mommie issues

The Mommy Issues Picture Show

by
on December 24, 2020

A Survey Of Films Where Women Curiously Love Other Women In Lieu Of Their Own Mothers

For a girl too her first object must be her mother (and figures of wet-nurses and foster-mothers that merge into her). The first object cathexes occur in attachment to the satisfaction of major and simple vital needs, and the circumstances of the care of children are the same for both sexes.

Femininity lecture, Sigmund Freud, 1932

I see all red around m/e, I cry out in m/y great distress mother mother why have you forsaken m/e, I hear nothing but the continued stridulations of the crickets, the low close-packed crowns of the olive trees do not separate to make way for her coming to m/e bare-footed her black hair and garments visible between the pale leaves, I turn towards you but you are all asleep. 

The Lesbian Body, Monique Wittig, 1973

In Carol, the 2015 period melodrama directed by Todd Haynes and written by Phyllis Nagy, mommy issues — the shadow the mother casts across the mood and tendencies of the daughter — are prevalent; so prevalent that they are invisible to the eyes of the socially-adjusted. In turn, acknowledging them indicts the author as one who is deeply afflicted. Nonetheless, the opportunity presented by being outed in this way outpaces the inconvenience. Relievingly — as in real life — the mommy issues in Carol run wild: they are flagrant, dismaying, and, at times, immensely comforting, even when a bit harrowing. They are worthy of examination and embrace, even if reluctant. 

In this story of formative sexual awakening in 1950s New York City, the lens is quick to affix to the motherless, childless, barely-boyfriend’ed Therese. Immediately, the shop girl grows besotted with a married mother, in turn triggering an extended custody spat and getaway manifesting as a Route 66 road trip. Carol considers, in addition to great love, competition and the similarities between lovers and children. The two youngest characters in the film are Therese and Carol’s daughter Rindy. Both seek the titular antiheroine’s steady affection; both tellingly boast identical schoolgirl haircuts. Portrayed by Cate Blanchette and Rooney Mara, the players share an age gap of 16 years. As the queer film theorist Clara Bradbury-Rance observes, “Neither the film’s casting nor its costumes or make-up shy away from the age difference between Carol and Therese, which is drawn further attention to by Carol’s attentive and coddling tone: ‘what a strange girl you are . . . flung out of space,’ she says in a peculiar act of seduction.”

Carol film still
Source: © 2015 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.

Early on in the film, Therese — prior to selecting Carol as her mother-object par excellence — is seen at her toy department post at Frankenberg’s. Behind the holiday decorations, the glimmering glass countertop, and Therese’s slight but stiffened frame are rows of excessively rouged porcelain figures lining the walls, accompanied by a cheeky sign: Mommy’s Baby. This is precisely how, over two hours, Carol will frame Therese as she approaches to purchase her daughter a doll. Carol will box the younger woman into an unprecedented encounter with stability, warmth, care, domesticity, home. This act will not be without consequence.

Throughout the Mommy Issues Picture Show — the litany of films where women curiously love other women in lieu of their own mothers — such touches frequently arise: flourishes of mischief and kitsch; of bawdy divebar humor about our earliest experiences with queer desire; of kink and sadomasochism; of lawbreaking and rebellion; of the Freudian notions about the mother-child bond from under which which we queers have, half-heartedly, attempted to crawl.

Greta, a 2018 psychological thriller by Neil Jordan, is Carol run amuck: there is more death, more psychosis, and more odd women all too willing to engage in projection’s naughty parlor games. Set in the same city some sixty years later, Greta’s New York is a metropolis in shards that somehow still fits together and performs with the efficacy of a fractured mirror. No matter. The subway never ran on time, anyway.

Greta begins with world-weary Frances boarding a six train downtown all by her lonesome. Played by Chloë Grace Moretz, a 23 year-old actress who manages to balance her endearing suckling appearance with a bullish demeanor, our heroine is a modern girl. She lives in this drab yet sterilized city and gets by waiting tables and on the generosity of a more affluent best friend, Emily (Maika Monroe), with whom she rooms. Her mother’s recent death, coinciding with her move to the Big Apple, weighs on Frances heavily.

Then, the era slips. 

Enter: Julie London, the 1950s crooner, playing over Frances’ journey home. Where are you? she asks repeatedly with yearning. Where’s my heart? Where is the dream we started?

