The case for the female lesbian gaze in “Below Her Mouth”

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I must admit, after some initial frustration, I’m glad the Toronto International Film Festival’s two lesbian offerings this year are The Handmaiden and Below Her Mouth, both because of what makes them so similar and so different. I’ve read what AfterEllen readers have had to say about my coverage of both films and I believe this somewhat overdue review of Below Her Mouth is a perfect opportunity to address some of your questions and concerns and, indeed, my own. Some of us still won’t see eye to eye, but let’s have a thoughtful discussion, shall we?

In my interviews with the director and stars of Below Her Mouth, the “female gaze” or the “female lens” is referenced multiple times. Some of you have naturally wondered if that term has significance beyond the fact that a film was written and directed by women. Yes, it does. When discussing Below Her Mouth specifically, I believe the film’s director, April Mullen, said it best during our interview:

“The quiet intensity between the two girls and the pauses and the moments of silence… Even the cutting style. The way it’s shot, the way it’s lit, and the choreography and the intensity between the two of them, it’s a landmark in terms of its female gaze. And I feel like there would be no mistaking it.”

But I want to go beyond that and talk a bit about how the lesbian gaze fits into the female lens. For me, when I praise the female lesbian gaze as it applies to a lesbian relationship on screen, I’m talking about the believable connection I feel between the women in question and, now this is much harder to put in words, the feeling I get in my gut that this feels true. I might have questions later, but right now they have me.

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Which brings me to The Handmaiden, which some of you have already said you enjoyed. Others of you will surely say the same later. Let me be clear then: I don’t think The Handmaiden is a bad movie. I just don’t think it’s a good “lesbian movie,” and that’s a distinguishment that has to be made for the purposes of this site. And why should we expect different from the film? Director Park Chan-wook told me it was meant for the masses. Still, I don’t think we should discount the history queer women have with Fingersmith and how some of us are naturally protective of it. But hey, if, as director Park Chan-wook pointed out, it’s good enough for Sarah Waters, you won’t see me mounting a campaign against this movie, which I did enjoy as a film, but, again, not as a lesbian film.

Could I be taking issue with the fact that the director of The Handmaiden is a man? I don’t think so. I’ve enjoyed lesbian films directed by men. Todd Haynes’ Carol is a perfect example. Of course, Carol isn’t sexually graphic, so am I just a prude? Again, I don’t think so. Nor do I think including sexually graphic scenes in lesbian films is only the domain of men. You might recall that I praised such scenes in Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (La Belle Saison). Which brings us back to the movie at hand, Below Her Mouth.

Below Her Mouth was written and produced by queer women and directed by a female ally. Below Her Mouth is incredibly sexually graphic. I enjoyed Below Her Mouth.

By the way, we’re talking like well over two-thirds of the film being dedicated to lesbian sex. Good lesbian sex. But even so, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Some queer women might find it too much, but I think very few will say it was made with a male audience in mind. That the Below Her Mouth team continues to push the all-female crew angle and their hopes that women will enjoy this film when doing press seems to prove they’re not expecting the movie to be a hit with men.

Anyway, you’d maybe like me to start talking about what actually happens in the film now, right? Well, it’s a relatively simple and even seen before premise: a beautiful, successful woman in a straight relationship meets an also gorgeous out lesbian, and they fall into bed together (multiple times, and it’s not always a bed) and ultimately also fall in love. But then reality rears its ugly head, and if they’re going to stay together, they’re going to have to fight.

Jasmine (Natalie Krill) is that supposedly straight woman. She’s a fashion editor (and as such works with Elise Bauman, who has a small role as Bridget) and engaged to her longtime boyfriend and now fiancé, Rile (Sebastian Pigott). Living a much different life is Dallas (Erika Linder), a roofer who’s just broken up with her girlfriend and who’s working on the house next door to Jasmine’s. And while they both catch the other’s eye on the job site, it’s during an unexpected meeting in Toronto’s gay Village that sparks begin to fly.

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Dallas, by the way, is completely over her ex, if she was ever in love with her to begin with. The film actually opens with the two going at it and Dallas looking completely disinterested. Suffice to say things end pretty soon after that. And while Dallas is clearly a great lay, she’s a real shitty ex.

For her part, Jasmine seems to really care about Rile. It might, however, be a little telling that she painted his fingernails while he slept and was hoping to get some hand action from him right after. Instead of giving that too much thought, though, he instead just mildly freaks out and wants the nail polish removed like your typical straight guy. Fortunately, though, we don’t see much of him because he’s off to Arizona on a business trip.

