Lauren Berlant’s notion of “cruel optimism”—the idea that people often desire things that do not assist their “flourishing”—has been taken up variously in queer studies as a way of promoting alternatives to forms of intimacy perceived as socially, politically and erotically exhausted. Chief among these exhausted cultural forms for queer studies is the couple formation, especially as it is associated with the marriage-equality movement. In this paper I address the unacknowledged ambivalence at the heart of the queer shunning of marriage and the couple formation via an engagement with what I call Lisa Cholodenko’s Attachment Trilogy: High Art (1998), Laurel Canyon (2002) and The Kids Are All Right (2010). The formal affinities between these three films are so strong that each has the same ur-narrative, which goes like this: a sexual and emotional ingénue arrives in a tightly circumscribed social world that both resembles and departs from a conventional family. That unconventional world, which is associated strongly with both place and professional activity, has at its heart an established couple whose seemingly secure erotic bond is marked by deep ambivalence. Across the course of the film this dyadic bond will be stretched beyond recognition as it bends to the presence of the sexual outsider, who is first incorporated into, then ejected from the pseudo-familial world which, having been put through a series of expansions, returns to a semblance of its original form.
As this synopsis conveys, all three films in the trilogy observe the easy making of new attachments and the persistence, often awkward or difficult, of established attachments. As much as they are about infidelity and sexual novelty, these films are also about the perseverance of an older, ingrained attachment in the face of its public dishonoring. While the persistence of attachment beyond its origins in couple love is generally considered a queer value, from the perspective of the trilogy things are not so simple. Indeed, it is hard to ignore both the trilogy’s insistence on the correlation between duration and dependency and its primary observation that attachment is always ambivalent, that is part of its satisfaction. Although attachment theorists would explain this by pointing to the origin of sexual instincts in the state of infantile need, Cholodenko’s narrative interest in how patterns of wanting find satisfaction at all, let alone in other people on whom we might feel a need to depend, makes her trilogy an exceptional resource for thinking through our ongoing attachment to the couple form after its queer critique.