The city’s looking glass falls from the wall once more, incurring a new hairline crack that alludes to the misfortune coming Frances’ way. Yet the damage is beautiful. It hints at simpler times that never truly existed, of older women who have mysteriously found a way to convey yearning with grace. Of Carol and The Price of Salt, of women named Ann and Claire, or Marijane and Patricia. 

Enter: A seemingly forgotten green leather handbag sits on a subway seat before Frances. It is borrowed from a similarly removed era. The seat on which it is perched is not worthy of such a brush with opulence. The handbag is antiquated, a vision of a time when maternal glamour was expected and women were firmer, shoulder-padded and compacted by corsetry to the point of triangulating like Olympic swimmers. It is a rigid sign of more rigid moments in history. Although a bag is meant to be opened, Frances resists seeking the markers of financial stability, legal identity, and refined interests within. But the damage has already been done; the daydream has already been instilled by its well-tailored presence alone. 

Consider the opening shot of Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964). The director makes 34 year-old Tippi Hedren’s antiheroine — kleptomaniacal, homicidal, man-avoidant, and desperately pawing at her emotionally absent mother — its primary focus. Marnie is drawn to taking because she has transferred her frigidity onto the one thing men have that she cannot: capital. Marnie steals to symbolically replace the many things that one man took from her and her mother many years before. 

Marnie

Hitchcock’s leer becomes so pointed that Marnie, paradoxically, fails to be centered in her own story. Instead, it is the cream yellow clutch beneath her arm that we notice in this first frame, its sides curved and bulging to the extent that it resembles a vulva; unsettling, but now imbued with a distracting allure. We instead become fetishistic and unable to tear our eyes away from “her.” We embody Mark (Sean Connery), the husband who wishes to capture and fix this unwilling woman. 

Marnie, the motherless child, is a shape-shifting grifter, and thus her bag must contain as many mysteries as she does. But Hitchcock encourages us to partake in a risky act of materialism that buffers us from experiencing Hedren’s full performance of Marnie’s frenetic pyschosapphism; her crimson fever dreams of her mother, while peppered throughout, are not clarified until the film’s neat end. Nor do we have space here to consider Hedren’s much-debated treatment at the hands of the Master of Suspense who, in 1961, poached the Midwestern ingenue from a print advertisement for meal replacement beverages.

To his credit, Hitchcock did later acknowledge the former bit of criticism in his much-celebrated 1966 dialogues with François Truffaut. “I was forced to simplify the whole psychoanalysis aspect of it. In the novel, you know, Marnie agrees to see the psychiatrist every week,” he explained. “In the book her attempts to conceal her past and her real life added up to some really good passages — both funny and tragic.” Hitchcock then balked, refusing to take himself to task for this oversight, instead attributing it to the limitations of filmmaking technology. “But in the picture we had to telescope that into a single scene, with the husband doing the analysis himself.” 

It is safe to assume that Frances has never seen Marnie

In 1960, Ann Aldrich published a mass market paperback titled Carol in a Thousand Cities. Its name was a dreamy nod to a line from Claire Morgan’s 1953 pulp novel The Price of Salt where, near its conclusion, the shopgirl Therese approaches the newly-divorced Carol. “It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and in hell,” Morgan wrote. This moment is depicted at the end of Haynes’ 2015 film adaptation, though absent Morgan’s Sodom and Gomorrah prose, nevermind its incendiary tone.

the price of salt

But one woman meaningfully repurposing another’s words is not as captivating as two ‘deviates’ relishing one another in a space removed from the public that secretly and effortlessly devours their work. Ann’s legal name was Marijane Meaker; she quickly became the venerated mother of lesbian pulp. Claire’s legal name was Patricia Highsmith and, quite unwillingly, she would become the mother of the lesbian pulp novel. The writers would be lovers for two years. Claire — I mean Patricia—would detail the experience in her journals. Ann — I mean Marijane — would damn it all and write a tell-all. 

