Opinion | ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ Understands Queer Desire


The film has some elements of farce, but never makes the sexual desires of the 50-something women the punch line. The light in their eyes during stolen moments alone together, the ease with which they express joy and tenderness while touching — these elements make love between women who are long past their 20s seem not just possible, but also deeper and better than love at a younger age.

And the Kenyan film “Rafiki” captures the electric stares and ensuing relationship between a young couple, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). Kena, a butch, short-haired woman, is transfixed by the playful, regal Ziki and her long, bright pink yarn locs, blue and pink manicure and the inviting roll of her shoulder as she practices dance moves with her friends. Ziki notices Kena’s stare and, as many femmes might do, makes the first move.

In one of their early conversations, Ziki suggests they break with their homophobic neighborhood’s norms: “Let’s make a pact that we’ll never be like any of them down there.” The romance is a secret from their close-knit community where both their fathers are running for the same political seat. When Ziki and Kena are together, time seems to slow down, the colors around them seem to get softer as the two characters are saturated in the pleasure — and the relief — that many queer people will remember from their own first loves.

Ziki is stunning, but the camera doesn’t gawk. In the intimate scenes, we see an impressionistic mix of the two characters’ intertwined hands — a knee, a face, a kiss, with slightly out-of-sync audio recreating the disorienting but glorious feeling of first having sex with someone you really want, and who really wants you. We see the sex as the two partners — not an outside voyeur — might.

The couples in each of these films are forced by circumstance to engage in romance covertly, yet what comes through in the performances is the pleasure of being — truly — seen. This goes beyond the bedroom: In “Wild Nights With Emily,” Emily refers to Susan as her muse — but Susan is the muse who talks back, lending her sharp, discerning eye to Emily’s poems, offering suggestions and reassurance that they should be published.

Héloïse in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” talks back, too. When Marianne remarks that Héloïse never smiled during their initial encounters, Héloïse flirtatiously pushes back: She had not smiled because Marianne had yet to say anything funny.

“Rafiki” concludes on an optimistic note, and the Kenya Film Classification Board banned the film because of its “clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law” — in May, the nation’s high court upheld laws criminalizing gay sex — though the ban was temporarily lifted last year so that it would be eligible for an Academy Award. Ms. Kahiu, the director, refused to put a damper on the film’s ending. There’s “such joy, kindness and softness in the relationship with the girls,” she said in an interview. “It was important to show that.”


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