Over a decade before The L Word came out, Claire of The Moon, an independent film that not only had a lead lesbian character but centered entirely on lesbian love, was hitting theatres. Coming during a time where there were practically no movies speaking openly about what it means to be gay, Claire of the Moon is a historic part of the lesbian film canon.
A love story
The story takes place at a writers retreat, where Claire, a renowned writer ends up shacked up with Noel, a psychiatrist, and open lesbian. There is only one real storyline; Claire and Noel find each other, accept each other, and fall in love.
The story begins like many romances; they are complete polar opposites and they’re driving each other crazy. Claire is messy and impulsive, she stays up late and smokes constantly. Noel is organized, disciplined, focused on getting her writing done without having any fun in the process. Noel is a single lesbian and Claire is “straight” and finding men at a nearby bar every night to go home with. At first, they can’t seem to agree on anything, and everywhere seems to be a place for them to conflict. Claire even says it bluntly at one point, “look we’re just polar opposites, it’s no biggie”.
But of course, they aren’t. At a series of meetings with the writers’ group, the two begin to reconsider each other. The other women have more outdated views of femininity, and, pretty blatantly, they’re homophobic. Claire, on the other hand, tells Noel, “I don’t have any inner-homophobia”. The statement was maybe comforting then but now is somewhat outdated. Especially for the bisexual Claire turns out to be, she, like everyone else brought up in American society, can’t avoid internalized homophobia. But despite this, the two seem to connect over the empowerment they feel in their womanhood.
“Roll of the dice”
The two slowly build a friendship, toying relentlessly with the differences between straight people and gay people. Claire, who was struck with a sudden (and not coincidental) curiosity, asks Noel all of the typical questions. She wants to know when Noel knew she was gay and how lesbians have sex. She also asks, “what is it, that makes you what you are?” In this part, and in other conversations throughout the movie, I was struck by the avoidance of the word lesbian. Although Noel is open about her sexuality, the language itself seems slightly stepped around. In addition, Claire asking what “you are,” implies that Noel’s lesbianism is who she is, not just a part of her. Nonetheless, Noel responds in a way that still holds up today, “roll of the dice,” she says.
There are a number of places where the movie seems to be speaking timeless truths of queerness. It was surprising to hear some of my own personal beliefs being spoken by grown women in the early 90s. But while some moments feel like they are touching on a universal truth, others feel far from the modern queer narrative. In a very post-modern moment, while describing her sexual preferences Claire says, “I’m into whatever feels good at the moment”. This statement aligns in large part with the openness and rejection of labels central to modern queerness.
However, at other times, Noel, who plays the mouthpiece of lesbians, seems to deny and reject anyone who isn’t strictly lesbian. She says she doesn’t, “tinker with straight women,” and “never get[s] involved with women who straddle both sides of the fence.” A bluntly biphobic couple of utterances, that of course, she doesn’t follow through on.
A female divide
The movie draws strict lines between men and women. At one point Noel says “men and women will never speak the same language”. From there, Noel argues that lesbians are the only coupling able to achieve true romantic intimacy. Claire, who is sleeping with men throughout the movie, is upset by this comment and storms out. She offers some, but not completely equal pushback to Noel.
Although the movie offers two perspectives to that idea, it unapologetically displays a divide between straight and gay women. From start to finish, the queer women and straight women misunderstand and eventually reject one another. In fact, there is no actually sympathetic straight character. At one point, the leader of the writers’ retreat, another lesbian named Maggie, says straight women are more “uptight and rigid”. Then, speaking with finality, she draws out the divide, saying, “if you eat pussy, you eat pussy.”
This shows an interesting insight into where lesbians stood in the 90s. The movie reflects the built-up resentment of lesbians who at the time were rejected by most feminist spaces. Women are shown to be turned against women in an even less nuanced portrayal than that of women turned against men. Even Claire must learn to dislike all of the straight women and only join Noel and the other lesbians who hang out at the retreat. Somewhat self-aware, Noel at one point says, “even lesbians don’t allow for much diversity within our subculture.”
The movie ends exactly where it’s been heading from the first few minutes. Noel and Claire give in to their attraction for one another, and kiss on the beach, hidden against a big rock (almost identical to the first kiss in Portrait of a Lady on Fire).
A labor of love
Although practically plotless, and with a healthy dosage of pretentious and unnaturally spoken dialogue, it is difficult to criticize a movie that was created at a time when lesbian plotlines were almost unheard of. Or further, an entire movie that switches between a lesbian love story and, through Claire’s many inquiries, a gay education seminar.
Claire of the Moon is the first movie made by writer and director Nicole Conn. In an interview for the 10 year anniversary of the movie, Conn describes it as “a labor of love”. Conn put the film together on a “nonexistent budget,” almost entirely starring actresses with no other movie credits.
Even pitching the movie and getting (minimal) support, is a feat of both bravery and pioneering perseverance. Conn says she “thought the timing for a lesbian film was perfect”. Instead, Claire of the Moon had more difficulty being sold, and was used to “prove there was a lesbian market”. It then became the “catalyst for mainstream distributors picking up future lesbian-themed cinema”.
The reception of the film was largely mixed. Conn reports having received “rave reviews from straight papers,” and the movie received the critics’ pick from the L.A. Reader. She goes on to report that the film was “hugely successful throughout Middle America, in L.A., Seattle, Chicago, Portland, and the entire Bay Area”. However, perhaps surprisingly, the harshest criticism came from lesbians.
Queer movies being criticized most harshly by queer viewers is a pattern that is still noticeable today. The same thing can be seen in Happiest Season, a lesbian Christmas movie that came out this winter. Happiest Season got good reviews, and mostly positive feedback from the straight public, but was ripped apart by lesbians.
There is no direct reason for this pattern, but it seems that due to the lack of queer stories being told, each story that somehow does raise enough money, threatens to be the only representation. Since each story is existing without a million others to show its nuance, it becomes the representation of gay people. Then, when people don’t see themselves in the story being told, they feel misrepresented by the very oasis they were expecting. Even with the increased representation since 1992 potentially easing the threat of telling a single story, the pool of queer media has evidently still not been filled enough.
A triumph in its own right
Although the movie is not very well known outside of the gay community, it exists as an incredible time capsule of female queerness in the 90s. Despite backlash from queer people, there were likely many more people who benefitted from the representation and validation the movie offered. In addition, the story offers almost all of its attention to two queer women and the connection they form. This attention was rare and is still incredibly valuable.