This Tuesday, the 2015 Queer Screen Film Fest begins, bringing a huge crop of queer cinema to our screens. Take a look at how far we've come by revisiting five great LGBT films.
With all the rainbow iconography, celebration and heated discussion surrounding marriage equality taking place around the world, what better time to explore the history of LGBT representation in film? LGBT people have a long and very muddled history when it comes to cinema. In the 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, in response to being asked why he was wearing a lady’s nightgown, Cary Grant exclaimed “I just went gay, all of a sudden!” marking the first utterance of the word “gay” to mean “queer” in a Hollywood film. Homosexuality was there, but to directly acknowledge it was very unusual. For a long time, homosexuality, or any other kind of “queerness” was a tenuously kept secret, tensely bubbling under in Alfred Hitchock films like Rope, or laughed at in films like the crossdressing farce Some Like It Hot. As these five films show, queer representation may still be a niche concern in cinema, but it is more explicit and powerfully depicted than ever before.
Paris Is Burning (1990)
Filmmaker Jennie Livingstone’s groundbreaking documentary is not only a portrait of New York’s underground ballroom scene, but of the people who populated it. It is a profound portrait of artistry born from adversity. The many people who come and go throughout the film are drag queens, trans people, or just misunderstood characters who found a new home and a new family among like-minded friends. People like Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey tell compelling stories about what the ball scene is all about, what voguing is and what it means to serve “realness.” The film walks a fine balance between making us feel inspired by the extravagant fantasy these people live, but also saddened by the hard lives from which they are escaping. Perhaps the saddest story is Venus Xtravaganza, a sweet and waifish trans woman whose senseless murder marks a moment of extreme gravity in the film.
Happy Together (1997)
Wong Kar-wai is the Hong Kong filmmaker best known for lush and playfully romantic films like Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000), but Happy Together may be his most downcast film. The morose tale is of lovers Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung), who travel from Hong Kong to Argentina hoping to revive their rocky relationship, which is abusive on the part of the destructive Ho. The two come in and out of each other’s lives, having brief moments of sweetness that ultimately lead to misery, leaving Lai depressed and turning tricks for money. Happy Together is notable for treating a homosexual couple as three-dimensional and emotionally complex human beings, when a lot of gay people in films are merely empty stereotypes. It boldly and with great poetry and pathos examines the circumstances that have made these men who they are, and who they are to one another.
All About My Mother (1999)
All About My Mother is perhaps the least explicitly “gay” of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s movies, but it explores with great eloquence and beauty the sense of belonging that gay and other marginalised people often lack. In the film’s shocking opening, Esteban (Eloy Azorin), a soft and effeminate teenager who lives with his single mother Manuela (Cecilia Roth), is struck down by a car when he attempts to get the autograph of one of his idols, the theatre actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). Stricken with grief, Manuela returns to her former home Barcelona where she meets up with the transwoman Agrado (Antonia San Juan) and an unwed HIV positive mother Rosa (Penélope Cruz). This candy-coloured confection of a movie is a delectable treat with a serious and universal theme at its centre. Its best moment comes when Agrado gives a beautiful monologue to a packed theatre, explaining how “you are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.”
Imagine that the two lead characters of the downcast romance Weekend were not gay men and it would not be that different from any other contemporary indie drama. This British film stars Tom Cullen and Chris New as Russell and Glen, who meet on a night out and wind up having breakfast in Russell’s bed the following morning. The reserved and stoic Russell is drawn to the more outgoing and spontaneous artist Glen and the two begin a fiery and tempestuous acquaintanceship. This thoroughly modern and thoughtful film shows everything that the pair have to contend with to be happy, and to meet the expectations of those around them, not just as gay men but as human beings. In the short time that they are together, they learn more and more about themselves and who they are, making the film’s ending a beautifully bittersweet one.
Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013)
In 2013, Blue Is the Warmest Colour was unanimously awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes – the festival’s top prize. That this film, a three-hour romantic coming-of-age film centred around a lesbian couple, was awarded such a prestigious prize is a sign of how far we’ve come. At 15, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), struggling with her sexual identity after an underwhelming fling with a boy, meets Emma (Léa Seydoux) a slightly older woman with an alluring head of blue hair. The two begin a relationship that results in Adèle being ostracized by her friends and puts strain of both of their lives. Blue Is the Warmest Colour is a sprawling and emotionally complex film, but demonstrates by the end the enormous impacts that people have on each other’s lives. It’s not about regret or sadness, but about embracing all the vibrant emotion that loving another person allows us to feel.