Road to Nowhere: Daughters of the Fire and the Subversive Queer Legacy of Road Movies

Road to Nowhere: Daughters of the Fire and the Subversive Queer Legacy of Road Movies

At least for now, film is one of the few ways in which people are permitted to experience the vastness of the world’s landscapes. Therefore, the experiences represented ought to be broad. Through Daughters of the Fire and a wider history of queer characters embarking on life-changing journeys, C.F. Prior explores the subversive legacy of the road trip. 

From chase scenes to sex scenes, car crashes to carpools, gridlock to the open road, the car looms large in the history of cinema. Variously associated with independence, escape, and rebellion, the automobile was quickly adopted into the cinematic lexicon as a symbol of and means to achieve freedom. When they first ossified into a genre in the 1950s, road movies inherited the lawless, aimless, and nomadic elements from 1930s gangster films like Wild Boys of the Road, and borrowed from Westerns the vast, unspooling landscapes that characterised films like The Searchers. What consolidated road movies into a distinct genre was the articulation of a restless, rebellious, post-war masculinity epitomised by the figure of Clyde in Bonnie and Clyde. In the era of second-wave feminism, gay liberation and the Black Power movement, cars and the figures that populated them, became proxies for the audience’s own quests for abstractions, like freedom or a sense of identity. 

What changes, then, when the road movie foregrounds women? When they move from the passenger’s to the driver’s seat? When those fleeing monotonous jobs or dull families are queer folk? When the drifters seeking self-discovery are not young men, but women?

Films as wide ranging as Carol, Thelma & Louise, Boys on the Side, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Vagabond have inserted women, gay and straight, into notionally masculine spaces and positions—drifting through sprawling, biblical landscapes in cars, eating in roadside diners, sleeping in motels. But even in these films, private experiences of exile, agitation, and escape persist. Throughout Agnes Varda’s Vagabond, the grape pickers, farmers, scientists and academics with whom Mona comes into contact offer her help and companionship that she always refuses. “Being alone is good,” she insists, as she walks towards her foretold and frosty death. And, in Carol, when the eponymous protagonist’s husband Harge cruelly attempts to gain custody of their child as a punishment for her sexuality, she and her new love interest, Therese, escape the affray by car. But just like in Bonnie and Clyde—where motels, rented houses, and rest stops leave the gang vulnerable to neighbourly suspicion, attack, or arrest—stasis in Carol puts the travelling couple in jeopardy. Even as they exchange gifts or share food, the stakes of their exposure as a couple (ostracism and humiliation to name a few) hum in the air, like a circling wasp threatening to sting. When an overenthusiastic magazine salesman Therese and Carol meet at breakfast is revealed to be a private investigator hired by Harge to gather evidence for his claim, the couple’s journey comes to an abrupt halt. Pleasure is rarely a subject around which the road movie wends for long.

With her new film Daughters of Fire, Albertina Carri intends to turn that formulation on its head. Her two-hour erotic, queer road movie puts forward a radical understanding of time on the road that embraces pleasure, desire, and abundance. The film purloins elements of chance and lawlessness, as well as boundless terrain, from the road movie genre in which it’s broadly but critically situated. But unlike many road movies characters, the daughters—so named, we learn from the narrator Violeta, after the revolutionary women of the protests of 1968 who held “their art and body, their territory and their landscape, as heretic torches up to a new sky”—aren’t driven by anything less than a desire to lead a promiscuous and profligate erotic life.

The film starts as it means to go on: with women embedded in the landscape. A woman repairs her last hard-drive of the day, leaves work, and makes her way home out of the cacophonous city along the hairpin bend of road flanked on either side by a dense thicket of beech trees and shrubs. In the cramped backseat of her car, Augustina prepares to swim in the ocean by wriggling into her squeaky, neoprene wetsuit. Elsewhere, in a craterous, ice smothered place, her partner Violeta masturbates in a cave slick with meltwater. The film follows the trio whose lives are thrust together during a bar-fight against homophobes, and who, after the initial thrill of victory, sleep together, steal a station wagon, and embark on a road trip through Patagonia with vague plans to make a porn film. 


The drifters are relaxed, unhurried. Together they travel through the small, hilly cities of Tierra del Fuego, past unfurling, terracotta-coloured fields, and along roads set above precipitous, chalky cliffs from which birds plummet towards the sea. Their sparse itinerary includes vague intentions to visit family members and childhood friends but without the threat of observation or exposure, they are unafraid to take their time, to idle, wherever they like and for however long. Cupped in a valley somewhere, they linger over each other’s bodies, squeeze each other’s thighs, breasts, and throats, lounge in a halo of bliss.

On-screen, hitch-hikers are famously harbingers of harm. In Detour, pianist Al Roberts hitches a ride across the country with a man who mysteriously dies. Roberts decides to adopt his identity, but then picks up a woman who blackmails him, threatening to expose his crime. In Thelma & Louise, the attractive and affable young hitchhiker, J.D (a young Brad Pitt), befriends Thelma before stealing the pair’s money and fleeing. Betrayal, pain, and suffering are figured as the inexorable result of trust. By contrast, everyone Carri’s daughters meet along the way is not a portent, but rather a prospective hookup or pal. The group grows as queer folk in bars, on the hard shoulder, in churches, and at friends’ houses are all picked up and invited into the fold.

But the world of the ever-growing coterie is not entirely free from jeopardy. When one of the additions, Francisca, wants to stop off to visit her friend Flora, it transpires that it’s because she wants to encourage Flora to leave her husband, whose uncontrolled rage and possessive behaviour is making life unbearable. While the others bind one another in rope and chains on the carpeted floor of their motel room, Francisca and Flora share cigarettes on the parched, brown grass outside and formulate a plan to run the husband out of town. The following day, when the group confronts him with all his bags packed and his train ticket booked, his nastiness is laid bare. He pleads with his trembling wife, hurls racist and homophobic insults at the group, and only agrees to leave when their chants—‘“go, go”,  “come on, get out”, “leave”, “grab your stuff and go”—rise to a deafening crescendo. By banding together, the group helps Flora envisage a life in which she is free to take seriously and pursue her own desires, over and against the routine violence doled out by the sexual and gendered order embodied by her husband.


Even as road movies hinge on protagonists fleeing stuffy families (Robert Dupea in Five Easy Pieces), tedious marriages (Thelma in Thelma & Louise), or humdrum jobs (Louise in Thelma & Louise, Al Roberts in Detour), they often struggle to conceive satisfying alternatives. These films, then, teach us that fatality, disaster, or loss are the price we pay for daring to dream up different worlds. Sure, Daughters also wears its justifiable contempt for the limitations of familial or work obligations on its sleeve, but it doesn't condemn its characters—or viewers—for dreaming up different, better, and more blissful futures.

In the final sequence, which may very well be a dream, a house contains spaces accommodated to all the inhabitants' needs and desires. The characters fuck in the lush, floriferous garden, submerge themselves in the warm waters of the pool, eat fistfulls of fruit, and rollerskating people in lucha libre masks wheel vibrators into rooms on platters. In these closing scenes, Carri offers not just a potential exit from the sometimes monotonous paths of familial expectation, monogamy, or work, but also gestures towards a possible route into a future in which people are free to articulate, take seriously, and experiment with their own desires. In which those desires are held, cherished, and nurtured. In which, to quote Violeta, “pleasure and happiness have not been expelled by the cosmic order.” 

c.f. prior is a writer from London. Their writing has been featured in Open City Documentary Festival's Non-fiction film journal, Restless, Somerset House, Art Quarterly, and Pylot. They were a 2020 Penguin WriteNow shortlistee.

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