On your first day of your first creative writing class, they tell you there are only two stories.
- A stranger comes to town
- Somebody goes on a trip.
(Obviously, some literary smartasses heard about this and just had to deconstruct the whole concept of “story,” and write shit like Waiting for Godot, in which the stranger never arrives. Nevertheless, the rule still holds up remarkably well.)
One could make a similar generalization about lesbian cinema. In fact, I’m going to.
So: there are only two lesbian movies.
- One woman rescues another woman from the grinding oppression of the patriarchy, usually as personified by her relationship to a man.
- Somebody turns into a falcon.
The first plot has brought us some of our most beloved films, from Desert Hearts to Imagine Me and You. But some critics (myself included) have grown concerned that we may have become overly reliant on this familiar story. To be sure, it’s fraught with pitfalls. The stock plot can be boring, following the same predictable beats as a superhero movie. It can (often) be disrespectful of straight relationships or dismissive of the concept of bisexuality.
Perhaps most dangerously, the stock plot is predicated on women being oppressed and on queer relationships being both a personal and political rebellion against that oppression. While that conflict makes for an irresistibly potent storytelling device, it also runs the risk of making stories that cling to oppression, which is unbecoming, to say the least. (It also partially explains why, as queer women in western democracies become freer, queer films reach into the past for the narratives that promise the righteous and uncomplicated tales of brave gay knights slaying the beastly dragons of their husbands/fathers/lack of financial independence.)
Despite these caveats, I am here today to stand up for the lesbian stock plot, with an example of it at its fines: 2011’s Kyss Mig, directed by Alexandra Therese-Keining. Kyss Mig (which has two English titles: Kiss Me and With Every Heartbeat) is irrefutable proof that the lesbian stock movie plot can never be fully wrung dry of beautiful stories, as long as they are carried by strong scripts, high production values, and a tide of chemistry which takes your critical judgements and gently drowns them in endorphins.
Our story takes place in beautiful Sweden, where, according to this film, everyone is model pretty and wealthy and smokes cigarettes in the way Europeans have of doing it where you know it will never give them cancer. (I have tried to convince my girlfriend that I should be allowed to smoke cigarettes in this way, but she has reminded me that I am not European.) In this Nordic paradise, Mia (Ruth Vega Hernandez), a woman composed of equal parts starlight and the dark places between the stars, and whose melancholy beauty is set off to great effect by her blonde countrymen, gets engaged to Tim.
As we have discussed in previous installments of Sapphic Cinema, there are only two types of male love interests in lesbian movies: MONSTERS whose betrayal and eventual demise is cause for celebration, and sweet, sensitive chaps whose betrayal and eventual demise is cause for mild regret (which in no way obviates its unfortunate necessity). Tim falls squarely into the latter camp of blameless males, as evidenced by the enthusiasm with which he plans his impending nuptials to Mia and the totally decent sex we observe them having.
YEAH ENJOY THIS WHILE YOU CAN, BUDDY.
After the (really, perfectly fine) coitus, Mia and Tim head off to the country to celebrate the birthday of Mia’s father, Lasse. Lasse has never been a particularly good dad, but he claims to have turned over a new leaf with the acquisition of a new wife, Elisabeth.
SO NICE TO BE THE EUROPEAN VERSION OF MIDDLE CLASS!!!
(Sidebar: can you imagine what a deep sense of calm and well-being you would have if your 60something year-old mother looked like Elisabeth, and you knew you could look forward to aging even half as gracefully? It would be like a constant IV drip of Xanax, I bet.)
The other new addition to the family is Elisabeth’s daughter, Frida (Liv Mjӧnes), who is looks like…I don’t know…if the goddess Artemis was a vegetarian? Or like if the softest notes of a DeBussy prelude leapt off the piano and came to life and were blonde? She is very wonderful to behold, is what I’m getting at.
Mia’s initial reaction to Frida is INTENSE DISLIKE, which is understandable, really. It’s a terrible feeling to have only just decided to be happy with what you’ve got, and then immediately be confronted with something more. Frida, for her part, doesn’t have a lot of experience with being disliked, but finds it oddly endearing, and finds herself drawn to Mia as irresistibly as light to shadow.