Among its contents, Carol in a Thousand Cities includes works of fiction and theory, high and low. The wide range of texts suggests that queer women — Ann and Claire or Marijane and Patricia included — were not necessarily trying to entertain themselves or even earn an honest living, but attempting to figure out what the hell they were. Why were they/we gravitating toward the feminine to which the mother-object introduced them/us? Why was their/our attraction still present when the mother object failed to appear? Why did they/we fail to become ‘women’ as society understood them, and why was that failure so intricate, so delightful, so worth the price? Why were they/we changing their/our names and assuming other personae that they/we relished equally? Was it really just about security in a hostile political climate? Or was it about creating an intentional though perilous divide between the tidiness of a novel with characters and the dismaying heap of being human — sexed as female on paper — with rough edges, overactive imaginations, and frustratingly mutable bodies? 

In an issue of The Ladder, the first American lesbian magazine, published around the same time, a writer observed the 11 girlhood experiences that might predispose one to being such a deviate, per Richard Robertiello, a New York City psychiatrist. Readers of The Ladder, willing to forgo The New York Times crossword puzzle for a self-audit, absorbed the following list:

  1. A generally competitive mother
  2. An overly restrictive mother
  3. A cold, unforgiving mother
  4. A brutal father
  5. A seductive father
  6. A cold, unforgiving father
  7. An overly restrictive father
  8. A poor relation between the parents
  9. A seductive older brother
  10. A sexually competitive older sister
  11. Another sibling favored by the parents

In such self-analysis, mothers and their/our relationships with them were of immense concern.

Predictably, Carol in a Thousand Cities includes an excerpt from Claire Morgan’s The Price of Salt. Also anthologized are Guy de Maupassant’s “La femme de Paul,” an excerpt from Simone de Beauvior’s The Second Sex, and Sigmund Freud’s “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman.” 

In this 1920 study, Freud observed an 18 year-old named Dora who, like Therese in The Price of Salt, began devoting herself to the pursuit of older women. “It was established beyond all doubt that this change occurred simultaneously with a certain event in the family,” Freud wrote of the girl’s affliction, “and one may therefore look to this for some explanation of the change. Before it happened, her libido was concentrated on a maternal atttitude, while afterwards she became a homosexual attracted to mature women, and remained so ever since.”

What to make of them/me?

The stray handbag is to Greta what the gloves a married mother leaves on Therese’ countertop at Frankenberg’s are to Carol. A young woman, too thinly worn for her years but always tirelessly looking for something absent she does not yet know how to describe, will seek out the handbag or the gloves. She does this, rather selfishly and urgently, because of what they represent to her:

A mother, or something like a mother.

A woman, or something like a woman. 

The trappings of such individuals: Stability, warmth, care, domesticity, home

joan crawford and handbag
Joan Crawford and handbag

But the object is just that — an object, albeit one onto which a yearning young woman has projected. Material masturbation simply won’t do. And so, she — first Therese, and now Frances — must seek out its owner. Unlike the jeopardized but honorable housewife on the other end of the gloves that Therese returns, Frances will find an unsustainable daydream in the bag’s owner, Greta Hidag; a Brothers Grimm fairy tale swiftly turning sinister. It isn’t that Frances does not receive what she covets; rather, she will receive too much of it. It will be psychotic. It will be love.

In adulthood — even after the mainstream acclaim of Strangers on A Train by Patricia Highsmith in 1950 and the discreet success of The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan in 1952 — the author continued to write home to her mother in Texas. In return, the woman would mail her darkly talented child starched white oxfords and dungarees. The writer and her mother carried on this exchange until the Southern matriarch passed away at 95 years old. She — Patricia, Claire, or someone else entirely — would reunite with her mother in the afterlife four years later at the age of 74. 

An inter-genre horror from 2019, Richard Shepard’s The Perfection is, like Marnie, preoccupied with the mother-wound. Yet its director, like Hitchcock, is unwilling to pull focus. In fact, The Perfection deploys an excess of technologies to skirt around it. Surgically edited by David Dean, the film opens to a flurry of cuts and flashbacks that hastily half-answer our most pressing questions about its role in the Mommy Issues Picture Show. Extended flashbacks dramatically flip The Perfection’s brief script not once, but twice. To actually comprehend what is performance and what is performance of performance here — and it is painfully obvious that this metatechnique is precisely what Shepard sought to achieve by mutilating his otherwise tender midnight movie — one must view The Perfection a minimum of two times. 

