The Art of Yearning in Lesbian Cinema

Barred up in our homes away from ordinary life, everyone has tasted the bittersweet feeling of yearning during this lockdown. We yearn like an Austen character who remains entranced by the tingles that erupted in their hand when gently brushed up against their hopeful paramour. Our soundtrack can be any number of Spotify’s ‘Lesbian Yearning’ playlists – of course filled with Mitski and girl in red – to adequately support our wistfulness. For those who are fans of lesbian media and art, yearning is an old familiar friend (a friend who is likely isolating in a cottage preoccupied with cross stitching tasteful vagina art). Although this feeling is present in all LGBTQ+ media, an intense feeling of longing is so embedded in the ‘women who love women’ (WLW) experience it’s practically a sub-genre of its own.

Yearning is the star of lesbian media because for centuries – and still presently for many – it was all we were allowed. LGBTQ+ love is not as free as others: it couldn’t be proclaimed from the rooftops, or declared in front of friends and family, or celebrated in every corner of life. It had to stay hidden; it had to stay secret. Instead an intense urge bubbled up within, one of potent sadness, fervid desire and torturous hope, all contained in one longing glance.

WLW are deeply intimate with the quiet and soft expression of yearning and no filmmaker encapsulates this better than Céline Sciamma. In her debut feature Water Lilies and her most recent lesbian classic Portrait of a Lady on Fire, to yearn is to learn how to love.  

Water Lilies follows various young women in their exploration of their sexualities. Marie (Pauline Acquart) is enamoured by Floriane (Adèle Haenel) and wishes to join the synchronised swimming team so she can be closer to her. Her infatuation with Floriane manifests in all the typical displays of yearning in film, though one particular scene demonstrates such a staple in LGBTQ+ films that it has inspired articles of its own. The trope: olfactophilia. Olfactophilia is the tendency to sniff a loved one and finding comfort in their scent; it’s a subtle grasp for a loved one’s presence and as pointed out by Iana Murray in their article for I-D, it’s one that’s prominent in LGBTQ+ cinema. In Water Lilies, Marie steals one of Floriane’s bin bags and hides it away in her room. Going through Floriane’s rubbish, she pulls out various items like tissues and sniffs them – she even goes as far as taking a bite out of an old apple core. Marie comforts her intense attraction to Floriane by desperately holding these pieces of literal trash dear to her heart. She longs to touch her but she cannot, so instead she treasures the things that have touched her. This scene perfectly encapsulates the standards LGBTQ+ endure: we can not only put up with the discarded remnants of a person but can honour them and think ourselves lucky to have experienced even a small semblance of the person we yearn for. 

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, we are led through a journey of yearning, jubilant release, and then yearning once more. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is an artist commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman – Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) – without her knowledge. Housed on an island together, the two grow close and eventually Héloïse agrees to pose for Marianne. Through their days together we see the shift in each of their perceptions as they first begin to yearn for the other. Darting glances lead to drawn out eye-contact and an intense emotional connection between the two. However, their time on the island together is a fleeting paradise that must end and soon they say goodbye and are torn apart forever. In this film, the yearning is caused not by a one-sided infatuation but by circumstance. They are living in the late 18th century and Héloïse is engaged to another – their love is impossible and therefore yearning becomes their only expression of love. The concluding five minutes of Portrait of a Lady on Fire demonstrates the undying strength of yearning as, even though they are now apart, their love has never dimmed. Now they must connect to one another through means other than their presence. When they part, Héloïse has a picture of Marianne sketched into page 28 of her book and years later, when Marianne sees a commissioned portrait of her, Héloïse is posed with her child and in her hands is a book where one page is held open so that the page number is visible: 28. The last time Marianne sees Héloïse is at a concert where the orchestra plays Vivaldi’s Concerto Number 2 in G minor (“Summer” from The Four Seasons), a song which Marianne had played for Héloïse on the harpsichord earlier in the film (and which is now the anthem for WLW everywhere). Even though years have passed, we can see in Héloïse’s expression that this concerto is how she continues to connect with Marianne. Almost like an auditory version of the olfactophilia mentioned above, this embodies Marianne for Héloïse and she will cling onto her memory of Marianne and their time together forever.  

Yearning may not be a unique experience only for those in the LGBTQ+ community but it’s one that embodies far more of our experiences in love than the experiences for straight people. It is an emotion that is potent in our art and awakens a deeply buried but always present memory. Our history is the lonely, the separated, and the yearning and our art refuses to forget this, holding their memory deep within our collected consciousness forever.