Updated: Aug 15, 2021
Jocelyn did a mighty fine job highlighting quintessential lesbian flicks in her post, and I fear my write-up will shy in comparison to hers. Nonetheless, I have done a little digging and can now showcase some hidden gems about and by members of the LGBTQ community.
dir. Dee Rees
Most know Dee Rees for the Academy award nominated historical drama Mudbound (2017), but her debut often goes overlooked. Rees took the semi-autobiographical approach with her first film, the story of a young black girl in Brooklyn coming to terms with her sexuality. Led by a very strong Adepero Aduye, the movie hits its emotional beats with a stirring authenticity. Cinematographer Bradford Young, best known for his later work on Selma (2014) Arrival (2016), and the miniseries When They See Us (2019), is a major contributor to the film’s unique visual flair, but Rees’ direction evidently makes the biggest mark on the project. There is no mistaking her touch during the interactions between young Lee and her peers, bobbing in and out, making clear her internal struggle while still finding something to sympathize with in every character despite their flaws.
Kim Wayans as Lee's mom Audrey is a personal standout for me, her rigidity around Lee beautifully counteracted by her vulnerability around her husband. I think this is a pretty fantastic debut feature and one that’s made even better by the occasional timidity of Rees' amateur hand. Disjointed and high-low, this film captures the tumult of youth like few others do. Rees sees herself in this person, and she is thus able to transport you right back into her shoes.
dir. Andrew Haigh
I’ve been a little bit hit or miss with Andrew Haigh after voicing my minority opinion on the supposedly brilliant 45 Years (2015). I did, however, enjoy Lean on Pete (2017). I am very happy to say that his earlier film Weekend is the best of the best. Taking place over the course of, you guessed it, a weekend, Haigh weaves the tender tale of two men having a whirlwind relationship before one is due to leave the country. Tried and true, this formula tends to be successful simply on the basis of its universality: most everyone has had that fleet-footed fling, platonic or romantic, that leaves them yearning for weeks to come on “what could’ve been.” With so few memories available to reflect upon, their delightfulness becomes embedded in your brain as your sole impression of an individual.
Over the course of the film, you take the same journey as the bashful Russell (Tom Cullen) as he becomes involved with the confident Glen (Chris New), taking in the contrasting energy and openness, a new perspective on life unfolding right before your very eyes. I will again hammer in on the authenticity of the dialogue, with its many long takes and easy chemistry between the actors. The natural lighting does wonders in enhancing its rugged atmosphere. This could very well be any two people, in any part of the world. Yet their connection holds your focus because it is raw and true. I very leisurely fell into the rhythm of their conversation, and patiently awaited the culmination of their affection. The bittersweet destination is well worth the journey.
Streaming: The Criterion Channel
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
dir. Céline Sciamma
Okay, this one isn’t exactly a hidden gem: everyone and their mother knows about this picturesque festival hit. It catapulted Celine Sciamma’s filmography to the front of every indie girl’s watchlist, and is now among the top 100 highest rated films on Letterboxd. But it’s so good! I had to include it for its recency ( I am very sorry I have yet to watch Water Lilies, a similarly themed Sciamma starring Portrait’s Adèle Haenel), and in order to contrast it with failed efforts like Ammonite (2020).
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for those who haven’t seen it, follows an artist who is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman who is confined to an island in Brittany. It is a lush exploration of forbidden love and womanhood that is lovingly paced and deliciously shot, every scene a painting in its own right. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film wasn’t exclusively a romantic slow burn, playing up the struggles of being a woman in the 1800s, sentenced to a future outside of her choice. Its elegance is accomplished through its refusal to polish the truth. Moments of beauty are captured not simply by sticking two women in pretty gowns on screen, but in the interludes of resilience and possibility that emerge as they find a confidante in one another. The layered performances, the isolation of the island, the epiphany-inducing choral soundtrack- the film is breathtaking in the most genuine sense of the word. And wow oh wow, the ending. It’s worth it, I promise.
The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994)
dir. Stephan Elliott
It’s road trip time: take a journey down under with two drag queens and their transgender friend Bernadette as they travel across the brutal Australian desert to perform a show. The all star cast of Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terrence Stamp truly make this movie what it is. It is easily the best performance I’ve seen of Pearce, who steals every scene he is in, which is pretty difficult in a film with this many bright colors and campy costume pieces (it won the Academy award for costumes that year).
While easy to recognize that the dialogue and some racial stereotypes are a bit dated, the ABBA references hold, as does the banter between the trio. It’s hard to balance running gags and flashbacks with moments of poignancy, but by golly, it does it. There’s a particular conversation between Tick and Bernie in a diner that stands out from all the rest. Watch it to become better acquainted with Australia's finest, laugh at the shenanigans, and sing along to some drag queen hits. The Mamma Mia needle drop is amazing.
For rent on Amazon Prime.
Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974)
dir. Chantal Akerman
Lastly, depression. That shouldn’t really shock you considering that this is a Chantal Akerman film, as she somehow always manages to leave you feeling empty. Je, Tu, Il, Elle is a crowd favorite for its forward-thinking portrayal of bisexuality, but also, you guessed it, depression.
I will not claim to have enjoyed the first thirty minutes of this film during which Julie (portrayed by Akerman herself), sulks around her apartment, having just been through a terrible break-up. I am not one to revel in films with little action, and I found this portion slightly taxing. Thankfully, the second and third act reeled me in. The lack of shot variability finally became an asset with the trucker. After they eat together, Julie is no longer on screen. There is one long scene of his face as he instructs her how to pleasure him, and then another of him talking to her as he discusses his lifestyle on the truck. His speech is piteous, and occasionally disturbing. I don’t know if it was the sounds of the cars or his soothing voice, but the description was alluring. I was locked in for a final act of Julie reuniting with her ex girlfriend, in an extended scene (famously 15 minutes) wherein their bodies are passionately intertwined.
Akerman loves uninterrupted speeches, and she loves silence. If this doesn’t sound like it’s for you, I totally get it. But despite my initial aversion, I am still thinking about it. Akerman was a trendsetter for many reasons, but I’m most struck by her unusual female characters and general existentialism. Je, Tu, Il, Elle is not a bad way to celebrate one of the earliest openly gay female filmmakers.
Streaming: The Criterion Channel