Jenée LaMarque, director of the comedy about the lesbian orgasm, told Broadly she wanted to write about female sexuality "without a man being part of that narrative."
Photos courtesy of Jenée LaMarque
A recent study published in the Archive of Sexual Behavior echoed previous research that provided perhaps unsurprising statistics about the female orgasm. The most recent findings detail that only 65% of straight women say they achieve orgasm during sexual intimacy, while 86% of lesbian women say they reach climax. Researchers find that bisexual women only fare one percent better than straight women, due to the fact that women in same-sex relationships are more likely to, among other things "receive more oral sex, have longer duration of last sex, be more satisfied with their relationship, ask for what they want in bed, praise their partner for something they did in bed, call/email to tease about doing something sexual, wear sexy lingerie, try new sexual positions, anal stimulation, act out fantasies, incorporate sexy talk, and express love during sex."
But in the new improvised comedy The Feels, Lu (Angela Trimbur) is one of those bisexual women in a same-sex relationship who just can't come. And she doesn't tell her fiancee this, of course—nor does she tell any of her friends. It's only revealed during a pre-wedding bridal weekend with her nearest and dearest chosen family, when Lu questions if her MDMA trip is making her feel like an orgasm might. This, of course, leads to mass confusion, namely with her wife-to-be, Andi (played by Constance Wu).
Written and directed by Jenée LaMarque (The Pretty One), The Feels is marketed as "a comedy about the female orgasm," but is not solely focused on Lu's inability to achieve one herself. Inspired in part by LaMarque's research into sexual surrogacy for a television pitch and the want to create a project with a "primarily female ensemble cast," the film is a mumblecore-esque version of The Big Chill, or perhaps, Clea DuVall's The Intervention, to use a more modern on-screen gathering that is also queer-inclusive.
"I wanted to write about female sexuality, and I wanted it to be without a man being part of that narrative," LaMarque told Broadly. "I didn't want it to be in consideration of a man—I wanted it to be all about women and their bodies and what they had to say about their sexuality."
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Throughout the film, there are vignettes of each of the female characters—Lu, Andi, Regular Helen (played by out comic Ever Mainard), Kárin (musician Kárin Tatoyan playing a version of herself), Vivien (The Feels co-writer Lauren Parks) and LaMarque herself as Lu's sister, Nikki—sharing their experiences with orgasms (or, in Lu's case, lack thereof). Working from a 20-page outline by LaMarque and Parks, the actors then created their own backstories and dialogue—which was mostly important for Trimbur and Wu, as their chemistry had to be believable enough that they would not only be seen as in a loving relationship, but still flawed enough for Trimbur's character to be committed despite not being open with the woman she's about to marry.
"I personally identify as a bisexual and I pretty much always have," Trimbur told Broadly, noting that she grew up in "a really restricted, religious background."
"After talking to some of my gay friends, I've heard their stories of being closeted and the confusion in the wake of having to deal with the micro aggressions of that fear of being free to be yourself," she continued. "I definitely worked on implementing some of that into of Lu's history and discovering her identity, and that relates into why she hasn't achieved an orgasm yet." Trimbur said LaMarque largely left it up to her to create that kind of story for Lu, who seems to be unable to make herself orgasm through masturbation as well as through intercourse. And it's not for the typical reasons most women who can't achieve orgasm cite, such as certain medications, hormonal deficiencies, illnesses or other kinds of physical disorders that can cause orgasmic dysfunction—plus, she seems to be genuinely in love with her partner, so what gives?
"Shame and anxiety pop up for a lot of people that haven't orgasmed yet," Trimbur explained, discussing her personal research. "It's kind of a strange, because I've never really faked an orgasm, so playing a character that fakes them so well that none of her lovers have ever been able to call her out on that was something that was interesting, because you're performing. So there's definitely some sort of lack of freedom and a numbness that almost comes with being someone that does perform so well sexually, but can't tell the truth."
That kind of dishonesty, especially considering Lu had clearly been hiding this from Andi for several years, made the actual sex scenes in the film a little harder to play—but they were made somewhat easier by the fact that it was Trimbur's first time being intimate on camera.
"There was a lot of awkward energy being played around," she said, "which kind of worked nicely for my first experience with it." She credits LaMarque with making her feel comfortable, but mostly her scene partner, who she calls "a pro." "It was easy to feel attracted to her physically," Trimbur says, "so that was already there."
LaMarque, who identifies as straight but says she's "open bout her experiences with women," found that the sex scenes (one in which Lu is faking an orgasm; the other in which Andi is attempting to make it happen for her partner after the revelation) says she approached the scenes with "an element of humor."
"I'm not really quite sure what is exactly the female gaze about those scenes other than being from my point of view and I'm a woman. I'm not really sure," LaMarque says. "I know that they as actors didn't feel objectified in any way when we were shooting the scenes, which I know sometimes from what I've heard from my friends who are actresses, those scenes can be really, really uncomfortable and they can end up feeling pretty bad afterward."
