Gay Cinema: Lesbian Films–Select Biblio and Films

The Killing of Sister George

The Killing of Sister George is one of the most grotesque of lesbian crossover films.

Pre-decriminalization dramas included 1967’s The Fox, in 1967, which suffers from the basic (and fake) premise that all a lesbian woman needs is a real man to cure her of her perverse sexual identity.

In 1963, The World Ten Times Over was one of the first British lesbian films, but was it was heavily censored before its release.

Playing the titular role, Beryl Reid is magnetic in her portrayal of George, a loud, aggressive, cigar-chomping dyke who loses her job and her young lover.

The lesbian love triangle consists of a butch girl-chasing George; the predatory, sophisticated middle-class dyke (Coral Brown), and Childie, the young neurotic femme (Susannah York).

Rated X for its explicit sex scene, the film tanked at the box office but remains an era-defining cult classic. Some scenes were shot in an actual London lesbian bar, The Gateways Club, offering audiences rare onscreen glimpse of London lesbian culture.

Dialogue

Childie: Not all women are raving bloody lesbians, you know.
George: That is a misfortune I am perfectly well aware of!

Dyketactics (1974)
Director Barbara Hammer

Born in Los Angeles but a New Yorker, Barbara Hammer is a whole genre unto herself. Her pioneering 1974 short film “Dyketactics,” a four-minute, hippie wonder consisting of frolicking naked women in the countryside, broke new ground for its exploration of lesbian identity an, desire.  Hammer called the film her “lesbian commercial.”

She went on to become one of the brightest and most significant lesbian avant-garde filmmaking voices of the past 40 years, whose work includes over 80 film and video works dealing with lesbian love and sex, women’s spirituality, radical feminist politics, the figure of the goddess, and lesbian/queer film history.

Another Way (1982)
Director Károly Makk

Another Way is set in Hungary after the failed 1956 uprising against communism. The film details a courageous and intelligent love story between two pro-democracy journalists. The topic was a double taboo as it was the first Hungarian film to deal with homosexuality and a controversial look back at the consequences of the revolution. Director Károly Makk juxtaposes this tender but doomed love affair with the high hopes and bitter suppression of the Budapest Spring. Makk was not especially interested in homosexual rights in 1950s Hungary, but his portrayal of lesbianism is neither exploitative nor melodramatic.

Paris Was a Woman (1996)
Director Greta Schiller

Greta Schiller’s absorbing documentary focuses on famous lesbian writers such as Collette, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, poets H.D. and Natalie Clifford Barney, booksellers Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier. Schiller (Before Stonewall, 1984), with her long-term collaborator Andrea Weiss, rewrites (her)story with unseen home movies and new research to create a film about this women’s artistic community.

Weiss’ British queer film history docu, A Bit of Scarlet (1997) is also worth watching.

Bound (1996)
Director Lana and Andy Wachowski

The Wachowski siblings’ sexy noir/crime caper/slapstick comedy was their pre-Matrix breakout film, a titillating hybrid thriller mashed up into a lesbian feminist love story. The Wachowskis get feminist writer Susie Bright in as their lesbian ‘sexpert’. The story concerns a mobster’s girlfriend falling in love with the ex-con dyke next door. Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon sizzle as couple on the run, Violet and Corky, giving audiences plenty of girl-on-girl action.

Stranger Inside (2001)
Director Cheryl Dunye

US indie writer/director Cheryl Dunye burst onto the New Queer Cinema scene in 1996 with The Watermelon Woman, an audacious, self-styled docu.  Her rarely screened follow-up, Stranger Inside, made for HBO and produced by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, is set within the US women’s prison system and tells the story of an incarcerated young African-American woman who goes in search of her biological mother. Based on four years of research into the lives of women inside, it is a powerful study of prison life in the 21st century. Far away from  Scrubbers (1982) and Prisoner Cell Block H (1979-1986), Dunye’s film makes a potent case for how race and class have created a new caste system behind bars.

Do I Love You? (2002)
Director Lisa Gornick

In 2002, when Lisa Gornick’s debut premiered at the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (now BFI Flare), it became the first British lesbian feature in 10 years.  Gornick wrote, directed and starred in this breezy, urbane comedy, which she described as “a thesis on love and its labels.” The life and loves of thirtysomething Marina are explored as she searches for answers to the big questions in her life. Made two years before the successful TV series The L Word (2004-2009), Do I Love You? captures the zeitgeist in its probe of lesbian identity and sexual mores in the 21st century.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Director Lisa Cholodenko

Lesbian cinema finally hits the big ‘O’ time with Lisa Cholodenko’s (High Art, 1998) family-friendly comedy The Kids Are All Right ratcheting up four Oscar nominations in 2011, including best picture. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play long-term married couple Nic and Jules, who hit midlife parenting and partnership problems. The mainstream press went nuts, joyful that they had a homosexual film they could write about without unsettling their more conservative readers. Cholodenko suffered a backlash from queer corners for her inclusion of hetero sex (with beefcake Mark Ruffalo), and for her film’s advocacy of traditional family values.

Tomboy (2011)
Director Céline Sciamma

The French term for tomboy is ‘garçon manqué.’ which translates as ‘failed boy’. “I don’t need to comment, you can see how bad it is,” said writer-director Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, 2007) on the phrase, opting to give this honest film about gender confusion an English title.

Laure/Mikael is 10 years old, her/his family has moved to a new town and we follow her/his adventures over one summer as s/he goes through the early complexities of selfhood: playing a game of football, finding s/he is attracting the attention of local girls and facing the ultimate test of wearing a bathing suit.

In France, the film was received as a family film and went on to be shown in primary and secondary schools as part of classes about cinema.

Break My Fall (2011)
Director Kanchi Wichmann

Break My Fall depicts the painful end of a loving relationship. Writer-director Kanchi Wichmann made this feature debut shooting on 16mm on the streets of East London. Influenced by the formalism of early Chantal Akerman films such Je tu il elle (1975), it boasts music from local bands (Wet Dog, Peggy Sue) and realistic characterization of people and city in Bette Gordon’s cinema (“Variety,” 1983).

Released in 2012, Break My Fall (along with “Weekend” and others) was identified as part of a new wave of queer cinema, charting queer experience in all its complexities.

 

1. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
2. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
3. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)
4. The Children’s Hour (William Wyler, 1961)
5. Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)
6. I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (Patricia Rozema, 1987)
7. Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985)
8. Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994)
9. Go Fish (Rose Troche, 1994)
10. High Art (Lisa Cholodenko, 1998)

LGBT love scenes:

The Color Purple

A Very Natural Thing

Something Must Break.

10 great American lesbian films

10 great feminist films

10 great gay films from east and south-east Asia

10 great British gay films

10 great French gay films

10 great transgender films

10 great LGBT TV and online series

10 great films about sex

Hetero women in denial and psycho killers

Straight films, queer appeal

 

Select Biblio:
Stuart, Jamie (2008). Performing Queer Female Identity on Screen: A Critical Analysis of Five Recent Films. McFarland, 2008.