top of page

'Ammonite': An R-rated Ode to the Feminine

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

Rhoyce Nova digs deep to discover the hidden meaning in the palimpsest of lesbian eroticism that is Francis Lee's Ammonite.


Ammonite film (2020)
Ammonite (2020)

1840s England, acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter, Mary Anning, and a young woman sent to convalesce by the sea develop an intense relationship, altering both of their lives forever.


In archaeology, a palimpsest denotes a dense, and seemingly random, accumulation of life debris buried within a mound over time. Archaeologists probe them to uncover what they may of former inhabitants who left only detritus behind. Similarly, shell-shaped ammonites carry the scars of eons in the etchings on their petrified forms. Thought to hold healing powers by some, palaeontologists use ammonite fossils as a type of portable palimpsest which they quarry to unearth the layers of life engraved in their casings. The task requires much digging and decoding. Likewise, to appreciate writer-director Francis Lee's melancholic lesbian period drama, we must excavate its allegories and decipher its symbolism.


Saoirce Ronan and Kate Winslet in Ammonite (2020)
Saoirce Ronan and Kate Winslet in Ammonite (2020)

Sequestered in her rocky coastal eyrie, sturdy and mostly mute palaeontologist, Mary Anning, played by Kate Winslet, is stifled and closed-off. Although a scientist of some renown, forty-something, working-class Mary has been overlooked by the establishment and is forced to sell fossilised curios to support herself and her elderly mother in the isolated village of Lyme Regis in England's south-west. By day she mines jagged cliffs and dredges stony sands. By night she helps her ailing mother polish "the babies", a collection of eight porcelain animal figurines that we later learn represent her deceased children. When upper-class wife, Charlotte Murchison, Saoirce Ronan, comes calling with her palaeontologist husband, Roderick, she too is in mourning, having just lost a baby of her own. Bereaved and despondent, Charlotte is abandoned by her cavalier husband who pays Mary to watch over her as she "takes the waters", while he decamps to Europe.


Kate Winslet as renowned but overlooked palaeolontologist, Mary Anning
Kate Winslet as renowned but overlooked palaeolontologist, Mary Anning

Like an archaeological mound, life has piled layers of loss and loneliness on the three women. Each of them, in their own way, is in need of healing. Initially distant and somewhat cold, the relationship between the two women thaws when Charlotte takes a dip in the frigid ocean and becomes seriously ill with a fever. Inveigled into nursing her, the emotionally walled-up, butch lesbian, Mary, begins to let down her barricades and a love affair slowly unfurls. As the narrative of the healing power of love unfolds, writer-director, Francis Lee, creates a woman-only world replete with allegory. Like the ammonite fossil, Mary has a hard casing, but when the newly healed Charlotte joins her to hunt for fossils, the mysterious healing powers of the ammonite appear to take hold and the two women come out of their shells.


Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison examine an ammonite, said to have healing powers
Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison examine an ammonite, said to have healing powers

Ammonite is an ode to female eroticism. In this childless world, the reproductive imperative is ripped from the womb, literally, to leave feminine sexuality solely in the realm of the sensual. Every element of Ammonite bows down to the feminine. The scrolls of the ammonite itself are flagrantly vulvic. Like female sensuality itself, its mysteries must be mined with gentle and persistent strokes. In a world that worships the phallic, from futuristic skyscrapers to sausages and baguettes, Ammonite gives us the yonic form of the ancient, shell-shaped fossil, and the egg, the primordial symbol of life and rebirth itself. In the scene where Mary coaxes the younger Charlotte to take the plunge into the water, she unabashedly bites into a boiled egg with her dirty, work-hewn hands, suggesting the masculine principle taking of the feminine. Rather than priapic and forward-thrusting, everything in Ammonite’s world, from the food to the fossils, is curved and hidden, like the female form itself.