Immediately calling its name into question, The Perfection squirms restlessly, resisting the heaviness of what it so desperately wants to say about how our dysfunctional familial structures, of blood and choice alike, propagate fucked-up women. There is plenty of commentary on power here, especially on the ever-relevant topics of rape and survivorhood. But the mother, dying until she’s damningly dead, remains on the margins; a spector, shamefully decommissioned for reasons unknown. We will never see the mother — this mother, at least — again. But there will be new mother-daughter objects along the way.

Operating in this reluctant realm of second helpings that are ordinarily only readily afforded to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), we open to a pointless close-up of dead mother, mouth and eyes agape, not yet fingered shut; Shepard insists that we never know her. But it is here in this bleak Minneapolis home, veiled in death, that we first encounter thirtysomething Charlotte Willmore, sturdily surnamed, sitting sentinel at her mother’s bedside. Her knees are to her chest; she gazes unblinkingly at the cold corpse. There are so many images here, all bereft of any meaning. 

mom with pie

As Charlotte sits beneath a crucifix that hangs on her mother’s bedroom wall, jump-cuts annihilate any existing tension. First we see Charlotte as a thirtysomething (played by Allison Williams, who became a certified scream queen in Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut, Get Out). We blink and she’s a pre-teen (embodied by the Australian newcomer Molly Grace). We blink again and pre-teen Charlotte is sprinting across a green courtyard, running from a terror to which we have yet to be introduced. Another flashback: two girls, one of whom is Charlotte the younger, gaze longingly at one another as they cross paths in a hardwood stairwell; both carry cello cases that resemble body bags, longer than the girls are tall. There are intercuts of a head (presumably Charlotte’s) being shaved and prepared for electroshock therapy. It would seem that the Willmore women experienced medical mishaps in tandem; coinciding hysterias, perhaps.

Back in the hallway of Charlotte’s childhood home, adults speak in insufficiently hushed whispers: Such a good daughter. I mean, the poor thing’s been taking care of her for years. At least she’ll now be able to go back. Can she ever really perform again? It’s been a decade. Well, what else is she gonna do? I don’t know. I don’t think she even knows.

In late 2017, I am compelled to open a Google Document that, in the future, I will have no memory of even creating. Titled on “on the occasion of my mother’s death,” it contains a list, subtitled “grief texts.” The unmodified list is as follows:

Films

No Home Movie (2015, dir. Chantal Akerman)

I Cannot Tell You How I Feel (2016, Su Friedrich)

Songs:

“Hey Mama,” Kanye West 

Literature:

“December,” The Ladies Almanack by Djuna Barnes (1928)

Before the Willmore matriarch fell ill, it is revealed, Charlotte was the star cellist of the Bachoff Academy, an elite music conservatory comparable to Juliard. However, this school is not installed into high-rises on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but an imposing tudor-style home ripped from Grimm’s central Europe, yet based in Boston. Bachoff is to The Perfection what Manderlay is to Rebecca (1940) and Hill House is to The Haunting (1963); spaces where lesbian cinema scholar Patricia White impresses that “a door, a staircase, a mirror, a portrait are never simply what they appear to be” and the architecture “reflects the obsessions of its builder.” 

Apart from Charlotte, Bachoff might just be the strongest character in the film — though this should’ve been a title that Ms. Willmore, so discounted in The Perfection, was poised to claim. It is only through an Entertainment Weekly interview with Allison Williams that we learn her role in Charlotte’s trauma: the woman, more concerned with prestige than the girl’s ability to exit Bachoff intact, sent her daughter to the slaughter. “Her mom basically tells her the academy offers a life and a way to be great,” explained Williams, succinctly connecting the dots that Shepard ignored and sketching out the psychoanalytic ouroboros that richly links the two Willmores.

Despite the grounding shot that appraises the dead Mrs. Willmore, Charlotte’s mother-wound centers the withholding wet-nurse; the cold institutional nursemaid: Bachoff. Charlotte, fucked up beyond all repair by the experiences she’d had at the academy since she was a little girl, receives her ticket out of hell soon enough, though not from the criminal justice system and certainly not from an incensed, intervening guardian who stages an intervention. The reason is much more passive: her mother fell ill and Charlotte had no choice but to return home to Minneapolis to mommy in her own post traumatic-cesspool for the next ten years — all the while, playing mommy to the mother who failed her. 

