Queer voices in quarantine

Between ‘The Lighthouse’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ one film is true to queer experiences

5 minute read
Feeling seen: Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire.’ (Image courtesy of NEON.)
Feeling seen: Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire.’ (Image courtesy of NEON.)

This article contains mild spoilers for The Lighthouse and Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

I was excited to watch The Lighthouse. I loved writer/director Robert Eggers’s previous film The Witch, finding it spooky, meticulously crafted, and unexpectedly empowering. Eggers’s second movie is a glorious technical achievement. The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke was rightfully nominated for an Oscar. The performances by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are extremely good. And yet, as The Lighthouse ended, I felt unexpectedly angry.

Two men on an island

The Lighthouse, cowritten by Max Eggers, is about two men living alone on a rocky island, tending the light while doing battle with a swarm of menacing seagulls and eventually each other. Homoeroticism runs throughout the film: Ephraim (Pattinson) masturbates frequently, and we learn later Thomas (Dafoe) has been watching him. In the lighthouse tower, Ephraim watches from below as Thomas pleasures himself, barely avoiding being hit in the face by Thomas’s semen as it falls through the metal grate above him.

Sexual tension exists between the two men from the beginning. Thomas says that Ephraim is “handsome” and “pretty as a picture.” Themes of BDSM also surface rapidly, with Thomas repeatedly reminding the younger man to call him “Sir,” and explode near the end as Ephraim dominates Thomas, forcing him to walk on his hands and knees like a dog on a leash which Ephraim holds.

The Lighthouse’s most beautiful, frustrating moment comes as both men, very drunk, hold one another tightly and slowly dance by the fireplace. Their eyes are closed as Thomas quietly sings a song, and as it ends both he and Ephraim sing the final word together. They open their eyes and lean in for a tender kiss. The moment feels completely earned.

But then Ephraim shoves the other man violently away from him, raises his fists, and they fight. The subtext of that moment is one that I’ve seen a million times: “I’m no queer! Now I’ll beat you up to show you I’m a REAL man!”

Appropriating queer sexuality

As a queer human and artist, I am so tired of seeing movies like this. I am so tired of seeing media that uses homoeroticism as a prop to queer-bait its audience (looking at you, Sherlock) and appropriating queer sexuality without being brave enough to tell that story honestly.

In Matthew Jacobs’s Huffington Post interview, Eggers, Dafoe, and Pattinson (all of whom are straight men) discuss the homoerotic themes in The Lighthouse. The director comes across as evasive and dismissive: “Am I saying these characters are gay? No. I’m not saying they’re not, either. Forget about complexities of human sexuality or their particular inclinations.” When asked about the moment when Thomas and Ephraim dance and almost kiss, Eggers responds, “You see men dancing together in an old-timey setting … I mean, men dance together now in non-homosexual-inclined situations.”

Pattinson is more self-aware about the story being told (or not being told): “I was pretty conscious of how I wanted the relationship to come across. In a lot of ways, [Ephraim] sort of wants a daddy.” In another interview for Thrillist with Esther Zuckerman, Pattinson goes further. “There's very much a kind of sub-dom thing happening … The bit when we fight each other—there's definitely a take where we were literally trying to pull each other's pants down. It literally almost looked like foreplay.”

I wish they had possessed the courage to make that movie. It would have felt true.

Meanwhile, on another island…

As I was processing my thoughts on The Lighthouse, I thought of another recent film with a similar premise but remarkably different execution. Portrait of a Lady on Fire premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival the same day as The Lighthouse.

Both movies are set on isolated islands with creepy houses of the past, and feature two characters who erotically circle one another. The Lighthouse, set in 1890s New England and cowardly in its refusal to take its story all the way, is made and performed by straight men. Set in 1770s France, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, in contrast, tells its story fully and is written and directed by Céline Sciamma, a lesbian. It stars Sciamma’s former partner Adèle Haenel alongside Noémie Merlant. All do brilliant work. Sciamma won Best Screenplay at Cannes, and the film itself won the Queer Palm, the first movie directed by a woman to do so.

Watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I could tell that it was a film about queer characters made by queer artists. The sensual elements of the story serve it instead of being a leering camera focused on naked skin. The slow burn of their intimacy feels dangerous, urgent, and ultimately joyous, erupting in a brief bliss that is deeply earned. To me, Portrait was also a much more Gothic, haunting film than The Lighthouse managed to be.

Seen and speaking for ourselves

In a Vox interview with Emily VanDerWerff, Sciamma explains why she made Portrait of a Lady on Fire and for whom she made it: “I see this as such a strong opportunity to make new stuff, new images, new narratives. They are such powerful images, and they are so not seen. And you are in charge. You have a strong responsibility … That’s why it’s so important to tell stories. It’s to represent us, so a lot of people feel seen.”

As a gay person and artist, watching The Lighthouse made me feel angry, while watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire made me feel seen. There have been too many stories that appropriate the queer experience without telling the truth of it. I don’t need to see any more movies like The Lighthouse. I am tired.

I want more movies like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, where people like me don’t die in the end, where our “forbidden” love does not cripple us but instead brings us strength, claiming an identity we can carry proudly throughout our lives as we persist in becoming the best versions of ourselves. Let queer artists speak their own truth. Others have spoken for us long enough.

What, When, Where

The Lighthouse is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently available to stream on Hulu.

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