Lesbian Cinema without Lesbians: portraits, lovers, siblings

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Through its structural and aesthetic modes of retrospection, Portrait of a Lady on Fire returns us to an unfinished pre-queer conversation about desire between women in the cinema. The film’s much-praised construction of a ‘female gaze’ and its widespread success with contemporary, especially lesbian, audiences invite us to revisit a set of debates in early feminist film criticism that were eclipsed by the advent of queer theory. Welcome as that advent was, it tended to confirm the already marginal position of the question of ‘lesbian’ desire on the screen. In this article, I argue that Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s retrospective modes speak to the history of feminist film theory by highlighting some unresolved questions about homoerotic desire in the cinema, at a moment when queer vocabularies have transformed what is imaginable both in theory and on the screen. My reflections upon the problem with conceptualising lesbian desire before and after the impact of queer theory necessitates revisiting the place of the figure of the ‘lesbian’ in the history of feminist film criticism. I return to these debates through a close reading of the love story in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Drawing on Juliet Mitchell’s horizontal model of desire in Siblings, I explore how this film reconfigures the structures of the cinematic gaze and refuses a classical psychoanalytic reading of Oedipal conflict. The article offers a reflection on the place of this film and its reception in the constitution of theoretical and cinematic histories of homoerotic desire.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)279-308
Number of pages30
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 22 Sept 2022


  • Lesbian spectatorship
  • Celine Sciamma
  • feminist film criticism
  • queer theory


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