Many critics of Desiree Akhavan’s The Bisexual have condemned it for not being explicitly subversive enough, somehow implying that because of Akhavan’s bisexuality, she necessarily has to write a neat arc which leads up to a climatic acceptance of main character Leila’s sexuality. I believe that form of criticism in itself is worth interrogating: Why do we expect LGBTQ-centered media (particularly, those by LGBTQ artists) to live up to a totalising and universalising narrative, when all of us have differing experiences on sexuality because of our varied socio-political circumstances? And why do we place the burden on LGBTQ people to figure out all there is to do with sex, gender and sexuality when the world is persistently denying and censoring our access to all these things? Continue reading “Art, Autobiography, and Sexuality in Desiree Akhavan’s ‘The Bisexual’”
The use of horror as a metaphor for the impact of repressed female sexuality in cinema can be found in a range of films, from Julia Ducournau’s arresting debut feature, Raw, to Brian de Palma’s masterful tale of a girl’s unusual coming of age in Carrie. It’s not necessarily a new way of tackling the subject of teenage girls and their first ventures into sexual desire, but it is a deeply effective one and serves as the central theme of Thelma—Joachim Trier’s brilliant meditation on one young woman’s discovery of the wants she has stifled for so long.
The titular Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a quiet, thoughtful freshman who, when we first meet her, appears to be overwhelmed by shyness. As she attends university in Oslo, a sharp contrast to the notably eerie house that she lives in with her parents in the Norwegian countryside, she initially struggles to settle into the student lifestyle with her fellow classmates. Through brief glimpses into her relationship with her parents, often presented in the form of somewhat invasive phone-calls to Thelma after her classes, we learn that they are fundamentalist Christians to whom Thelma can barely admit that she drank a little wine without panic rising. Already, within the film’s first thirty minutes, the repression surrounding Thelma’s life has been established. Once we learn that she has spent the first eighteen years of her life under the thumb of her parents–akin to the way in which Sissy Spacek’s telekinetic lead of Carrie spent hers restrained by her mother–the visible concern that arises whenever she speaks to another person begins to make sense.
As a recent college graduate in a serious monogamous relationship, I was incredibly wary of On Chesil Beach before stepping foot in the theater. Would the story of young love turned sour be too affecting, too real? Could I sleep that night? Saoirse read me like an open book in Lady Bird, a favorite that recently made me weep (once more) on a commercial airline, and I wasn’t sure if I was prepared for that kind of emotional beating again just a week later. Luckily for me, On Chesil Beach can’t hold a flickering candle to the emotional realities of Lady Bird or Atonement, a much more successful adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel.
Stilted, flat and infuriatingly narrow-minded, On Chesil Beach takes its supposedly heartbreaking, interior-focused source material and runs with it in the opposite direction, resulting in a film that’s as unsatisfying as its subjects’ sex life. Although Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle give everything they’ve got, wigs and all, to Dominic Cooke’s directorial debut, their performances aren’t enough to save this wilting period piece from itself.