What “Below Her Mouth” Gets Right About Lesbian Sex Scenes

And what so many other movies get wrong.

A quick Google search of “lesbian sex scenes” brings up a lot of porn sites, but the clips you’ll see are from regular movies like Blue is the Warmest Color, Bound and even Higher Learning. That’s because so much of what gets shown in mainstream cinema is designed for mass consumption—read: straight men—so all sexual scenarios are viewed through that lens.

When it comes to Hollywood movies, though, sapphic sex scenes challenge the Motion Picture Association of America, which is notoriously squeamish when it comes to explicit displays of homosexuality or LGBT issues in general. Studios hoping to get consumer-friendly ratings (and have a movie play in homophobic countries) serve audiences lesbian sex that’s unrealistic—either with lackluster passion or, conversely, gratuitousness bordering on the ludicrous.

carol cate blanchett
Carol/The Weinstein Company

Even 2015’s Carol had just one short sex scene, even if became a source of buzz.

“People do ask about the sex scene a lot. It’s inevitable they do,” Cate Blanchett told a reporter. “People focus on that stuff. I don’t think they would focus on it if I was a man or if it was another scene.”

In Freeheld, released the same year, there’s barely a hint of lovemaking between Ellen Page and Julianne Moore.

freeheld
Freeheld/Summit Entertainment

“It was to show that they had loving, caring, healthy sex,” director Peter Sollett told me.

“I know that might sound dull but… we wanted to create something that was sex-positive, and we wanted to show that they had a connection that was physical, too. We didn’t want the film to have an R rating. We wanted the film to be as available to as wide as audience as we could, for a lot of different reasons, so doing the scene the way we did it was the right way to go.

Most films with lesbian sex scenes that get wider distribution are directed by men—Carol, Freeheld, Blue is the Warmest Color, Black Swan, even the indie Room in Rome was from male director Julio Medem. But it was queer women who filmed the first woman-on-woman scenes in modern cinema: In 1974, experimental artist Barbara Hammer and filmmaker Chantal Akerman both released works with extended sapphic intimacy (Hammer’s Dyketactics and Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle). They were black-and-white chunks of realism that depicted actual queer women, including Akerman herself, engaging with each other without outside direction (or any concern for Hollywood excitability).

Je-Tu-Il-Elle
Je Tu Il Elle/Paradise Films

In the next decade, more depictions popped up in films like Personal Best (1982), The Hunger (1983) and Desert Hearts (1985), which opened up opportunities to expand on the mostly white, mostly femme lesbians seen on the big screen and be more inclusive of intersectional identities. The 1990s brought movies like Bound, Go Fish, The Watermelon Woman, But I’m a Cheerleader and High Art, with artful but authentic sex scenes. Still, they were largely arthouse hits relegated to the queer indie-loving crowd, the kind of dykes who went to gay film festivals. (In the years since, thankfully, they’ve all found larger audiences.)

It was clear when Blue is the Warmest Color was released in 2013 that moviemakers still weren’t getting lesbian sex right: The film was infamous for a 10-minute tryst between actresses Lea Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, but mainly because they were very public about how terrible their experience was with director Abdellatif Kechiche.

blue is the warmest color
Blue is the Warmest Color/Wild Bunch

“It was sometimes embarrassing and sometimes illuminating, surrounded by three cameras in a very small room,” Seydoux told the Sydney Morning Herald of the ten-day shoot. “Sometimes you could spend like five hours on a scene. I felt like a prostitute.”

Julie Maroh, who penned the graphic novel the film was based on, publicly shunned it: “It was a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and [made] me feel very ill at ease,” she wrote in a statement.

But the new Canadian drama Below Her Mouth, which opens stateside on Friday, is a direct challenge to these ideas: It’s got an androgynous heartthrob (Erika Linder), an all-women crew (including director April Mullen and out writer Stephanie Fabrizi), and several scenes showing how women actually make each other—and themselves—come. That this is still revolutionary in 2017 says a lot about how much more progress is needed in the patriarchal film industry, and in the U.S. in general. It’s not a coincidence that Below Her Mouth was made in Canada, where censorship is less of a concern and the government freely supports the arts.

Below-her-mouth
Below Her Mouth/ Serendipity Point

To make her actors feel safe and supported, Mullen not only insisted on a closed set, with just her and the female DP in the room but took other steps to ensure both comfort and authenticity: “We hid microphones around the room so there would be no boom operator,” she told me. “It was a really, really intimate space that we kind of created for them.”

That comfort allowed the intimate scenes between Linder and co-star Natalie Krill to be more organic.

“I would never have interrupted them just to be sure we got the right angle or the right light,” says Mullen. “You hope to catch it and if you don’t, you have to tweak things. But I would never direct or interrupt them in these scenes. I wanted it to play out really authentically between the two of them.”

below her mouth
Below Her Mouth/ Serendipity Point

Much of Below Her Mouth is driven by the sexual chemistry between Linder and Krill, who meet when Linder’s Dallas is working as a roofer on the house next door to Krill’s Jasmine. They later reconnect at a lesbian bar (Jasmine is engaged to a man but goes with her bisexual friend), and begin an affair. Mullen argues their blooming relationship is told just as much through their bodies as it is through dialogue. “You give everything you can to another person through your body—every movement and spirit and soul in that scene. So it’s like each sex scene really does have its own vibe.”

Below Her Mouth is one of few lesbian films that acknowledges it’s for a specific audience: In interviews, the stars of Carol and Freeheld continually insisted how “universal” their projects were, how they really weren’t “lesbian movies.” But can’t a work exist as both? Perhaps trying so hard not to be a “lesbian movie” is why those films failed to really capture what gay women are like—in bed and in the world.

The creatives behind Below Her Mouth don’t feel the need to negate it as a love story between two women to reach a larger audience. Maybe that comes from not being beholden to the American studio system.

TORONTO,ON-SEPTEMBER5: Director April Mullen (centre), poses with actors Natalie Krill (left) and Erika Linder who star in the film, Below Her Mouth, which is premiering at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.        (Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star via Getty Images

There’s something to be said for allowing queer women to be in control of their own stories—though, even then, some viewers will inevitably disagree with those portrayals. (See: The Kids Are All Right.) But what Below Her Mouth accomplishes, compared to big studio flicks and even most lesbian-sex-heavy indies, is the true eroticism that emerges when two women are alone together, without feeling the watchful eye of a man—or several men.

Sure, they might end up being in the audience. But they needn’t be in the room when shooting the scene.

Many lesbian films by women are dismissed as sappy, heavy on melodrama, sisterhood, and cringeworthy folk songs. The worst of them resemble paperback romances or have a predictable plot with a tragic acting to match. Blame it on a lack of creativity—or budget—but there’s often less focus on the central plot and characters than the sex act themselves.

We gay gals are ultimately looking for a love story, a modern fairy tale that isn’t tragic like Monster or melodramatic like Claire of the Moon.. A movie is only be improved when it’s created by those who have the lived experience. (Or at least by those smart enough to reach out to experts, like the Wachowskis did with Susie Bright on Bound). What ultimately serves lesbian viewers best is a heightened version of reality: Two women with chemistry that is conveyed through organic dialogue, plot and body language, engaging in sex acts that weren’t created by an outsider’s imagination.

Yes, cinema is fantasy, but shouldn’t it be ours?

Trish Bendix is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. She is currently the editor in chief of GO Magazine and a former editor in chief for AfterEllen.com.
@trishbendix