Lesbianism and Camp

I have, like thousands of others, now read Sontag’s Notes on “Camp”, an attempt to define the undefinable – a term I had previously catalogued as John Waters movies, pantomimes, a ban on wire hangers and a misunderstood Met Gala dress code, but now feel to be steadily expanding to cover many things I continue to uphold as ideal. I am interested in the public’s conception of camp as gay male domain – I would like to argue in favour of camp’s specific lesbian appeal.

On the fourth page of her essay, attempting to define a camp ‘taste in persons’, Sontag outlines what I believe to be the bridge between cultural sensibility as constructed and human sexuality as felt. She speaks in terms of androgyny, Art Nouveau and Greta Garbo (I will come back to this later) – then, running through a list of screen personalities, finally and crucially reaches the French actress Edwige Feuillère.

In Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia (1951), Feuillère’s piece de resistance, lesbianism and camp intersect on several miraculous levels. This film exists on familiar territory: its slow trickle of female-Oedipal passion runs from wounds slit two decades beforehand by Leontine Sagan’s Maedchen in Uniform. Where stripes were the constant motif in that 1931 production – the Prussian boarding-school uniforms, the Disney-expressionist shadows cast by the banisters of a forbidden staircase – Audry’s 1951 film is characterised by gloss and mirrors, the trademark of the German director, Max Ophüls, to whom she was once an assistant. The repressed atmosphere of wartime Prussia is replaced by a decadent, flowered Versailles in miniature, dictated by traditionally feminine emotion and crowded with obedient patriots.

Olivia, whose arrival at the school from culturally distant England marks the story’s beginning, is our tour guide, and it is from this that the film derives its camp appeal. We see a sophisticated establishment made grotesque in the shiny funhouse mirror of a young girl’s desire. She is Alice in Wonderland, making her first steps, beribboned and finally speaking French, through a looking glass and into a world where all human relationships are flipped back to front. At genteel poetry readings led by Feuillère’s character, she is tested and rewarded on her knowledge of the incestuous Greco-Roman family tree central to Western literature, a spidery logic puzzle in itself.

In this Blytonian fable gone wrong, two headmistresses vie for the attention of their pupils. One, a mysteriously-ill Miss Havisham type played to an obscene degree by Simone Simon, picks favourite students from an keepsake album as the girls in her care take turns to serve her. The other, Feuillère’s vengeful inversion of Sagan’s gentler Fraulein von Bernberg, wooes her subjects as they sit in ever-shrinking groups to hear her recite Racinian verse.

Feuillère’s character, Mlle Julie, is cartoonish in her immorality, a lesbian Child-Catcher who slips into her students’ rooms at night. Her mannerisms are stern, domineering and utterly unexplainable. During an expectedly lavish school dance, she fondles another student in plain view in an attempt to make Olivia jealous, before reconciling and promising her sweets – a textbook child predator, and images which are exceptionally chilling and yet rarely discussed. This female pederasty, along with classical myth in the shape of Racine’s Phèdre and Andromaque, turn the girls’ school into its own Hellenic city-state. Anything goes if you are getting a thorough education.

The film is already an unofficial continuation of the Maedchen in Uniform prophecy, but my favourite comparison is to John Waters’ 1972 Pink Flamingos, the famous, faux-camp, commentary on filth. When the Ophüls-style smoke and mirrors are cast aside, this is essentially all that Olivia is: a war of moral turpitude. Two sides attempt to outdo each other in depravity: on one, a lady of unsound health wallowing in a boudoir and demanding proteinaceous treats – on the other, manipulative exhibitionists happy to engage in petty threats. The normal young women, for the good of society (birthing children to adopt, becoming literate) are thrown, helpless, into the cellar.

In Sontag-land, camp that is decadent but aware of itself cannot truly be camp – it is only camping. Nothing is less aware of itself than an adolescent girl in supposed love – nothing less decadent than an immoral relationship built on candied bribes and alexandrines. Through a child’s-eye view, we see passionate love, adult feuds, material wealth and manipulation, every detail blown up into a novelty. Olivia is both a niche lesbian-interest film and one of the campiest productions in film history.

This pattern – a regression in age, a flight back through the looking-glass – snakes from Audry’s filmmaking into the actual experience of lesbian adulthood, characterised by its self-analysis, its newly aware inspections of a little girl’s mentality. Childhood obsessions, both cartoon and human, are recontextualised, as in the meme below:

In my several years of speaking to other lesbians, I have discovered a significant group preference for outwardly villainous women – the kind of ‘outwardly’ that is only viable in the exaggerated squash-and-stretch-animation of a Disney villain. ‘Camp responds,’ explains Sontag, ‘to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated.’ There are also significant online gatherings for the loving, gently sexual appreciation of a certain genre of middle-aged actress, perhaps a modern vestige of Sontag’s ‘great mannerists’ – Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Helena Bonham-Carter. Freud has already attempted an explanation for this preference on the part of the younger, but my additional suggestion is that the personalities of these women are constant, clearly enscribed, visible through years of experience in their mannerisms, actions and possessions. I believe this is constant with Sontag’s idea of camp in narrative as ‘instant character…a person being one, very intense thing’.