Mia resolves to ignore Frida and her whole face/hair situation, and focus on the matter at hand: repairing her relationship with her father so that her marriage to Tim will, in some cosmic sense, correct the mistakes made by her own parents. (Throughout the film, multiple characters attempt to gently point out that Mia is trying to recreate her parent’s marriage, down to wearing her mom’s hideous wedding dress, but she is very resistant to this suggestion.) Spending quality time with Lasse proves difficult, though, when he sends Mia, Frida, and Elisabeth to go spend a relaxing weekend on their private island, and neglects to come himself. (Side note: I now believe that all Swedish families are in possession of private islands with graceful vacation homes and adorable fishing boats, and I will be very cross at anyone who disabuses me of this notion.)
On the drive to the island, Frida cheerfully begins to melt Mia’s icy demeanor by:
- Pretending she is sleeping with Mia’s younger brother.
- Calling Mia anal. (Guess what: the Swedish word for “anal” is “anal!” I know so much Swedish as a result of this movie, you guys.)
Frida’s techniques work like a charm, and by the time they get to the island, Frida literally cannot offer Mia a bowl of raspberries without them both blushing and stammering.
THE SWEDISH WORD FOR “RUH ROH” IS “RUH ROH.”
Couple things about this island:
- There is unlimited red wine herd of deer which can usually be relied on to be in a certain moonlit clearing.
- No one is permitted to leave until they have had a homosexual experience.
So Mia and Frida are hanging out, drinking wine, and smoking guiltless European cigarettes. And guys, I hate to bring it back to the cigarettes, because I know we have decided as a culture that they are irredeemable, but they are also incredibly useful flirtation devices! You can be like “uh, me and this girl have to go off by ourselves now, because of smoking” and you can light both your cigarettes from the same flame and let that conjure up all sorts of erotic metaphors, and you can even, as Mia does, delicately push a strand of a girl’s hair back behind her ear so it doesn’t catch on fire.
I’M NOT SAYING IT DOESN’T CAUSE CANCER, I’M JUST SAYING LET’S WEIGH THE PROS AND CONS HERE.
After a second of this, Frida is like: “hey let’s go to this moonlit clearing I know and look at some deer.” And even though the shots of the deer don’t perfectly line up with the shots of the two women, the scene still conjures up enough softness and stillness that you believe it when Mia is so overcome by the moment that she just fuckin’ GOES FOR IT.
It is a really great kiss, and it goes on for a very long time, until Mia suddenly remembers that she is engaged to somebody else, and runs away.
The next day, Frida and Mia both attempt to process the kiss according to their very different natures.
And here’s Mia:
NOPE YOU GOTTA DO MORE QUEER STUFF.
Mia is ready to write the kiss off as a one-time, never-to-be-repeated mistake, but Frida is like “nuh uh, honey. You’re in queer ladyland now and we are gonna process this shit.”
They ride their bicycles off to a secluded pond for a midnight swim, which is shot beautifully, even if it does perpetuate the vicious trend of Movies Creating Unrealistic Expectations of What It’s Like to Kiss Underwater.”
OR MAYBE IT IS LIKE THIS IN SWEDEN, WHO KNOWS.
Now I love the swimming scene and I love the adorable wool sweaters everyone was wearing in the scene before, but the combination of the two has left me very confused about Sweden’s climate. But whatever, at this mysteriously heated pond, Frida reveals that she is actually a full-time lesbian. Mia, meanwhile, continues to maintain that she is both FULLY heterosexual and SUPER in love with Tim.
YEAH, THAT MAKES SENSE. I ALWAYS KISS MY SISTERS-IN-LAW WHEN I AM STRAIGHT AND IN LOVE WITH TIM.
Finally they go back to the cabin, and guys would you believe that despite the seemingly limitless wealth of their families, they have to share a room?! It’s not a pure gay fantasy in that they do have separate beds, but Frida swiftly overcomes this obstacle by hopping right on over to Mia.
And then, unlike in many an internet headline, you will believe what happens next. (It’s sex.) And y’all, I have a written about a whole lot of lesbian sex scenes, and I have some affection for nearly all of them, but this one is my all-time favorite. If what we ask of a sex scene is that it be A. Hot, B. Realistic, and C. Further the plot in a way that goes beyond mere titillation, this one is three for three. There is no dialogue, but both actresses speak volumes with every shot, from Mia’s mingled relief and disappointment when she thinks Frida won’t come over, to Frida’s terrified joy when she realizes she is actually going to come over!
