What's the deal with sapphic period pieces?

It's not secret that lesbian films are often period pieces. Tina Kakadelis looks at this cinematic trend and what it says about film, representation, and the queer experience.

What's the deal with sapphic period pieces?
Vita & Virginia (2018)

by Tina Kakadelis

It has become a running joke within the LGBT community that nearly all media centered on queer women must be a period piece. Examples of two melancholy white women trading lustful glances over a candle are a dime a dozen. Some are successful in their portrayal of longing, while others are as dull as ammonite.

The prevalence of this type of film speaks to two main ideas when it comes to storytelling. First, as with any attempt to create something lasting, there is a human need to prove existence. People write stories and make movies to capture a feeling or a moment in time. It’s a futile attempt to document how fleeting life is. Whether that documentation is for the filmmaker or to show the audience a life they were not aware existed, the importance is in the memorialization. Specifically, when it comes to the matter of queer stories, their existence is essential to demonstrate their historical significance. Second, there is perhaps nothing more universal than the feeling of yearning.

When it comes to queer people in history, many of them have been “straightwashed.” Either their sexuality is simply never mentioned or historians treat any romantic language as a sign of a strong friendship. It gives the impression that queerness is a distinctly modern state of existence. That mentality robs historical figures of the totality of their selves. Virginia Woolf’s seminal classic Orlando was inspired by and dedicated to her years-long love affair with Vita Sackville-West. If literature students examine and critique Woolf’s work without the knowledge of her relationships with women, they are missing vital information about why Woolf wrote her novels.

Woolf’s love affair with Sackville-West was adapted into a play by Eileen Atkins. She took the collection of letters that Woolf and Sackville-West wrote to each other and created Vita & Virginia, a semi-fictionalized look at their relationship. This play was later adapted into Chayna Button’s film of the same name, starring Gemma Arteron and Elizabeth Debicki as Vita and Virginia respectively. It’s perhaps a little closer to the modern era than many other lesbian period pieces, but all the elements are there. The whispered words, the subtle caressing of hands, the gazes filled to the brim with desire.

While not without its flaws, Vita & Virginia is unique in that it is based on a real queer relationship in the early 20th century. It’s long enough ago to feel historical, but within the same century many people living today were born. It feels profound to hear such open, honest, real words of love between two women. “I just miss you, in a quite simple, desperate, human way,” reads one of Vita’s letters to Virginia. Those words weren’t imagined by a writer for the sake of creating intimacy in a movie or a book. They were raw and vulnerable words from one lover to another, written simply to document how they felt and to make sure their partner understood the depth of their feelings.

Billie Holiday sings into an old school microphone
The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

The problem with these period pieces is that they often focus almost exclusively on queer white women. Even though their existence is proving that queerness is not a twenty-first century revelation, their scope is exceptionally narrow. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and The United States vs. Billie Holiday are two recent examples of period pieces centered on queer women of color. However, in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Billie’s bisexuality is barely shown, perhaps two minutes or less. There are plenty of examples of queer women of color at the forefront of history whose stories have yet to be told in a meaningful manner. Most egregious was 2015’s Stonewall, which should have focused on Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Riviera’s roles in the Stonewall riots. The film rewrote history and implied that a midwestern white boy was responsible for the birth of the modern LGBT movement rather than Johnson, Riviera, and the other very real queer people of color who led the riots.

It’s easy to critique Stonewall because there are people alive today who know Johnson’s and Rivieria’s roles in the Stonewall Riots. We have firsthand accounts from those events. But what about further back in time? What about people whose sexualities are lost to time? Not just the people who are now considered important to history, but just regular queer humans. They didn’t throw the first bricks at Stonewall or write epic novels detailing their love. But they did hold hands, fall in love, and build a quiet life with someone they loved. Those stories are just as important to immortalize.

One of the quintessential attributes of a gay period piece is the yearning, but it’s not fair to limit yearning just to queer people. Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice is a much-beloved period piece, thanks to what has become known as the Hand Flex. After Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) helps Elizabeth Bennett (Keira Knightley) into her carriage, the camera closes in on the way he flexes his hand. He stretches it to its fullest extent, almost like he’s been burned by Elizabeth’s touch. That reaction, the skin aflame, is timeless.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Yearning in period pieces is something to behold. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been hired to secretly paint Heloise (Adèle Haenel) for a marriage portrait. Heloise believes Marianne is simply a walking companion, and barely registers the way Marianne’s gaze lingers on every inch of her face. Marianne’s observation is partially for the sake of the job she’s been hired to do, but also because of the feelings she’s developing for Heloise.

Perhaps queer people latch onto movies that lean heavily into longing and yearning because of their lost adolescence. It’s something that’s certainly changing, but growing up queer in the early-aughts still had a cloak of shame surrounding it. You were aware that somebody out in the world was probably gay, but certainly not anyone in the halls of your high school, where queer slurs whizzed by between classes. So most of those teenage crushes were spent in solitude, wistfully watching from afar, but never acting. It wasn’t simply a fear of rejection, but a fear of being shunned and tormented. Sadly, by no means has this fear gone away.

Growing up with that overwhelming isolation and compartmentalization is partially what makes these period pieces so enduring. Add a candle and a bonnet to your teenage crush and you’ve got a melancholy period piece love story. These films are not simply showing queer women throughout history. They’re offering a fundamental understanding of what it means to have your heart ache in that specific “desperate, human way.”

A Big Thank You

Over the past two months, guest writers (Mackenzie Manley, Rebecca Holland, and Tina Kakadelis) and our film critic Nuha Hassan have kept Thursday Matinee afloat while I took a much-needed break.

During the next two weeks, I'm excited to share more Tribeca coverage and some pride-themed newsletters with you all. In July, expect a series of newsletters that are conversations about movies with some dear friends.

Thank YOU for sticking with us and supporting Thursday Matinee. The newsletter/website is almost 1 & I can't wait to celebrate.

–  Sydney  

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