Lesbians have a love-hate relationship with cinema, a place in which, Andrea Weiss wrote in her 1992 work Vampires and Violets, only one image of the lesbian may surface at any one time. For at least the past half-decade (since the release of Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Carol) that image may look something like this: a period drama with an oedipal understory, chronically white, a sombre mood, dialogue exactingly stark. A sensorium of touch and taste, the space between bodies, and the yearning therein. A fantasy for all audiences to enjoy..
In these films, the action is silently displayed on faces and behind eyes, before it’s finally loosed in the form of a long, drawn-out sex scene. In 2013’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour, the camera hovers over the lovers’ faces so intimately that you can see the spit as they kiss, the pores on their cheeks, the ecstatic boredom in their eyes. The erotic and romantic ache of Carol is generated from across-the-room looks and sudden touches.
The same interminable foreplay (because this kind of film is usually hinged on at least one sex scene) has been applied to a surge of recent films that have reimagined female historical figures across the lesbian continuum. 2018’s Wild Nights With Emily dramatised the life and imagined romance between Emily Dickinson and childhood friend Susan Gilbert. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s affair was beautified by Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki in Vita & Virginia. We were also introduced to the life of Lizzie Borden and her affair with her live-in maid in Lizzie – as very enticingly played by Chloë Sevigny and Kirsten Stewart. In all of these films, lesbianism conveniently provides a doorway out of patriarchy and the limitations placed on women.
Now comes Ammonite, Francis Lee’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed debut God’s Own Country, which seems to tick off almost every box of today’s sapphic film checklist. Inspired by correspondence between the 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning and her female friends, Lee told Entertainment Weekly that he “was fascinated to set this film in a period that was totally patriarchal and where women were completely owned by their fathers or their husbands”. Its vision is a direct contrast to the pastoral brutality of his debut – a love story between two male farmers, with images of hands glistening with mucus, dripping spit, half-living calves shot dead in the head. Ammonite’s brief was for “a very soft and gentle approach”, Andy Cole, the film’s gaffer, recently revealed. “Working with two lovely female leads, Stéphane [Fontaine, the film’s cinematographer] wanted a textured feel to the lighting that would enhance the beauty on screen.”
Starring Kate Winslet as Mary Anning and Saoirse Ronan as her young and wealthy lover Charlotte Murchison, Ammonite, like the films that came before it, relies on a narrative of difference. In this case, Mary is old and Charlotte is young. Mary is poor and Charlotte is rich. Mary leads a life of work and Charlotte a life of leisure. In the tradition of the lesbian film, these differences are often reconciled with an oedipal undercurrent, or “mummy issues”, to put it crassly. Although not so explicit as the lesbian mother-daughter dynamic in recent films such as 2016’s The Handmaiden (in which the protagonist Sook-hee says she wishes she could give her lover Hideko her milk, as they suck one another’s nipples), nor Carol, in which the eponymous character’s lover is styled to look uncannily like her daughter.
Much of the detail in Ammonite is derived from this kind of maternal melodrama: romance kindled through caregiving. Geologist Roderick Murchison entrusts Mary to care for Charlotte, his “mildly melancholic” wife, thinking the sea air will do her good. Mary tends to Charlotte like a surrogate mother (“You care for me like your child,” Charlotte says while Mary tucks her into bed). There’s also a brief appearance from Elizabeth Philpot (played by Fiona Shaw), with whom it is implied that Mary has a romantic history. In Lee’s vision, Fiona Shaw’s character is a foil to the newly developing mother-daughter relationship. The real-life Philpot met Anning when she was still a child. With 20 years between them, she first encouraged Anning to study geology. That Lee ascribes a romantic backstory between the two seems to indicate that Lee is unable to see past the maternal dynamic that so many lesbian films have been buttressed on.
A lot like last year’s A Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ammonite also draws heavily from an arthouse cinema aesthetic – the pared-back acting style, creative camerawork and sound design, sobering minimalism. It’s part of a tradition that Patricia White charts back to the arthouse lesbianism of European cinema “which entered postwar American markets at least in part because of the sex”, she writes. Today, sex remains the focal point of the lesbian film, and they seldom make lesbian sex appear passive or easy. In Ammonite, the lead actors reportedly choreographed their sex scenes themselves. They are all gaping-mouthed and starving; a tender frenzy that is in stark contrast with what Brian Tallerico describes as the “drudgery” of the rest of the film.
In the end Ammonite is yet another thin phantasm of a fantasy – a lesbian separatist sensorium – filled with dated tropes, in which potentially complicated women are flattened into foils of one another and whereall hope of an emancipated feminist future is hinged on lesbianism. It is less an avant-garde piece of cinema than a restating of tired tropes and is further proof of Weiss’s theory: only one type of lesbian is permitted at a time.