FILM / She's the wet one with the fangs, who dies: In the movies, all that lesbians used to lack was the love of a good man. And being the movies, one was usually on hand to put them on the straight and narrow. Not any more. John Lyttle reports

The lesbians of Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner's Go Fish pursue careers, sleep around and put each other down: 'She's U-G-L-Y. Girl without an alibi. Ugly.' The older dykes occasionally despair of the younger, all lipstick and leather: 'She's got an ideal girlfriend in her head. I think it's hip-hop Barbie.' The dykes of Go Fish are so now they're hardly lesbian at all. At least not lesbian in the terms generally understood by cinema. No turning to other women because of an absent male (Richard's Things, 1980), no scheming bitches (Anne Baxter in All About Eve, 1950), no carrying on about coming out (Lianna, 1983). And when sex inevitably occurs, it doesn't pander to the heterosexual male voyeur, as most movies featuring lesbians do (as in The Killing of Sister George, 1969, or Personal Best, 1982).

This is to be expected. Most movies featuring lesbians are made by men and are either mainstream or arthouse fare. The mainstream mainly provides tits and titillation while the arthouse offers. . . tits and titillation. Both throw in some psychological exploration to legitimise the display. Go Fish exploits the freedom of being independently made; the narrative isn't built around the sex scene (the pivotal moment of most lesbian flicks, regardless of the director's gender). Bonking goes along with bad hair days. Go Fish is also exquisitely timed. Troche and Turner are riding the rise of lesbian chic. In a year when a Vanity Fair cover flaunts Cindy Crawford astride k d lang, Go Fish captures an evolutionary moment and sheds new light on old stereotypes.

Of course, you have to be able to spot them first. It can be easy. When off-screen swingers Dietrich and Garbo performed mouth-to-mouth on female co-players in Morocco (1930) and Queen Christina (1933) the meaning was fairly obvious. But the opposite usually applied. If a queer girl wasn't a beautiful, ironic, foreign goddess, she was at pains to appear 'normal'. Still, something always gave her away.

The rigid Mrs Danvers adores Rebecca (1940) a tad too much; even after death, her love for her late mistress is displaced to her belongings, there to be handled, stroked, caressed. Mrs Danvers is a classic repressed 'butch' and the dead Rebecca is a classic 'femme', passing for straight because that's where the power is: in the artificial arts of femininity. Mrs Danvers's plain, mannish garb gives her away, just as Grayson Hall's unadorned appearance tips the audience off in Night of the Iguana (1964). Rebecca was smarter. The gowns and furs Mrs Danvers fetishises are costumes: she-drag. Rebecca was alluring - ipso facto she couldn't possibly be a dyke. Dykes look like bordello madam Barbara Stanwyck in Walk on the Wild Side (1962) - blunt. Even the ones trying to pull themselves together are exposed by 'the real thing'. Contrast Shirley Maclaine's clothes with Audrey Hepburn's in The Children's Hour (1961). Both are teachers on the same salary, yet Maclaine is a mess while Hepburn is immaculate. Guess which one commits suicide: that's what you get for lusting after the star of The Nun's Story.

The school is a convenient setting as a microcosm for society: unjust, unthinking and unfeeling. Harsh punishment is de rigueur when rules are broken. Leontine Sagan's Madchen in Uniform (1931) stands alone in presenting those rules as wrong, stifling the true love between teacher Dorothea Wieck and pupil Hertha Thiele. Wieck's defence - 'What you call sins, Principal, I call the great spirit of love, which has thousands of forms' - defies oppression, something the similar Olivia (1950) and the soft-core Theresa and Isabel (1968) singularly fail to do. Here the pupils learn their lessons well and graduate from lesbianism (adolescent) to heterosexuality (maturity). It was only a phase they were going through.

Sometimes the phase must be forcibly terminated. Take Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) in Goldfinger (1964). She only picks up men so she can throw them down again. Until she meets Bond, James Bond. It takes a single roll in the hay to straighten her out. Smirks 007: 'I must have appealed to her maternal instincts.' Occasionally, corrupting influences must also be removed. In The Fox (1967), boot-wearing, boot-faced Anne Heywood, the genuine lesbian, must allow frilly Sandy Dennis to stand by her man. (Adding injury to insult, Heywood is killed by a falling tree.) All Honor and Sandy needed was the right man.

The comely lesbian vampire thrills straight men and lesbian women alike. The lesbian vampire expresses active sexual desire. She's strong and subversive (and often stark naked). Indeed, feminist bloodsuckers Delphine Seyrig in Daughters of Darkness (1970), Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger (1983) and Celeste Yarnell in Stephanie Rothman's The Velvet Vampire (1971) don't contaminate their 'victims' - they rescue them from male violence and suffocating convention.

A catch - the lesbian vampire dies in the final reel. The turn-on must be tamed for straight men and subversion negated. Seyrig survives Daughters and Susan Sarandon survives The Hunger (1983) but the usual fate is that of Dracula's Daughter (1936). Gloria Holden's active night life is terminated by an arrow. Phallic symbolism triumphs.

It's a short step from Countess Dracula to the Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) in Pandora's Box (1928). Both are noble, both are fashion plates, both are predatory. It's a multiple choice reading: lesbianism is the twisted practice of the rich but morally bankrupt and / or a fashion accessory. The latter can be over-stated. One suspects that The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) were an allergic reaction to that nasty blue eye- shadow.

The decadent dyke usually surfaces in European art movies, though Basic Instinct's Catherine Tremell (Sharon Stone) is a close American cousin. She too dances with a female partner as a male lover gazes on, just as Roberts dances with Louise Brooks and Dominique Sanda gets down with Stefania Sandrelli in The Conformist (1971). She also has a habit of slithering into rooms sideways, eager for prey, perhaps in tribute to Stephanie Audran in 1968's Les Biches.

In Stone, the European decadent dyke is updated and merged with an American tradition - the killer dyke. Movie lesbianism oft leads to madness, and madness to murder. Forensic evidence: in Windows (1980) Elizabeth Ashley wielded a knife, incestuous Carol Kane and Lee Grant escaped The Mafu Cage (1979) and used anything to hand. Stone has her willy-substitute, the ice-pick - her rage is driven by the world's worst case of penis envy.

The only lesbian stereotype that the urban Stone lets slip by is that of nature's child. Or, as one Go Fish character deadpans, 'a soft-focus, touchy-feely sister of the woodland'. Here all women are at one with Mother Nature and one thing leads to another. In The Rainbow (1988), Amanda Donohoe goes swimming and diving with Sammi Davis. In the forthcoming Sirens, Tara Fitzgerald travels to the Outback and dreams of artist's models Sheela, Prue and Giddy, a wet dream of ponds and possibilities.

Water is central to the conceit. Female sexuality is symbolised by this most abstract of liquids. It is what it is and it flows once women become denizens of the hill, dale and glade; the non-patriarchal world. It may be the cliche equally favoured by female directors as well as male. For men, it's an excuse for the girls to strip off: Bilitis (1977) finds naked bliss at a swimming hole. For lesbian women it can be both idyllic vision and coy propaganda. When a downpour triggers a fevered embrace in Desert Hearts (1985), Donna Deitch is saying lesbianism is elemental and thus not to be denied. Or perhaps not. Maybe she's saying that two broads so hot for one another should cool off. Go figure. Or better yet, Go Fish.

'Go Fish' opens this Friday, when it will be reviewed by Adam Mars-Jones on the Film page

(Photographs omitted)

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