I've been sitting on a review of And Then Came Lola (2010), described in press materials as a "time-bending, comedic and sexy lesbian romp-loosely inspired by the art house classic Run Lola Run," since it showed at Bloomington's Pride Film Festival last weekend. On the one hand, yay! This film presents a welcome antivenin to the cultural poison of heterosexual action-romances, romantic comedies, action-comedic romances, thriller-romances, romantic melodramas...you get the idea. On the other hand...well, I'll get to that in a minute.
The story is much more than loosely inspired by Run Lola Run, the 1998 German film that has a fire-haired Lola desperate to get 10,000 Deutsche Mark in 20 minutes in order to save her boyfriend's life. The conceit of this film is that when Lola fails, she gets to try again: shot by a police officer and dying on the sidewalk, she yells "stop" and starts over, armed with an awareness of what went wrong the first time. As the story resets itself again and again, the audience is offered backstory: Lola's relationship with Manni, her boyfriend, is not fully secure; there are doubts about whether each feels a genuine love for the other. There is a question, then, over why Lola would risk her life, again and again.
And Then Came Lola works with several of the plot points of its inspiration, not least of which is the main character's ability to go back in time and try again. As in Run Lola Run, there is a punk with a dog; there is a homeless man; there is a beautiful woman named Lola and a camera that cannot look away from her as she runs through the streets of her city. This time, though, Lola is a photographer running through the streets of San Francisco to deliver prints to her girlfriend, Casey, who needs them right away in order to secure a Big Client. Beneath this is a backstory: Lola has issues with commitment, has issues with being dependable and on time, but thinks that Casey might be The One and wants to prove that she can change. As in Run Lola Run, this Lola needs multiple tries to secure the happy ending.
And Then Came Lola is basically a lesbian retelling of Run Lola Run, which isn't in itself a bad thing. In this version, every character is gay (or gay-curious, as in the mixed-sex tourist couple who invite Lola to share their taxi and then put the moves on her), and the film starts from an assumption that same-sex romances are neither perfect nor fundamentally much different from heterosexual romances. And thank god for that--it's about time we started moving beyond the startpoint of needing to justify same-sex attraction and romance.
On the other hand, for a lesbian action-romance, And Then Came Lola feels pretty heteronormative. First of all, the main characters are beautiful in a way that most straight men could probably get behind. Here are Lola and Casey, played by Ashleigh Sumner and Jill Bennett:
I don't challenge the notion that some lesbians look like Lola and Casey (and, in fact, the actors made an appearance at the showing I attended, and they look about the same in real life as they do in the film*). But I do have a problem with a film that aligns femininity with heroism and turns anything else into comedy. In this relationship, it's Lola who's the problem--she's emotionally distant and because of this, as one character explains, sex with her is "like sex with a man." In order to get the girl, Lola has to learn to access her feelings; her big breakthrough comes when she can no longer have sex with Casey without knowing if Casey loves her.
This film is pretty overtly about sex, and its plot is pushed forward through presentation of sexual fantasy. In their fantasy, Lola and Casey get romance, with candles, caresses, and glasses of wine. They are therefore the heroes of the story.
Here are the villains: The punk with a dog is a little butch lesbian who trips Lola up again and again and, it's revealed, has a disturbingly close relationship with her dog. The most evil villain of the movie is a lesbian parking officer, who's presented as a fat, disheveled Latina. She's ugly, we're told, and also mouthy; and her fantasies are therefore presented as hilarious. They're offered up as a joke, as comic relief.
It's not enough, not anymore, to make films with tons of gay characters. What we need is films with tons of gay characters that also strive to complicate our understanding of sexuality, attraction, romance, and what it means to be human. And Then Came Lola would have us believe that the stereotypes are correct, that the more traditionally beautiful you are, the more right you have to your sexuality. That's not only blatantly wrong, it's deeply problematic, especially for a film making the rounds at LGBTQ film festivals.
*Note: I'm making a fairly big leap in assuming that Sumner and / or Bennett are gay, when it's entirely possible that both are straight. If they are, that doesn't negate the fact that there are plenty of lesbians who are approximately as heteronormatively beautiful as Sumner and Bennett are.