Feuillère, 44 when Olivia was filmed, is the ultimate fulfilment of this instant ideal, a solidified older woman to yearn for when young. She is clearly middle-aged, but, under Audry’s gleaming camera, displays no specific signs of aging. Her eyebrows are permanently arched, and she always seems to be quietly amused. She exists as a figurine, a pinnacle of immoral consistency who is destined to bring the title character down with no introspection or change. Her past, drawn on briefly, remains unexplained, making her a living mystery.

The language surrounding lesbianism in the modern world is infantilising, a damning reflection of latent historical ideas unwittingly pushing lesbians into Audry’s house of mirrors. Adults are robbed of dignified eroticism and reduced, with the Instagram mainstay #girlswholikegirls, into cutesy picture-postcards. Women in their twenties and thirties are coaxed back into hopeful adolescence, told to treasure every smidgeon of same-sex affection as a self-affirming statement of identity and societal progression – a kiss for the many, not the few – rather than a mark of ordinary human desire taken for granted by any heterosexual. A woman in tune with these sentiments leads a naïve Adrian Mole-esque life of exaggerated importance: any encounter, valuable by merit of the society it is in, could become a long read in the New York Times, a milestone on an epic personal journey. The grand, unaware statements that inevitably occur could, if slipped in powdered form into a movie script and robbed of political buzzwords, become their own achievements in 21st century camp.

Nobody on the list of camp personae enjoys quite as much lesbian prestige as Greta Garbo, the Swedish actress Robert Sherwood called ‘the official Dream Princess of the Silent Drama Department of Life‘. In the Sontag essay, where she is an emblematic camp androgyne, her ‘perfect beauty’ shelters a ‘haunting androgynous vacancy’. I have seen almost every Garbo film, from the cabinet of curiosities that is 1924’s Saga of Gosta Berling to the abject disaster of 1941’s Two-Faced Woman. She is, without doubt, a flat actress – her portrayals are two-dimensional, her own emotions clearly distant behind her melodramatic mask – and yet, by some miracle combination of personal mythos and off-beat charisma, she almost always succeeds at pulling her viewers, soundly and genuinely, into the ecstatic rises and falls of Hollywood drama. Her natural mannerisms – nervous, self-conscious and unsuppressed from character-to-character – are loudly, unbelievably lesbian, the fidgeting of an anxious suitor. She is the ambitious, androgynous Queen Christina, her most apt role, permanently trapped in the body of some other woman: Anna Karenina, Marie Walewska, Dumas’ Lady of the Camellias. When the trappings of these love-tortured characters fall aside, as they do in her signature 1933 biopic, we see some semblance of Garbo’s lasting impression, a woman laced with suggestive subtext as she wanders between real life and fiction.

It is significant (and quite funny) that much of Garbo’s filmography, from silent film to talking picture, involves prolonged, affectionate physical contact with other women. The heightened melodrama of her heterosexual romances overflows, spilling out into each little scene: she embraces Jenny Hasselquist too readily in The Saga of Gosta Berling, kisses a friend full on the mouth in Queen Christina and congratulates a new bride with great exuberance in Camille. Although kisses between women have not always carried romantic connotations and were once perfectly ordinary greetings, they surely appear far more often in Garbo’s oeuvre than in the average period dramas of the time. The Queen Christina kiss is verified in its lesbian overtones: it was written at the suggestion of Irving Thalberg, engineer of Garbo’s screen persona, who had seen the unambiguously romantic equivalent scene in Madchen in Uniform (1931).

Many of Garbo’s heterosexual period romances are the epitome of camp: absurd frivolity overacted with total seriousness and pride. Whether conscious or unconscious, she is the 1930s prototype of the modern femme lesbian, making an ironic mockery of traditional femininity as an ornate framing device for her own unconventional sensitivities. Sontag’s campy epicene, the fluid and distant androgyne, remains to this day a lesbian subcultural ideal, and Garbo’s filmography provides us with an illuminating glance at the means by which a clash between femininity and homosexuality might be dealt.

I think there is much to the intersection of lesbianism and cultural camp that is still to be explored, but I have at least brought myself closer to a realisation of how this might work: the overdramatic perspective and girlish outlook progressive cultural condescension has brought on us, the distant mockery of heterosexual femininity in lesbian culture and our notable preferences for older, antagonistic and androgynous women all strike chords with Sontag’s conception of camp.

Have a nice time through the looking-glass,

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