be dazzling. It can move you.

Even if you’re a dried-up old spinster.

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