It’s become something of a meme complaint over the past couple years that too much Queer Cinema is pervasively about white women longing for each other in period costumes. Sometime between the ecstatic praise for Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the collective yawn over Ammonite, pro critics & hobbyist bloggers decided that the biggest threat to the artform of cinema wasn’t Disney’s IP-hoarding or Netflix’s refusal to license its films to libraries & universities; it was white women sharing intense eye contact in a historical setting. Google “lesbian period drama” and you’ll find infinite hit-piece articles with titles like “Why Are All Lesbian Films Set in the Past?”, “Shoehorning Lesbian Scenes into Historical Dramas is Anything but Progressive”, “Lesbian Period Dramas: Have We Seen Enough?”, and “Enough With The Lesbian Period Dramas” from publications high and low. Personally, I understand this subgenre fatigue when it’s applied in broad strokes to a wide range of films, but not so much when it’s aimed at individual titles as if they were a cultural scourge. The problem isn’t that mediocre WLW romance dramas like Ammonite exist; it just sucks that other kinds of queer stories aren’t getting greenlit in bulk beside them.
I assume the relatively tepid response to The World to Come is a result of its arrival after this particular strand of Online Film Discourse had already run its course. It’s a great film, presuming you aren’t burnt out on the prospect of another lesbian period drama (or its pre-loaded critical baggage) at first sight. A delicately sweet romance contrasted against a brutal, unforgiving backdrop, The World to Come is splendid & bleak in equal measure. Its tale of secretive queer romance in a time of intense scrutiny & oppression is so familiar it’s almost regressive. Still, its historical environment at least rings true. It reminded me a lot of a college course I took on the literature of women’s travel writing in 19th Century America. The women in those real-life journals and this fictional novel adaptation share the same two threats to their freedom, happiness, and well-being: the cruelty of Nature and the cruelty of their husbands. It’s a shame how rare it is to see queer people flourishing in friendlier environments on the page & screen, but the romance & misery portrayed here still feels true to life on the American “frontier.”
Katherine Waterston stars as a hopelessly lonely housewife on an isolated, flailing New England farm. She has a rich internal life, furiously reading & journaling in her idle hours but unable to express herself aloud when the center of attention. While nursing her own grief over the loss of a child, she meets her exact opposite: Vanessa Kirby as a bold, brassy lush with no discernible talent for the intellectual arts. They hit it off in ways that Waterston’s journals struggle to describe. She confesses “There is something going on between us that I cannot unravel,” as if the concept of genuine sexual attraction is so foreign to her life that she doesn’t have the language to express it. Eventually, the two women do find the physical language to express their attraction to each other, even if it takes longer for the words to arrive. Unfortunately, the respective prisons of their marriages to cruel, repressed nerds and their shared prison of harsh, American wilderness prevent that romantic spark from reaching its full flame. Waterston’s careful, whispered language & passion is in direct opposition to the cold, uncaring environment she occupies. She finds her perfect fit in Kirby. It does not go well.
While the broader details of The World to Come may sound blandly generic in a post-Portrait of a Lady on Fire world, I found its in-the-moment effect to be impressively distinct & chilling. Its frontier setting might as well have been repurposed for a woodland A24 horror film, given its harsh digi cinematography and its frightfully unnerving score (which during one especially horrendous storm sounds like seagulls imitating jazz). It’s a highly subjective film that follows the tones & moods of Waterston’s journals as she flips through the pages of her life. There are great jumps in time when she has nothing exciting to write about, as well as loopy, unfocused entries when she self-medicates herself through depression with laudanum. Her voiceover narration is wonderfully overwritten, with Waterston delivering pained line-readings of confessions like “We were the very picture of anguish” and “I have become my grief.” Even when it releases the delayed flood of romantic & sexual bliss that always accompanies these films’ early stretches of pent-up longing, it’s in the most devastating possible context, undercutting the two women’s passion with a deeply felt loss & despair. This is an unrelentingly cold, somber film, and I respect that truthful brutality even if I agree that it’s not the only kind of queer story that deserves to be told.