Water is an enduring allegory for female sexuality in Ammonite (2020)
Water is an enduring allegory for female sexuality in Ammonite (2020)

Water, too, is an ever-present allegory for female sexuality in the film. An age-old symbol of feminine eroticism, the sea segues from turgid to placid as the women come together and their emotions transform from tumescent to tranquil. So too do symbols of transformation and rebirth emerge as the hard-bitten Mary slowly comes to life under the tender ministrations of Charlotte. Images of moths trapped under bell jars are replaced with pictures of Charlotte playing with pretty little posies, signifying hope. Later, upon discovering she must return to her husband, Charlotte thrusts her handkerchief embroidered with forget-me-nots into Mary’s hand. The handkerchief, which for the opening parts of the film had represented Charlotte’s love for her lost child, now becomes a symbol of her burgeoning love and devotion. The message is crystalline. In each other, they find life.


The changes in colour symbolism mark the stages of the affair between Mary and Charlotte in Ammonite (2020)
The changes in colour symbolism mark the stages of the affair between Mary and Charlotte in Ammonite (2020)

The faultless production design and colour-grading of the film hammer home the emotional impact of the symbolism in Ammonite. Masculine-leaning Mary inhabits a stolid navy and stony-slate colour palette for most of the narrative to signal her cold, closed-off interiority. Charlotte, too, initially presents as sombre in black mourning attire. Yet as her intimacy with Mary grows, her palette transitions into greens and ambers, suggesting she is finding fresh fecundity. Passion is indicated with flashes of burgundy. In the closing stages of the film, when Mary comes to Charlotte’s house in London to reunite, the door is dressed in implacable indigo and impassioned scarlet. The colour symbolism of ardour is written most starkly when, under her Prussian blue coat, Mary reveals a claret-coloured dress, and Charlotte greets her wearing a matching bow. In the pièce de resistance, as Charlotte unveils the room she has made for Mary in her home, she presents her with a welcoming ruby dress. In the final scene, after Mary refuses Charlotte’s offer to stay, the younger woman comes to meet Mary on her turf, the British Museum, where her ammonite fossil is on display. Charlotte still has on her burgundy bow, but over the top is a stolid, sturdy, navy coat. Though some would say it is an ambiguous ending, the symbology speaks volumes. Charlotte is surrendering to Mary's world.


The oral sex scene between Mary and Charlotte is one of the reasons for the film's R-rating
The oral sex scene between Mary and Charlotte is one of the reasons for the film's R-rating

The emotional impact of the erotic symbology in Ammonite is so utterly immersive that the sex scene, when it comes, seems almost superfluous. Yet it is utterly necessary, and not just as the payoff for the preceding hour or so of sensual slow-burn. Along with the earlier oral sex session, the love-making scene, which is the reason why the film is rated ‘R’, is perhaps one of the best lesbian sex scenes in cinema. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Winslet said,

“Saoirse and I choreographed the scene ourselves. Francis [Lee] was naturally very nervous. And I just said to him, ‘Listen, let us work it out.’ And we did. ‘We’ll start here. We’ll do this with the kissing, boobs, you go down there, then you do this, then you climb up here’... I felt the proudest I’ve ever felt doing a love scene on Ammonite. And I felt by far the least self-conscious.”

Authentic, passionate, and bordering on graphic, the intimacy scene in Ammonite actually “goes there”, which is crucial for female-identifying queer audiences. In a cinematic history that has straight-washed lesbian sexuality since time primordial, sexually explicit scenes such as this are pivotal. Lesbian sex has been perverted, downplayed, and obscured for centuries in film, contributing to the notion that lesbians don’t have “real sex”, and leading to the proverbial awkward question every lesbian has endured, being, “But what do you actually do?” Well, now you know, the basics at least. Yet scenes such as these only scratch the surface of representations of lesbian sex. In the annals of lesbian cinema, there comes a time when all the symbolism in the world cannot make up for the real thing. We need many, many more depictions of women in the bedroom.


Like the ammonite fossil, the love affair between Mary and Charlotte brought them out of their shells
Like the ammonite fossil, the love affair between Mary and Charlotte brought them out of their shells

By revealing the realities of lesbian sex, Ammonite resists the temptation to be just another lesbian "bodice-ripper" period drama. Rather, it infuses its depiction of a woman-on-woman romance with a phalanx of narrative and visual devices to create a world dictated by the feminine. Visionary in its symbology and authentic in its representation, Ammonite has tipped the trowel on the palimpsest of cinematic lesbian sexuality, unearthing hidden depths of ardour, a milestone more than worth the R-rating.

 

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


site navigation button
bottom of page