So back to the queer women’s party in the Village. After spotting Jasmine, Dallas is quick to follow her into the bathroom. Once they’ve established that they know each other, Dallas starts delivering mostly cheesy, but sometimes sexy, lines. The flirting was certainly mutual. It’s really no surprise. See, if you were watching Jasmine closely as she walked into the club that night, you could see that she was definitely checking women out, even if she was clueless to the fact.

But while nothing happens in the bathroom, Dallas, like a dog with a bone, is persistent. She gets lucky when both she and Jasmine spot their friends getting to know each other. Although Jasmine might’ve thought a smoke break meant a break from Dallas, it just gave the smooth talker an opportunity to chat with her some more one-on-one. I have to say, that amount of cockiness would be too much for me, but it worked on Jasmine, who eventually allows that first kiss to happen. And, let me tell you, it’s a nice one.

Then there’s the freaking out. She’s engaged, she’s not into women, blah, blah, blah. She’s out of there. Don’t feel too bad for Dallas though, because she leaves with the bartender her friend’s been crushing on for a while.

Of course, Dallas’ not done her roofing job yet and Jasmine happens to be super aware of that. I’m just going to say it: while Dallas is nailing the roof, Jasmine is nailing herself to the sound of it and, presumably, thoughts of Dallas while in her bathtub. It’s sexy and, oh my, Natalie Krill has abs for days.

Now while Dallas is a persistent little shit, she eventually does endear herself to the audience and, more importantly, Jasmine. After continuing her flirting while on the job, she eventually gets Jasmine to agree to “one drink.”

Well, they both looked mighty fancy for just one drink. And what the hell was in that drink, because Jasmine quickly allows Dallas to get handsy. Not that I’m complaining. The bill is quickly taken care of before they proceed to get frisky in an alleyway, stopping only because they got caught. The next stop is a truck bed before they wise up and realize Dallas has a perfectly good bed at home. And a table. And a fridge…

There’s strap-on sex, there’s tribbing, there’s all sorts of tongue action, and it’s lengthy. And, personally speaking, it’s hot.

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And while we might be used to people taking off the next day in such circumstances, Jasmine stays. She stays and they create this bubble of love together. They take a trip on a ferry, ride a carousel and talk about their family life and coming out. For all intents and purposes, they act like a couple. And in what might be a sign of things to come, Jasmine is suddenly rocking a very gay vest.

The most interesting thing, I think, to come out of their talks is Jasmine’s revelation that she did have “a thing” with a girl when she was younger, but that her mom put a stop to that. Up until that point and even after, there’s so much about Jasmine that screams “repressed” that it’s weirdly comforting to have that confirmation.

And because their whole weekend together has them in a bit of a sex/love haze, they of course make love again. This time around it’s still sexy, but they’ve moved beyond just lust. It’s all very intimate.

Still, this beautiful weekend doesn’t change the fact that Rile’s returning and that Jasmine’s not courageous enough to break things off with him. When Dallas eventually drops her off at home, it’s time to say goodbye. Quite fittingly, it starts to rain.

How could they resist one final time together? They can’t. To that famous bathtub they go, where Dallas whips out, once again, her strap-on (it seems to go everywhere with her). This time their lovemaking is raw and desperate. This is goodbye sex after all, and a very reluctant goodbye at that.

But is it really goodbye? Is Jasmine really not going to own up to her feelings? And what about poor Rile—is he just going to remain in the dark? Was this whole thing actually about love or not?

If you’re into spoilers, here the most important one comes (I think it’s only fair because a lot of us knew more or less how The Handmaiden would end based on our knowledge of Fingersmith): we get a happy ending.

So do I think Below Her Mouth is a perfect movie? No, because it has its problems. For one, the ending feels rushed. Dallas also makes some choices towards the end that make me wonder if any character development occurred for her at all. And, although understandable since this is her first acting role, I felt Erika Linder’s performance was weak at times. On the other hand, I was really impressed with Natalie Krill. Still, do I think the sexual nature of the film was a bit much at times? At times I did, yes. But on the whole, I was really happy with Below Her Mouth. I enjoyed it as a film, but I liked it even more as a lesbian film.

Is then the difference between the male and female lesbian gaze really that palpable? Certainly when speaking of The Handmaiden and Below Her Mouth, two films that I watched only days apart, I would say that yes, it really is. But what do you think?

Below Her Mouth plays at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 15. Visit the movie’s website for future release news.

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