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Wu and Trimbur's believability and playfulness with one another, as well as their shared frustrations, are what make these scenes successful, but invariably more comical than sexy. It's an interesting juxtaposition with the other major storyline of the film in which LaMarque's character sleeping with the sole man in the house (played by comic Josh Fadem) becomes the focus of house-wide drama. (Interestingly, whether or not Vivien orgasmed from her sexual interaction never comes up. Perhaps viewers are to assume it's a given.)
Lesbian sex scenes tend to be over-the-top, lengthy masturbatory fodder from and for straight men (whom they are often directed by). Most well-known films with same-sex sex scenes are directed by guys—The Handmaiden, Blue is the Warmest Color, The Hunger, Mulholland Drive, and even Carol, albeit that had a script written by a lesbian woman and was directed by a gay man. Fewer of these films are directed by straight women—the most successful to date being Patty Jenkins' Monster, which was not exactly a beautiful portrait of lesbian love.
Among actual queer women, favorites tend to be those that appear more authentic, even if censored, like Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader, which famously went up against the MPAA to receive a less-than-NC-17 rating. The result is a "sex scene" more hinted at than skillfully shot with quick cuts and brief caresses set to a romantic cello-heavy track. The most successful ones to date include Bound's lusty offerings that were not only directed by trans sisters Lily and Lana Wachowki, but aided by sexpert Susie Bright in their choreography; High Art from Lisa Cholodenko, and Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts, all successful in their sensuality and characters' connections to themselves and the camera (or, more specifically, the women behind it).
Perhaps it's not the sex scenes themselves that some viewers of The Feels might take issue with but, instead, the underdetermined premise of why Lu cannot climax. It seems inconclusive, but not as the point. Lu's inability is almost used as a conversation topic and not the focus of an entire film, and perhaps it should have been more of a consideration. The Feels doesn't offer anything specific to the discussion on the female orgasm, other than the fact that it exists—or doesn't, for Lu. An underdeveloped narrative about something that deserves more airtime will serve as a jumping off point of sorts, but ultimately, leave viewers with the same kind of un-fulfillment their protagonist seems to be stuck with.
It's not entirely worth forfeiting, though—especially because it is still too rare that there are comedies centering around queer women, and even rarer there is a queer Asian woman protagonist. (Luckily, Wu will also be playing a gay role in Hulu's upcoming series Dimension 404.) And Mainard is particularly hilarious as an affable friend of Lu's from culinary school (think a slightly less crass Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids.) It's also enjoyable that, like the recent Lucia Aniello film Rough Night, a group of friends can be mixed with not just one sole lesbian character among a primarily straight crew in a comedic film.
"I liked that the whole time this film wasn't announcing 'Look! It's two women getting married! Excuse me everyone—look at what a huge deal this is! Two women, can you believe it?'" Mainard tells Broadly. "But rather about a couple experiencing a huge intimacy issue and they just happened to be women."
She also notes that she was happy the film didn't fall into frequent tropes, and that Lu's bisexuality isn't treated with disdain, or even brought up in any kind of pointed fashion. In fact, it might even add some credibility to the character that Lu has also not been able to orgasm with male partners, either—making her part of the 66% of bisexual women who struggle with reaching climax.
"The fact that one of the characters had never experienced an orgasm wasn't because she was sleeping with a woman," Mainard says, "but because she had her own shit around sex and hadn't dealt with it."
LaMarque says the hook of the film is a jumping off point, "more a vehicle to sort of explore other relationship and intimacy issues, and that it's more about that they've now created this open channel of communication then it is about whether or not she has an orgasm or not." She adds, "It's more about the first thing they need to fix is whatever is preventing for her from having a deeper intimacy with her partner, and not the fact that she's—it's more of a symptom of a relationship problem I think with them—or not. Maybe it's not that it is important that she have an orgasm."
And spoiler! She doesn't, which was a deliberate choice LaMarque made.
"When I think about that concept and I think about it being a straight couple, I just see scenes with a bunch of dudes talking about how to get their girl off," she says. "That's all I can see in my head. And obviously it could have been done with much more delicacy than that—I'm being reductive, but I really wanted this concept in this movie to be more about 'What kind of conversations would this inspire among girlfriends and among friends and how would they sort of talk about their own experiences and their own sexual awakenings.' I was more interested in that than it being a movie about continually seeking that orgasm."
Were the film to truly delve into more of those discussions (and buy some time by leaving out the unnecessary heterosexual storyline), The Feels might be more successful at creating those necessary conversations on and off screen.
The Feels will screen as part of Outfest in Los Angeles on Thursday night at 7pm at the Directors Guild of America.