As the 74th Cannes Film Festival drew to a close last week, one film in particular remained the subject of wild debate and curious conversation: Benedetta, the latest creation by provocative Showgirls and Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven. The film, centring around a 17th century nunnery, features all the characteristics of a Verhoeven production: bloody violence, religious blasphemy and sex. A lot of sex. Unlike his other movies, however, the sex in Benedetta is between two women; more specifically, two nuns, whose 'love' story is less about their queer self-discovery than it is a collection of graphic sexual encounters for which they constantly and intensely punish themselves. It’s definitely for the kink-inclined, the actors preened and toned like they were born out of a lesbian porn fantasy (even their pubic hair is impeccably shaped into tidy triangles). In one scene, they perform oral sex on each other as if they’ve been practising for years. In another, they use a statue of the Virgin Mary as a dildo.
For reasons unbeknown to myself and many other queer women, Verhoeven, an 83-year-old straight man, felt it his right to take a lesbian love story (a true one at that – the film is based on a book by Judith Brown called Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy) and create a lust-fuelled sexual fantasy that might appease the audience whose opinion matters to him most: other straight men. He’s not the first director to do so – Hollywood is filled to the brim with directors who feel compelled to tell queer female stories through a male lens. Disobedience, Kissing Jessica Stein, Carol, First Girl I Loved – even the recent Ammonite, starring Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet – all feature queer women as the main protagonists, and all are directed by men. That’s not to say these films aren’t good – many have won prestigious awards and are well regarded in their respective genres – but it's very troubling when a male director enters a lesbian space and attempts to shape it without the correct guidance. It’s a pattern seen far too often in cinema, and one that many queer women are desperate to see shift.
Why are straight male directors like Verhoeven choosing to tell queer stories? The real question lies in whether female directors are being offered the same opportunities, budgets and backing as their male counterparts. It's not news that straight white men have dominated the movie industry for generations; female directors have always had to work twice as hard to tell their stories, batting away the competition in a way men never have. In 2020, only 16% of directors on the 100 highest grossing films were women, an apparent record high (in 2019 it was 12% and an abysmal 4% in 2018). Add a layer of queerness or race and female directors are left in the dust, the glass ceiling intact. When a lesbian film is helmed by a woman, rarely does it see the same success as those directed by men.
I have no qualms with hiring the right person for the job but the lesbian experience should not be handled haphazardly. As a minority, queer women have been shunned for generations, not only by society but by cinema, too. Representation has always been feeble: queer female characters are either sexualised, victimised or killed off. Rarely do they get a happy ending, and rarely are they at the forefront of the narrative. Though this is definitely shifting, lesbians and female-identifying loving women are still seen on screen far less than gay men.
When they are represented, it is frequently with the male gaze in mind. Sex scenes directed by men are easily recognisable by their pornographic nature or unnecessarily extended length. Take Blue is the Warmest Colour, the 2013 winner of the Palme d’Or, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. The film was critically acclaimed and praised as a masterpiece. In some ways, it is – the uncomfortable and exhilarating experience of falling in love for the first time is portrayed authentically by the actors – but the sex scenes are difficult to watch. The famous six-minute scissor-fest is incredibly forced and artificial in its portrayal and yet another example of a preliminary sexual encounter where the characters know far too much about what they are doing to feel genuine. Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel on which the movie is based, called it "a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn."
A similar situation occurred in The Handmaiden, an award-winning Korean retelling of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, and a film I personally found thrilling. The initial sex scene between the two women, however, feels like it’s been pulled out of an erotic film and also features a hefty amount of scissoring (it’s the go-to position for lesbians, according to male directors).
First-time sex, especially as a queer woman, is messy. It’s tangled limbs, stiff bodies and awkward giggles; it’s electricity, nerves, your heart pounding out of your chest; it’s not knowing what the hell you’re doing, constantly worrying, Am I doing it right? Is this okay? Shall we switch positions? I hope she’s having a good time. To see this intimate experience limited to grunts and moans, embellished to satisfy male viewers, is tedious and exhausting. Lesbians are tired of being sexualised.
When it emerged that Blue is the Warmest Colour’s famous sex scene took 10 days to film, leaving the stars traumatised, exhausted and wanting never to work with the director again, it became apparent that the conversation about female sex and vulnerability in cinema was about not just the portrayal but also a potentially dangerous environment where female actors felt unsafe. Not all male directors are as forceful as Kechiche (who was accused of sexual assault a few years later) but you have to wonder whether the scene would have been handled more sensitively by a woman director.
Fortunately, there is a plethora of lesbian movies written and directed by women that do justice to the genre. But I’m a Cheerleader, Desert Hearts, My Days of Mercy, Pariah and Saving Face all handle queer sex and relationships in a sensitive and authentic way. That’s not to say onscreen lesbian sex can’t be kinky or erotic – see the threesome between Nat, Gigi and Alice in The L Word: Generation Q for reference – but it quickly becomes obvious when it’s been designed and directed with women in mind. The female gaze differs considerably from the male in that it homes in on pleasure rather than bodies – physical appearances are far less important than how those involved make each other feel.
It’s taking time but lesbian characters are finally getting the screen time they deserve. Queer female filmmakers are able to tell their stories because they’re being offered alternative platforms to do so. While many turn to indie cinema – an experimental space to push boundaries and offer up narratives that would be less accepted in the mainstream – others are using online streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime to showcase their films in a bid to get around outdated distribution regulations. Last winter, streaming platform Hulu premiered the lesbian Christmas movie Happiest Season, starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis. The film broke records as the most watched original debut in Hulu’s history, demonstrating the demand for fresh, queer and female-driven content. Netflix’s The Half of It, written and directed by Saving Face’s Alice Wu, won the top award at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and is one of the first teenage coming-of-age stories featuring a queer Asian character.
When male directors take on a subject matter that is based on a female-only experience, it is important for them to do their research and request advice from the people the film is depicting. What films like Benedetta do is create a skewed perception of lesbianism and lesbian sex that is both inaccurate and damaging to the queer community. In an interview with The Skinny, queer American-Iranian director Desiree Akhavan said: "To me, a sex scene is a place to be subjective – you want your audience to be in it with them. You want them to lose themselves in it and to come away taking something away about the characters’ relationship with them." In her 2018 film The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Akhavan hid all the cast and crew during the sex scene in order to give the actors a sense of empowerment. "The girls lost themselves in that moment. It felt personal and vulnerable and as long as it looked like they knew what they were doing I was happy." The differences between Akhavan's film and Benedetta clearly stretch far beyond the gender of the director.
In September last year, the Oscars announced new representation and inclusion standards for eligibility that finally call for diversity within Hollywood. With this latest incentive, at least two of a film's creative leaders or department heads – which include the roles of director, producer and cinematographer – must be from an underrepresented group. It’s a big step for the Academy, which has been criticised for its lack of diversity. With more members of the LGBTQ+ community working behind the scenes, there is hope for the future of queer female cinema. Now all we need is the dudes to stop telling our stories.