Tis the season for ... lesbian stories dominating the movies
Ammonite and Happiest Season are two very different films that reveal a lot about the state of queer cinema
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
This is usually the season for some massive movies, with November and December generally reserved for the biggest prestige fare Hollywood has to offer. If not for the pandemic, movie theatres everywhere would have been offering the likes of Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, Denis Villeneuve's Dune and Chloé Zhao's Eternals. But while the remaining pickings may be slim, there is a very notable duo of films still being released that just so happen to also be two of the most high-profile lesbian love stories arguably ever made: Clea DuVall's Happiest Season and Francis Lee's Ammonite.
Heading into 2020, both films were definitely among those I was most curious about — even when there were 1,000 more movies on the release schedule. They both have exceptional qualities on paper: When Season was announced it was set to become the first studio-produced holiday romantic comedy centred on a same-sex couple (with a top-billed out lead actress in Kirsten Stewart, which is also sadly rare). Ammonite, meanwhile, stars two of the world's most acclaimed living actresses, Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, in an 1840s-set lesbian love story that also appeared to be about ... paleontology.
Had things gone as planned, Ammonite would have debuted at the Cannes Film Festival before hitting cinemas this month, and Season would be debuting in theatres across the U.S. this weekend. Instead, Season is being released digitally on November 25th, with Ammonite following December 4th (though the latter is currently playing in a handful of places where cinemas are allowed to be open). Who knows how they would have ultimately fared up against the Marvels and the Pixars of it all, but one sliver of an upside to their pandemic-altered releases is that there is a bit more of an opportunity for attention to be sent their way. Of course, between the two, there is a considerable distinction between how much each of them would deserve it — but paired together as a double feature (as I viewed them), they make for a compelling display of two very different directions the state of LGBTQ cinema finds itself going in.
Out actress and filmmaker DuVall's Happiest Season is a romantic comedy about Stewart's character Abby planning to propose to her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) when she is taken to meet her family for Christmas. Generally well-intentioned but hardly substantial, it actually really feels entirely suited to the small screen anyway. Despite its pioneering status, it feels very dated — like a movie that would have come out in the mid-1990s and now is primarily made for Netflix. This is in large part because the main conflict of Season is that, upon arriving at Harper's family home, Abby discovers Harper isn't out yet and that they have to pretend to be roommates. Drama — and mostly tired comedy (like how hilarious it's supposed to be when Stewart and her gay BFF, played by Dan Levy, pretend to be straight for Harper's family) — ensues.
To build the "first studio-produced holiday romantic comedy centred on a same-sex couple" around a coming out narrative is a pretty depressing notion for 2020. After all, The Birdcage and In & Out were studio-made comedies centred on coming out that did so 25 years ago and still feel more progressive than Happiest Season. Though the film does occasionally delve into some interestingly dark places about structural homophobia, it ultimately ends up being largely about Abby and Harper's desire to assimilate into heteronormative culture (its ending is...problematic at best). And don't get me wrong, I'm happy Happiest Season exists for those who
really wanted the gay version of this genre — I just wish the film seemed a little less afraid to ostracize straight audiences.
Despite being set in 1840s England (and being about prehistoric fossils), Ammonite feels considerably less archaic. It's also a significantly better movie, though comparing the two is like doing the same with Holidate and Parasite. Astutely directed by Lee (his second feature after 2017's stunning God's Own Country), the semi-fictional film follows real-life palaeontologist Mary Anning (Winslet) and her relationship with Charlotte Murchison (Ronan). It debuted to a somewhat muted response at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and frankly I expected to be a little bored based on early reviews. But Ammonite is never dull. Anchored by its award-worthy lead performances, it's a passionately romantic (and quite sexy) depiction of a union between two complex women who have been pushed deep into themselves by grief and societal norms. In fact, I found it in many ways the more relatable film — though maybe that's because Happiest Season is set during a big family holiday gathering and Ammonite is basically about two people mostly isolated from the outside world.
Unlike Happiest Season, there's nothing particularly groundbreaking about Ammonite (other than it probably being the first lesbian love story that's also about fossils). It very much follows in the footsteps of recent films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Moonlight and Carol in being an prestige indie film about the complexities of queer existence without paying much attention to catering to any expectations. But collectively, films like these mark a welcome surge in exceptional, uncompromising LGBTQ cinema that I certainly hope continues.
And hey, I hope films like Happiest Season continue too. But going forward, maybe they could just strive to be a little less "the gay version of a straight movie" (see also: Love, Simon) and a little more substantial on their own. Just because Hollywood is finally seeing the potential for studio-released LGBTQ films in straight-dominated genres doesn't mean these films should just imitate their straight counterparts or reduce themselves to that same old coming out story. As Ammonite shows, there's an endless breadth of queer stories that can be told within so many different periods and contexts. In the meantime, though, it's just nice to have anything to watch during this unhappiest of seasons.