➹ 

Near the end of Mommie Dearest (1981)— naturally, a stalwart of the Mommy Issues Picture Show — Christina Crawford (Diana Scarwid), dressed in black — appraises her mother Joan (Faye Dunaway) at her open-casket funeral. She is a far cry from the small child who was on the receiving end of her mother’s legendary wire hanger flagellations, yet still she cries.

faye dunaway as joan crawford
Film still from Mommie Dearest: Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, 1981

After she pays her respects, Charlotte embraces Carol Ann (Rutanya Alda), her mother’s long-devoted assistant. Christina, having lived apart from Joan, is the less aggrieved of the two.

“She always loved you so very much,” Carol impresses, both on herself and Christina. 

 “I need to believe that. I need so much to be able to believe that now,” the daughter responds.

Of course, this lonely howl emitted by Mommie Dearest and other such films needn’t imply that the daughter object is the one who hounds for love yet is never hounded. In Ranier Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), it is answered (or perhaps the other way around).

The fashion designer Petra (Margit Carstensen) says to her cousin Sidonie (Katrin Schaake) of the young ingenue (Hanna Schygulla) with whom she is tragically enraptured, “I love her! Love her as I’ve never loved anything in my life… that girl’s little finger is worth more than the lot of you.”

Charlotte is swift to flee motherless Minnesota for Bachoff. Doing so entails a detour in China, where the conservatory’s faculty and new star pupil Elizabeth Wells are already scouting for the next tenderly aged cello prodigy in Shanghai. The younger cellist, brassy in temperament and in septum piercing, is portrayed by Logan Browning, a star of 2007’s Bratz feature and thus ripe for the Mommy Issues Picture Show picking. 

We do not yet know what Charlotte is after, or what stakes she has in this scholarship contest in which Shepard has veiled in the metaphors of sexual abuse and child trafficking — metaphors that are enough to scare off any yearning spectator with a working knowledge of queer history and its conflations with such crimes and the ways in which we are so often the victims. But we do know that Charlotte, alone and expressionless on the streets of Shanghai, deserves stability, warmth, care, domesticity, home. One similarly gets the sense that, after shouldering the burden of her mother, she is able to provide those things. In these few scenes, we are undecided. Is Charlotte hysterical or valiant, and are those qualities even that disparate? 

In Luca Guadagnino’s 2019 remake of Dario Argento’s giallo masterpiece Suspiria, Suzy Bannion (Dakota Johnson), burdened by the weight of her mother’s terminal illness and cultural stagnation in fundamentalist Ohio, chooses escape. She will instead elect to sleep among, create with, and otherwise serve centuries-older women: the witches of Berlin.

Once more, a girl is seemingly entranced by high culture’s maternal promise. Bachoff’s hifalutin realm is the gloves of Carol and the purse and Julie London of Greta, all in one dizzying bundle. While Neil Jordan flagrantly delights in female psychosexuality in Greta — pushing and pulling every single greasy cable with the fury of a wartime switchboard operator — Shepherd pushes a button or two unintentionally.

lady with fingers

The Perfection’s intense chamber music world plays across screens during a milieu when, regardless of partisan affiliation, we are loath to appraise any institution, federal or cultural, without immense skepticism. To see Lizzie and Charlotte manically cling to such a space as Rome burns can’t be considered anything else but camp; a devoted seriousness, detached from contemporary context, that is unintentionally perverse. It is tantamount to the moment in Garry Fleder’s Kiss the Girls (1997) when an acclaimed violinist, held captive underground by a serial abductor, chooses to play Bach’s “Partita for Violin No. 2” in lieu of fighting for her fucking life. 

Despite Erica’s streetwise admonishment — don’t pick up a discarded coinpurse in New York without expecting it to detonate — Frances inevitably locates the handbag’s owner: Greta Hidag. The mystery woman’s surname translates to ‘cold’ in Hungarian. Frances, of course, does not know this. Why would she? At the end of the day, she remains a girl from Boston with a freshly-buried mother, living under the heavy wing of her doting yet assertive Smith College classmate. There is no need to discuss the overt homoerotics at play here because they are everywhere, not solely relegated to this single implication of Seven Sisterhood special friendship, and those with the gift of perceiving the New Queer Subtext — that is to say, the queer secularity of off-hand comments and physical behaviors — will devour them like they’ve never been properly fed (because they haven’t; I haven’t; we haven’t).

