Boasting the rare set-up of an all-women cast and production crew, as well as an intensely powerful, unashamedly queer narrative, Below Her Mouth (April Mullen, 2016) is a sincere and self-reflexive exploration into human love that deserves all critical recognition and festival hype. While at times the film seems to stumble slightly, into exhausted, melodramatic potholes - where uncontrollable lust, a fantastical affair, and preconceived character traits lead to a somewhat, ‘seen before’ storyline - the filmmakers’ honest commitment toward portraying the relationship between two women, demonstrates a queer production par excellence.
Below Her Mouth follows an exhilaratingly intense ‘affair’ between two women, amidst the backdrop of a flourishing (and implicitly allegorical) Canadian spring, exploring the painful, yet wonderful, repercussions of allowing oneself to fall completely and helplessly in love. Mullen focuses her woman-centric lens on the erotically-charged relationship between confidently androgynous, 90s-Leo DiCaprio - looking, Dallas (played by well-known, Swedish model/actor, Erika Linder) and wealthy, ultra-femme fashionista, Jasmine (Natalie Krill). Alluding to popculture, lesbian precedents, Dallas is the cocky, Shane-esque gay girl, who, before finally meeting her match, we see unapologetically breaking hearts all over town. Whether or not it is helpful to make The L Word (Ilene Chaiken, Michele Abbot and Kathy Greenberg, 2004-2009) comparisons here, when it comes to the film’s chosen cast, it is unmistakingly unavoidable (then again, what’s wrong with channeling The L Word? The show remains, after all, one of the longest running series with the most out-lesbian characters ever to grace our screens). It should be made clear, however, that not every queer-woman narrative needs to be measured against the saccharine, supermodel-populated landscape of that particular series. The film, however, demonstrates representations of female queerness that are perhaps inextricably tied to The L Word’s cult success, most explicitly in its portrayal of Dallas. Indeed, Erika Linder’s renowned androgyny (the actor started her career as a model for ‘men’s’ campaigns) offers up the potential for Dallas to challenge gender binaries through her captivatingly queer appearance. However, the stereotypical and predictable ‘butch’ performance afforded to this character at the beginning of the film, obfuscates the power of such a reading. As such, the gender politics of Below Her Mouth are often conflicting: Dallas is the ‘boyish’ gay woman, often adorned in jeans and rolled-sleeved t-shirts, and - successfully adhering to lesbian stereotypes - owns her own construction business, working alongside some wolf-whistling, alpha-male employees. Jasmine is the ‘feminine’ fashion editor who lives in an expensive house with her hyper-masculine, male fiancee. The binary foundations, it would seem, are inadvertently still at play, and Dallas is the one (frequently) wielding the dildo.
As the relationship between the two women intensifies, however, notions of ‘male’ and ‘female’ performance rapidly begin to blur, and the women’s respective, self-preservatory barriers start to break down. Overt references are made to troublesome, gender-separate language, as in one scene, the lovers take a day trip across Lake Ontario to the serene setting of the Toronto Islands, and Dallas slowly opens up to Jasmine. The two women lay next to each other on a quiet beach, and as they exchange stories and experiences of their own sexualities, the scene is intercut with images of them playing with one another on an empty, hibernating carousel. Dallas discusses her unease at being labelled as a “tomboy” by various people throughout her life - including her own mother - and when recalling her childhood, she says tiresomely, “I just wanted her to let me be”. Openly addressing the issues surrounding a perpetual discomfort of being boxed into categories by a heteronormative society, this particular scene rings true to so many of us. Likewise, Jasmine describes her heterosexual relationships with men (including her absent and ignorant fiance) as being coerced to do “what [is] prescribed” by society: at first identifying as heterosexual, because of the preconditioned assumption that that is all there is. After asking Dallas what it was like ‘coming out’ as a gay woman, the cool, blonde Swede explains succinctly that it “never ends,” and in a reversal of dominance, falls into Jasmine’s cradling arms.
