In her overview of lesbian-feminist criticism, Bonnie Zimmerman urged lesbian critics to look into “what has been unspoken and barely imagined” in order to envision what has never been. What makes establishing a lesbian historiography doubly difficult, however, is that the truth is not so much unspoken but hiding in plain sight. This double bind is most evident in Britain’s refusal to pass a 1921 legal amendment that would make lesbianism a criminal offence; while male homosexuality was illegal, the existence of the lesbian figure was culturally unthinkable. Criminalizing lesbianism meant admitting to lesbian existence, and that was a horror which would expose the nuclear family for the lie that it was and still is.
The historical failure to admit the lesbian into the scopic field undermines our efforts to construct a complete lesbian archive. Lesbian biographical dramas like Isabel Coixet’s Elisa y Marcela and Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack tackle this issue through fictionalizing the gaps in history: both texts courageously imagine what could have been. In Coixet’s film, Elisa and Marcela reunite with each other and live together till the end of time. In Wainwright’s televisual adaptation, Anne Lister and Ann Walker propose to each other on top of a lush hill — a sweeping romantic gesture befitting of grand Austenian romances. These two works are self-consciously aware that these events did not happen, but what ultimately matters is the daring violation of what has been constituted as real, because it is precisely the violation of norms which creates lesbian possibility.
Swedish director Magnus Gertten’s lesbian documentary Nelly & Nadine, however, suffers from a failure of imagination: lesbian existence is only ever hinted at and never actually presented, as the documentary is mostly focalized through the perspective of Nelly’s granddaughter, Sylvie, who is still coming to terms with Nelly’s relationship with Nadine. This is a shame since the documentary’s premise is an extraordinary testament to the bravery of lesbian love.
As we learn from narrated voiceovers of her diaries, Nelly Mousset-Vos was an opera singer and a spy for the French Resistance; the latter led to her capture by the Nazis in 1943. She was then sent to Ravensbrück, where she met and fell in love with Nadine Hwang. After being freed, Nelly and Nadine lived together in Venezuela until Nadine’s death in 1972. Nelly and Nadine’s relationship is a piece of lesbian history which blatantly defies what is possible, but the film is oddly restrained in presenting their love for each other. Contrary to its emphatic title, Nelly & Nadine chooses to skirt around the possibility of their romance for the first half of its runtime, even when the evidence is already there.
Nelly & Nadine opens with archival footage of Ravensbrück camp survivors arriving on a Red Cross boat in Sweden in April 1994. The camera zooms in and lingers on Nadine’s face — inscrutable and haunted. In a metafictional manner, Gertten poses a question that highlights the violent loss of queer history: “What is [Nadine] thinking at this very moment of liberation?” But as a documentative answer, Nelly & Nadine frames these women’s sexual relationship as a postponed mystery to be solved at a later date, a problem which undercuts Gertten’s desire to publicly archive their romance; it’s about midway through the documentary that we finally learn that Nadine was possibly thinking of Nelly, who was transferred from Ravensbrück to Mauthausen in 1944.
Nelly’s diaries were explicit in her proclamations of love for Nadine, but Gertten lends credence to Sylvie’s struggle to accept that her grandmother was indeed in love with Nadine. Halfway through the documentary, we are shown a home video of Nelly and Nadine hosting a party with their friends — Jack, Raymond, and José Lovera. These men are clearly physically affectionate with each other. To queer viewers, this party is unmistakably an intimate (and remarkably common) gathering between gay men and lesbians. Yet Sylvie holds back in clarifying what is going on. She states that her grandmother always had people around, but does not specify who these people were. She observes that Nadine was always dressed in masculine clothes with a tone of surprise. The truth is in plain sight but told slant, and the film lets her reticence be. This home video is played again later in the documentary, but with a new narration from Lovera’s daughter, Maria, who confirms that Jack, Raymond, and Lovera were all gay men. While the contrast between Maria and Sylvie illustrates the misinterpretation of lesbian history by people who cannot comprehend lesbian existence, it’s worth wondering if our fragmented history should be told in such a belated manner in this age.
After all, Sylvie has a wealth of evidence — a treasure trove of love letters, photos, footage and home videos — which paint a true portrait of who her grandmother and Nadine were to each other. Their relationship is no longer a mystery. While most lesbian historical documents have been lost to homophobic violence — like what happened to Elisa and Marcela — Nelly and Nadine were educated enough to write their experiences down. These women were even luckier that proof of their love has withstood a period of unimaginable horror, and it’s a disservice to portray their relationship through the lens of someone else’s doubt.
For people whose histories have been erased, public disclosure is often empowering despite being fraught with danger. But Nelly & Nadine keeps lesbian love imprisoned within a glass closet. What is most tragic about Gertten’s withholding direction is that we rarely receive a glimpse of who Nadine was. In an interview with Joan Schenkar, a biographer of lesbian modernist writer Nathalie Clifford Barney, Sylvie finds out that Barney and Nadine were lovers. The photographic evidence of Nadine’s affair with Barney is explicit, but nevertheless questioned by Sylvie, who is unable to read what is expressed. Schenkar asks Sylvie: “It never occurred to you that these two ladies might be in love?”
Instead of answering this question, Nelly & Nadine subscribes to this failure of imagination. By structuring the film as a narrative that slowly leads up to Sylvie’s climatic acceptance, it implies that Nelly and Nadine’s love for each other is an inexplicable event that requires rigorous decipherment. As a retrospective biography armed with an abundance of evidence, Nelly & Nadine didn’t need to foster an air of mystery around the possibility of lesbian existence. We also learn far too late into the documentary that not only did Nelly and Nadine write a memoir together, Sylvie also has the original pages that Nadine wrote by hand. We are not permitted to see it, and the deliberate omission reads as an oversight in bringing Nelly and Nadine’s history to life.
The most emotionally affecting scenes in Nelly & Nadine are the consistent interludes of home videos that Nadine films of Nelly. In one of these videos, Nelly is standing over a balcony with a smile on her face. These videos are radical in their mundane ordinariness; lesbians are too rarely afforded the luxury of normality. And so, despite its considerable structural flaws and misguided narrative gambits, Nelly & Nadine is still a powerful telling of a lesbian romance that thrived when it shouldn’t have, and this disclosure on its own is significant to our efforts to complete the lesbian archive.