After unknowingly following a trail of purse breadcrumbs to Greta’s stoop, and after Greta answers the door, we see Frances break into a smile, almost bashfully, for the very first time. She is looking at this striking older woman, played by the inimitable 67 year-old Isabelle Huppert, and she is allowing Greta’s deceptively good French affectation to push and pull against her eardrums. Frances is already envisioning being held by this majestic-seeming stranger before she is glamorously invited in for coffee. 

Moments into this first of four promising encounters between girl and mother objects, Greta asks if Frances has a boyfriend. She is equally quick to find her upright piano and serenade Frances with Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraum No. 3.” While fingering the keys, the lonesome mother waxes about her dead husband, her daughter who is an accomplished pianist living in Paris, and the strange banging next door that is interfering with her soliloquy. 

Sigmund Freud and his wife, Martha, 1885

“‘Liebestraum,’” Greta asks. “Do you know what it means? ‘A Dream of Love.’ Because that’s all love leaves us with. A dream. A memory.” Frances, without realizing it, is about to become such a history. 

During her decade at home with mommy, Charlotte learns that her Bachoff successor, Lizzie, a New York Times Magazine covergirl and doyenne of the divertimento, has been groomed to be a star performer the same horrible way that she had: through rape and a tell-tale eight note tattoo on her shoulder. Absent a mother, Charlotte is free to become one for someone of her own choosing. She will not permit Lizzie to suffer the institutional ills that she has suffered. She is presumptuous in her desire to afford the woman — ten years her junior — stability, warmth, care, domesticity, home.

In this sane, crystal clear space of the supplementary viewing, what follows is delicious; a shoddily-lensed but remarkable fantasy of orphans. After years of changing diapers and patiently spoon-feeding, Cinderella — finally — is about to enter the ball. Wearing a green mandarin collar gown, hair pinned back and make-up under-done enough that Williams resembles Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940): too thin, lantern-jawed, and mannish for any red-blooded man to ever want her. But still, they flock. 

Comically, Charlotte’s symbolic return to the belly of the Bachoff beast evokes a silly little description of a silly little character in a silly large book, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. “She walked, cutting across the room, with a masculine, straight-line abruptness,” Rand wrote of the character she intended to represent the ideal objectivist woman, “but she had a particular grace of motion that was swift, tense and oddly, challengingly feminine.” Of course, Rand’s claim over girls like Charlotte is meaningless. These affects are exclusively the domain of women who are troubled by power; not women who clamor for it. 

“The beautiful and well-made girl had, it’s true, her father’s tall figure, and her facial features were sharp rather than soft and girlish, traits which might be regarded as indicating a physical masculinity.”

Sigmund Freud, The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman (1920)

As Charlotte is greeted by Anton (Steven Weber) and Paloma (Alaina Huffman), the respective heir/headmaster and headmistress of Bachoff Academy, we witness the ex-student’s expression deflate. Besieged by the harm that once came to her at the conservatory, she gazes out over her former father and mother’s shoulders mid-embrace. What a first-time viewer would interpret as tears of joy are actually tears of pain; Charlotte’s poorly-sutured wound — ostensibly stemming from an absent mother and a failed surrogacy under the Academy’s terrible auspices — is coming undone. In light of Williams’ strong performance, the poorly-designed self-harm scars on Charlotte’s wrist during this scene become a redundancy. 

The bourgeois’ affair- and baijiu-laced festivities rage on at the Shanghai Opera House. As the snooty coterie boozily leers at the three girls under twelve who are competing against one another for a chance to suffer the unknown horrors of Bachoff Academy, a mother-object encounters her intended daughter-object. Charlotte knows that she has plans for Lizzie. What she does not know is that Lizzie is similarly preoccupied by thoughts of her. 

They meet as they are about to co-judge this contest for the next lamb headed to the Bachoff slaughter. Suddenly lost in one another, this cryptic implication eludes the two cellists. Alone with one another, Charlotte stammers effusively. Nicely tying to the early flashback of two girls passing one another at Bachoff, Lizzie takes the elder woman by the wrist and impresses, “I was nine when I first saw you perform. You were fourteen and everything I wanted to be. My idol.” 

