Yeah, ok, lots of spoilers in this review because I WANT TO WARN EVERYONE NOT TO SEE THIS FUCKING MOVIE!!!!! This is the platonic ideal of the Tragic Lesbian Boarding School Story.
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This is a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies originally inspired by a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions can involve some spoilers, but I will usually only hide them for new releases.
Many of these movies are not currently in print. I'll link each to their imdb.com entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video [https://www.wolfevideo.com] is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.
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Lost and Delerious (2001) is basically Dead Poet’s Society with girls. Except with the Bury Your Gays trope more explicitly gay. There's also a strong Psycho Lesbian trope, in that a thwarted lesbian relationship drives one character to increasingly bizarre and violent behavior and suicide. Hey, I told you there would be massive spoilers. Don't blame me if you're still reading.
This movie belongs to the genre of hot-house boarding school stories, in which same-sex relationships bloom and are cut off well before their prime. Mary, the new girl at an upper-crust all-girls boarding school ends up rooming with two girls, Tori and Paulie, who are involved in a hot-and-heavy relationship. All three have problematic relationships with mothers: Paulie’s birth mother gave her up for adoption and she is currently trying to track her down and contact her. (When she eventually succeeds in locating her, the woman refuses to allow contact.) Mary’s mother died three years ago and she feels she’s being sent to school to make room for her stepmother. Tori’s mother is trying to make her over into her own image as a socialite. A running subplot involves two of the school's teachers who are widely rumored to be lovers.
While Mary figures out she’s ok with pretending not to notice the sex going on in the next bed over, the balance is upset when Tori’s sister barges in one morning when the lovers are still naked in bed together. Tori freaks out about the potential for being outed and throws Paulie under the bus, claiming she was the sexual agressor and that she (Tori) is perfectly straight. To support this, Tori takes on a program of public heterosexuality, sneaking out to date and have sex with a random boy, selected due to a chance meeting. When Mary chooses to be supportive of Paulie, she takes the risk of being labelled a lesbian herself.
There’s a subplot where Paulie finds an injured Harris Hawk and secretly rehabilitates it in the woods. (I will now forego discussing the logistics of bird of prey rehabilitation as the event is clearly meant to be Deeply Symbolic and practicality need not intervene.) Paulie is the hawk, a fierce wounded creature. She makes bold symbolic gestures, including a chivalric declaration of love in the library while wearing her fencing gear and carrying an epee.
But both the girls are terrified to name their sexuality. Relevant quote, “I’m not a lesbian! I’m just Paulie in love with Tori and Tori’s in love with me.” In a late night encounter, Tori confesses she’ll never love anyone but Paulie but that they can never be together.
Paulie has always played the role of Bad Girl, which initially masks her acting out of her emotional crisis. As in Dead Poet’s Society, poetry and Shakespeare and drama are the medium through which strong emotions are expressed within this shrine of classical learning. This framing drives Paulie to challenge Tori’s boyfriend to a literal duel on the night of the big school formal (at which all the parents are present) and to cut in when Tori is dancing with her father, threatening a confrontation where she declares her love. Tori, terrified, rejects her. Mary is having her own issues, as her father fails to show up for the dance and Paulie taunts her into confessing that she hates her father, using Lady Macbeth’s “Unsex me” speech, and then recruits Mary as her second for the duel.
They meet the boys in the woods with swords, and the duel ensues, but Paulie’s using an unblunted sword and actually stabs her rival in the leg. The scene cuts to Mary running across the field where all the students and teachers are gathered in a picnic to find Tori, and we see the hawk flying up, called to Paulie where she stands on the rooftop of the school. We see Paulie begin to fall, then see the hawk flying away, and we see all the girls staring up at the roof in horror. But Mary, our viewpoint protagonist, is ok, because now we get a voiceover about the lesson she learned from the hawk and how now she’ll always remember her dead mother’s face.
This version of Lesbian Tragedy (the plot that Emma Donoghue classifies as “Rivals”) always marks out the butch character for death while allowing the femme character to recant and be redeemed. At the beginning of the movie, I don’t recall there being an obvious butch/femme distinction between the Paulie and Tori. But as the emotional crisis progresses, Paulie’s presentation becomes more and more masculinized, culminating in her wearing a suit at the school dance, envisioning herself as Tori’s knight, and more explicitly with the “Unsex me” speech. Tori drags herself by force into a normative female role by her pursuit of a heterosexual sexual experience. So rather than their gender perfomances locking them into the fates of their respective roles, once those fates were set in motion, the gendered roles claimed and assimilated them.
Given the context of the inspiration for this review series, this is definitely a Do Not Recommend. We hit all the bullet-points: Tori recanted, Paulie came out and died, everyone is unhappy. This is the sort of movie that could convince an entire generation of young lesbians that they are doomed. The fact that movies like this are still being made in the 21st century is a crime.