The aforementioned scene is hugely significant in the way that it astutely calls into question the persistent and exhausting need for a broader, hetero-conditioned society to label what is ‘other’- according to that which is ‘lacking’ (consider how the term “tomboy” is latched onto women that ‘fail’ in their performance of femininity). Moreover, the scene brings to mind the overwhelming importance of the all too rare, women-centric set-up of the film’s production: it is highly unlikely that such a pertinent discussion between women, about women’s sexual experiences and identities, would have been afforded the same amount of dedicated screen-time (if any) had the production been lead by men. This is made clear as the director points out that, during production, “I was always stopping myself from thinking about images I had seen my whole life, because those sexual images and scenes from film, television, and campaigns are 95 percent directed by, written by, and made for men.”
Indeed, this is what makes any slippages within the film’s execution, excusable: the film is not perfect, but it is genuine; it is not revolutionary (apart from, of course, the vast number of women involved in its production), but it is needed. While at times the narrative may seem a little predictable, or the dialogue slightly (perhaps endearingly) gauche - “come here often?” “I don’t come at all” “can I help change that for you?” - the film’s socio-cultural awareness and uncompromisingly, queer engagement comprise a perpetually beating heart, which propels everything forward - regardless of the imperfections. While the film might portray all queer women as flawlessly beautiful, other-worldly beings (obviously, we are - but these women are like legitimate supermodels) the well-meaning intentions and creative talent of the filmmakers are nevertheless present.
For instance, when looking back at the aesthetics of the film, one of the most prominent elements is the iridescent glow of scenes shot against the backdrop of a city night. Esteemed cinematographer Maya Bankovic (also an associate member of the Canadian Society of Cinematographers), captures a spectrum of colours from one sequence to the next: a tangential web of hot, neon lighting, complementing the most erotically charged moments between Dallas and Jasmine. In one scene, the two women sit at the edge of a colourful, bustling bar, leaning into one another’s body. As Jasmine explains that she sacrificed moving to New York, in order to stay in Toronto with her fiance, there is a cut to an extreme close-up that captures Dallas stroking her inner thigh: “I would have let you go, and I would have gone with you.” The warmth of a gentle, turquoise glow floods across Jasmine’s legs, as Dallas moves her fingers further up between the crease of her inner thighs. The vibrant presence and self-reflexive symbolism (as we know, spectral colours continue to represent LGBT+ pride) of this specific use of lighting, pours into the following scene, which depicts the two women having sex with one another for the first time.
The directorial dedication towards teasing out every momentary glance, flirtatious gesture and collision between these women’s bodies speaks entirely to the collective composition of the film’s production team. The respectful ways in which intimate moments - both physical and allusory - are traced and translated through the measured focus of a woman’s lens, is something that is equally both thrilling and reassuring. Mullen remains committed to her queer subjects throughout, and is careful not to underestimate the artistic weight of filming highly stimulating sex scenes between women whose bodies are so often sexualised by a broader, patriarchal society. As aforementioned, the casting of these overtly, beautiful women puts some strain on the potential to normalise queer sex; edging into the murky territory of male, hetero-fantasy. However, the responsiveness and sensitivity of Bankovic’s camera serves to challenge any sensationalist objectification of the sexual intimacy between these two women: instead, the camera is an ally - moving with, and responding to, the intertwining bodies of Dallas and Jasmine.
Mullen explains that “the film reminds us all to be open to the world, to new experiences and people, to challenge our perceptions, and to bask in love if we find it or see it,” which certainly resonates within the text. Indeed, the unrelenting intensity and energy that circulates throughout each frame is testament to the groundbreaking efforts and radical aims of an all-women production team. Moreover, the underlying optimism of the film is something of a rarity when it comes to depictions of queer relationships on screen - suffice it is to say that this should be commended and celebrated. Below Her Mouth demonstrates a resounding strength in the willingness to love - however, and whenever, we can - as well as the necessity for women to be at the forefront of this unifying vision.
Words by Laura Nicholson