Lizzie, similarly motherless though still extremely beholden to Bachoff’a grisly surrogacy, takes this exchange as license to continue idolizing Charlotte. At Anton’s urging, the two are called to the stage to perform a cello duet for the audience. Bachoff holds enough power to make girl-bodies cross oceans, play spontaneous duets for which neither are, despite their immense gifts, truly prepared. Through the use of split diopter shots pioneered by Brian dePalma in films like Dressed to Kill (1980), the performance becomes play that interlinks idol and admiring pupil as, finally, the jump-cuts serve a tangible purpose: to illustrate the connection between lust and artistic drive. A performance that feels revelatory to the performers and the audience melds with their night out dancing, and their inevitable capitulation to a hotel room caught in the clouds. Within the dark room, a sign reading MADE IN CHINA illuminates their pushy bodies in a shadowy spectrum. The trio of performances conclude in climax. 

More jarring than the realism of this choreographed act of seduction is the sharp visual difference between the actors: Williams’ impressive waspiness, after all, earned her the role of the unhinged white girlfriend in Get Out for a reason; Browning, meanwhile, is of Black Southern stock. This proves a pretty slick foil to ‘lesbian mirroring’ concerns. A term thrown around within and outside academia, mirroring asserts that that queer women in pictures helmed by men often symbolically resemble their lovers, or present as such to serve as some sort of a foil for a masculine love interest on the periphery. More odiously, this phenomenon only seems to eclipse most talk of mother and daughter objects. The spectatorial trepidation and wariness about exploitation is justifiable, though unwarranted. 

atlas shrugged

Here, within a vital second re-watch of The Perfection’s 90 utterly imperfect minutes, it is safe to let down one’s guard. Instead, undistracted by what others are saying or thinking, one gets to appraise the sameness within the difference; the connection between two women over art, admiration, and ambition. At that point, it’s not mirroring as much as it is reality (or one’s highest hopes for it).

The morning after, Charlotte nurses Lizzie’s hangover with pills and, in the films truest execution of lesbian filmic trope, consents to go on a two-week excursion to rural China with Lizzie before the younger woman heads back to the mutterhaus in Boston. But Charlotte, though bewitched, remains steadfast in her mission. By the time it is over, she will have lovingly wiped Lizzie’s ass along the side of a provincial road and humored the Bachoff protege with baroque-informed road trip word games. She will also, through grisly means, give Lizzie the one tool necessary to free herself from the abusive walls of the academy. It will become psychotic. It will be called love. 

As Frances continues to make plans with Greta — a day spent at the shelter procuring the single woman a dog and an intimate dinner by candlelight soon follow, all much to Erica’s extreme alarm — she does not know that the maternal embrace for which she yearns will soon arrive. Yet it will entail secret rooms, padlocked trunks, maternal brutishness, and leather cuffs about the wrists and ankles. It will be psychotic. It is called love. 

In her introduction to Carol in a Thousand Cities, Marijane Meaker — performing as Ann Aldrich — writes, “I call her Carol, but her name may be Tamara, Madeline, Jeraldine or Ann. She may be the young fifteen year-old girl in Francoise Mallet’s novel, who was strongly attracted to her mistress. […] I call her Carol, but to Sigmund Freud she was a beautiful and clever girl of eighteen who did not want to be cured.”

It is this incurable girl that has, in a curious exercise of inversion, given birth to the Mommy Issues Picture Show a century later.


Sarah ‘Tom’ Fonseca is a self-taught nonfiction writer from the Georgia foothills living in Brooklyn, New York. Known for thoughtful, historically-informed, and — at times — reactionary responses to literature and film, Fonseca enjoys devising new ways for cinema writings and criticisms to weather the death of print, digital overwhelm, and the monetized terrain of contemporary virtual media. These solutions include reviews that take the form of interviews or the epistolary, collaborations with visual artists and UI experts, and film community building on social media stalwarts like Instagram and Twitter.

Fonseca has held nonfiction fellowships with Film at Lincoln Center, Lambda Literary Foundation, and People for the American Way. In addition to publications in Museum of the Moving Image’s Reverse Shot, Kenyon Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, her work has been recognized for its literary merit by Black Warrior Review, Sundress Publications, Sinister Wisdom, and The Association of LGBTQ Journalists.

She has moderated and presented work at Bluestockings Bookstore, The Center, Georgia Museum of Agriculture, KGB Bar, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, Made in New York, NewFest, and New York Public Library.