After this night of passion, Frida is ready to make an honest go of this relationship, but Mia is still hung up on the whole “being engaged to Tim” thing, so she cuts it off. Frida is hurt, confused, and nauseated at lying to everyone (which she passes of as nausea from consuming an undercooked vegetarian kebab. A “vebab”), that she goes home to her own apartment. And it’s there we learn that Mia wasn’t the only one engaging in a spot of infidelity.
WELL, SOMEONE HAS A TYPE.
It’s just awful, because Frida’s girlfriend Elin (played by co-writer Josefine Tengblad, on whose own story the film is loosely based) is so nice, and hurting her is just killing Frida, who has herself been cheated on and vowed never to do it to another person. And even though I know in my head that Frida and Elin’s relationship has no more inherent value than Mia and Tim’s, it makes me feel so much worse to watch it fall apart, probably because I am a hypocrite and bad person.
While separated, both Frida and Mia try to go on with their lives, but nothing seems to fit anymore, which is quite literal in Mia’s case.
UGH HETERONORMATIVITY IS SO ITCHY.
Frida finally comes clean to her mom about her feelings for Mia, and even makes me SO HAPPY by saying that Mia is probably “bisexual,” rather than just a repressed lesbian.
LOOK SHE IS NOT EVEN TURNING TO STONE!
Elisabeth passes this information to Lasse, who is very resistant to the idea that Mia could be anything but straight. And while I do think that his mild intolerance and overall fractured relationship with Mia explains some of her behavior, that storyline never really does the narrative heavy lifting required of it. But who cares, really? None of the themes of this story are ever fully developed, and they don’t really need to be, because everything is just goddamn pretty.
Eventually, Frida feels duty-bound to break up with Elin. She does this even though she has no reason to believe that she and Mia will ever be together, but because she has tasted terrible, earth-shaking love for the first time, and can no longer imagine settling for the next best thing.
Shortly after, Tim goes for his bachelor party and Mia finds herself unable to stay away from Frida, so she pops in for a choir recital. The two of them sneak off to yet another idyllic getaway, where we are treated to a montage that does an incredibly effective job of selling you on the idea that these two people, who have now spent a total of three days in each other’s presence, need to rearrange their lives to be together. It’s these amazing rapid-fire cuts of them having sex, and them cuddling in front of a fire, and them giggling on a beach, and by the end of it, you’re SOLD.
SOUNDS REASONABLE TO ME.
Unfortunately, there is still the pesky matter of Mia’s engagement to Tim, which Frida begs her to break off. It seems like she really intends to, but breaking off an engagement is a legitimately terrifying thing to do, so it takes her a minute to work up to it.
In the meantime, Tim is driving back from his bachelor weekend and sees Mia and Frida full-on making out, which he is justifiably upset about. At this point, things get a little muddled because Tim knows, and Mia kind of knows that he knows, but neither of them want to pull the trigger, and Frida is just twiddling her thumbs off to the side. Things come to a head when Mia realizes her wedding rehearsal is making her late for an illicit tryst, so she races to see Frida but arrives late. For whatever reason, this is the straw that breaks Frida’s back, so she calls it quits on the whole thing. Mia finally breaks up with Tim (who calls her an asshole and is pretty entitled to that opinion) and rushes to Frida’s place (where Elin also calls her an asshole and slams the door in her face). Mia then darts to her parents’ house, where she and her father finally come to understand each other, in that they are both rather gruff philanderers trying to redeem themselves at the eleventh hour. Elisabeth tells Mia that Frida is LEAVING THE COUNTRY, so Mia sprints to the airport where she tries to run past security, in her most endearing and punkish moment.
YEAH, THANKS FOR KEEPING THE SKIES SAFE FROM HAPPINESS.
Sadly, she misses the plane, but still manages to catch up with Frida in Spain, where they share a look that somehow conveys both “I’m ready to give this a real try” and “Let’s never tell anyone how we met.”
Number of sex scenes: Three? Four? There are a couple blended in to the montage sequence so it’s kind of hard to say.
Quality of sex scenes: It’s really this, Desert Hearts, and Fingersmith as my all-time top three.
How Many Times Have You Seen It, Elaine?: I have seen it enough times that I feel I have a decent grasp of the Swedish language. I know how to say “raspberry” and “observation.”
Moral of The Story: Cheating is wrong except for sometimes when it is right, actually.
Eventual Fate of Central Couple: I’m not saying they have an easy road ahead of them, but I do think they have a chance.