Judge Sandra Dozier is delighted to find out that good things come in blandly named packages.
Tamara: She's got nice bone structure if you're into white girls. You think she is or isn't in the family?
Cheryl (exasperated): Tamara, why are you constantly clocking women?
Tamara: We're lesbians, remember, Cheryl? We're into female-to-female attraction?
The unimaginatively named Lesbian Romance Collection contains two excellent movies, two short films featuring Lucy Lawless (Xena, Warrior Princess) in early roles, and a compelling documentary (Lavender Limelight) about the lesbian filmmaking experience. It's a great little set that suffers from poor marketing, as the bland title does not say much about the diverse contents, and the heavy emphasis on the presence of Lawless really does not do justice to the excellent stories offered by the other pieces.
Facts of the Case
The first disc has two short films featuring Lucy Lawless in early roles and a sixty-minute documentary by Marc Mauceri about lesbian filmmakers called Lavender Limelight. The remaining two discs have one feature-length film each.
Peach (1994), directed by Christine Parker
A Bitter Song (1990), directed by Athina Tsoulis
Lavender Limelight (1997), directed by Marc Mauceri
The Watermelon Woman (1997), directed by Cheryl Dunye
Butterfly Kiss (1995), directed by Michael Winterbottom
Predictably, the two short films involving Lucy Lawless don't have nearly as many scenes with her as the packaging might suggest, and A Bitter Song doesn't even fit with the "lesbian romance" angle, since it is about neither lesbians nor romance. The promised seduction in Peach is steamy in the way classic movie love scenes are steamy—by suggesting a connection rather than showing it. This is not a bad thing, but it is not "as you've never seen her before!"—I've seen hotter stuff watching Xena, Warrior Princess. Peach works more on the level of allegory: The appropriately unnamed character Lawless plays represents Desire, a drive that makes us take on challenges, push ourselves to do more, break out of routines we'd rather not be in. The suggestion of sexuality shows the interesting transformation of the peach (an inherently sexual symbol) from a thing to be treasured to a thing to be experienced/tasted. In this way, the story works well.
A similar theme can be seen in the two feature films Butterfly Kiss and The Watermelon Woman—these are movies that aren't so much about lesbians but about the lives and motivations of women who happen to be lesbian. The story, not the same-sex element, drives the picture.
Butterfly Kiss is so creepy and visceral, it's hard to look away. The movie starts off with a manic Eunice repeating her script over and over to herself. "Look who it is! It's me—here I am!" This alone is enough to unbalance the viewer and put them on edge for the next scene…we know something is going to happen, just not when it will. The main characters, Eunice and Miriam, fall into a love affair because they are both damaged, incomplete people looking for completion somewhere outside of themselves. Eunice kills and has to punish herself for it with an intricate weave of heavy chains that scar and bruise her skin and hang painfully from her pierced nipples. Miriam lets herself be drawn in, partly because she is naïve and partly because the out-of-control Eunice fascinates her rigidly controlled personality. Plummer is so convincing as a twitchy, broken psychopath that when she cries, "God has forgotten me!" later in the film, it's very poignant and heartbreaking. Reeves is similarly strong as a childlike adult who idolizes Eunice and can look up at a would-be rapist with complete innocence and acceptance of the situation.
The Watermelon Woman is a movie with a very different tone. It's light and humorous, but it has a definite point of view and a message about identity and being accepting of yourself just the way you are. I really enjoyed the performances from all the actors in this film—Dunye makes it hard to remember that this really isn't a documentary about a real-life actress from the 1930s, and this is perhaps the best part; the viewer gets completely swept up in the story and wants to know the end as much as the Cheryl character does. We feel like we're in league with her, seeing what she sees, and helping the process. Aside from the charming vulnerability of Dunye's character, I also really liked the natural performance of Valerie Walker as her best friend Tamara. As the completely-fine-with-herself lesbian character, she provides a benchmark for the emerging identity of Cheryl and grounds the film nicely. Again, the fact that these women are lesbians is almost unimportant (although it is certainly part of the message Dunye is trying to get across). What really shines about this movie is the journey of acceptance Cheryl goes through.
Finally, the documentary Lavender Limeight is an interesting look at lesbian cinema, with some of the more successful lesbian directors talking about their early work and their lives and influences. It provides a good first look at lesbian-themed cinema and a good perspective on motivation, messages, and responsibility to the lesbian community. Perhaps most frustrating about this documentary, however, is the screen time given to first-time directors who, when asked how they got their start, talk about how they just "fell into it." There is nothing more annoying than hearing someone say that they just happened to be making a film one day, like these things fall out of the sky. Much more interesting were the conversations with directors like Dunye and Maggenti, who had a purpose and a goal and set out to achieve them.
Video quality, as you might expect, is quite poor, but on the level of most independent, low-budget features. The transfer quality just passes inspection, with dark prints that show their age and wear. Sound quality is also in line with independent film production quality and is separated from mono to 2.0 stereo channels as appropriate. There are no subtitles offered for any of the features, which may make viewing the English Butterfly Kiss challenging for those who have trouble understanding accents. There aren't many extras to speak of, but the Butterfly Kiss DVD offers some trailer previews of other gay-themed features and a photo gallery that is essentially just stills from the movie.
While this box set is sure to lure in fans of Lucy Lawless for a chance to peek at her early work (and a more explicit lesbian love scene than frustrated fans of Xena have seen to date), this set offers a lot of value as a well-rounded introduction to lesbian-themed cinema. Between the documentary and two differently themed feature-length films, it presents the more inclusive side of lesbian cinema that pretty much anyone who isn't blinded by stereotypes can relate to. It is definitely worth a look.
The Lesbian Romance Collection is ordered to get a better name, and is hereby released on its own recognizance.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Butterfly Kiss Photo Gallery
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