Queer Cinema: The Best of the Best

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

One of the most acclaimed and admired films of recent years, Celine Sciamma’s refined and intimate period romance sought to create a version of cinema wholly independent of the male gaze that has defined the common language of cinema almost since its inception (I say almost as a surprising number of early filmmakers were women, with many of their seminal works being lost or attributed to male contemporaries). The sheer brilliance of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not only that it succeeds in this ambition, but that it remains accessible and involving at the same time. The film exists simultaneously as a deconstruction of the possessive power of images, but also of memories, dealing not only with the images of people created in art, but in our own minds as we get to know someone, and ultimately, as we depart from them, leaving only their impressions on our memories.

When watching this film for the second time with my parents, my Mum, who nonetheless greatly enjoyed and admired the film, did ask: “why does it have to be lesbian to be feminist?” There are a few different ways to answer that question, and the simplest one I gave at the time was that it doesn’t, and it was just that a lesbian came up with the idea for the movie and so executed it their way. However, there is something unique to the feminine quality to Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It would have been possible to tell a version of this story around a heterosexual couple, many of the scenes would not have needed to change, in the same way that the film could have been set in the city, and not on a remote coastal estate. However, the overall effect of the film, how it would have felt to watch it, would have been immeasurably different.

Marianne (Noemie Merlant) and Heloise (Adele Haenel) sit on the beach in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Ultimately, the story of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one about two women dispensing with convention and building an entirely new way of seeing one another, divorced from expectation or desires that are not their own, and that are not female. It’s only through a single sex relationship that a wholly female discourse can be established, without being diluted by the more conventionally male gaze or being forced into confrontation with it. Confrontation with men is notably absent from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, with an almost entirely female cast, male-ness existing as a distant, ephemeral presence beyond the frame, the storm in the eye of which our characters are nestled.

That is precisely why Queer cinema is so exciting, it isn’t just about representation, although it certainly is partly about that, it’s about finding novel and individual ways of showing your world to an audience. Not just telling new stories, but finding untested ways to tell those stories, it’s this that separates truly Queer cinema from straight cinema that just happens to have Queer characters, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not only a film which finds those untested ways of storytelling, but a film about finding them.

Dog Day Afternoon

For almost any other director, this would be their best film. For Sidney Lumet, I don’t even think it’s top three. After returning to filmmaking in America, Al Pacino temporarily replaced Sean Connery as Lumet’s leading man of choice, who here stars in one of his best and bravest roles as the central figure in the dramatisation of a real New York bank robbery. Desperate thieves Sonny (Pacino) and Sal (Cazale) hold up a Brooklyn bank on a hot summer afternoon, but suddenly find themselves trapped, surrounded by hundreds of armed cops. It soon becomes clear that Sonny is not a violent man and the audience, the hostages in the bank, and the awaiting crowds outside, all quickly take his side over the army of cops trying to send them to prison or worse, outright murder him.

Pacino plays almost against type as Sonny, although his in over his head hoodlum isn’t too far a cry from Michael Corleone. He’s still a quick witted and canny character, beleaguered and just about resourceful enough to keep his head above water. Unlike Michael though, he’s incapable of thinking long term, despite his quick instincts in the moment, which make the inevitable conclusion all the more tragic. It was a rare thing in the early seventies to have a gay protagonist, especially one who was motivated by a desire to finance his partner’s gender confirmation surgery, and it’s remarkable how well the film holds up politically. It diplomatically holds off on the reveal that Sonny is Queer until halfway through the film, allowing Pacino’s performance to draw in less sympathetic viewers.

Perhaps the unexpected arrival on the scene of Sonny’s trans wife Leon (Chris Sarandon) elicited guffaws in 1975, but having built sympathy with Sonny already, the film slowly begins building it with Leon as well. They appear, having been brought from a bed in a mental institution, wearing only a bathrobe and still groggy from their heavy sedation. Their initial interview with the police negotiator is rendered excruciating, with a comically large number of men gathered around them as they are bombarded with questions and pressured into talking to Sonny, who we learn was a far less than model husband.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Chris Sarandon as Leon arrives at the negotiation in a bathrobe, surrounded by police and doctors

Possibly my favourite scene in the entire film is the one between Sonny and Leon talking on the phone, discussing the realities of their relationship and their current situations. It’s the longest scene of unbroken dialogue in the film, shown simply by cutting between two tight shots of each character. Across the street from one another but isolated by the scenery, they might as well be on different planets.

Though it’s one of director Sidney Lumet’s more mainstream works, Dog Day Afternoon sacrifices none of his verve or poignancy, if some of his intensity. It’s undoubtedly a classic of American cinema and as relevant today as it was then, with a fierce and despairing assault on the coldly mechanical American judicial system, and an affectionate portrait of the very flawed and human lives it ruins.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

The spirit of Ken Russell’s brilliantly bonkers works like Tommy (to which the film pays homage, quoting the line “Tommy can you hear me?”) and Lisztomania pervades this terrific rock musical following the life story of a fictional genderqueer East German punk singer Hedwig (writer-director and playwright of the original source play, John Cameron Mitchell).

The film’s non-linear narrative follows Hedwig as they tour the American Midwest (to the bemused tolerance of the locals) wage war on their teen superstar ex Tommy (Michael Pitt) who stole their songs, fall out with their band mates, and narrate their backstory in Soviet East Germany through their witty, ebullient stage performances. The songs are all written by Stephen Trask (who appears as one of Hedwig’s bandmates) and songs like “Wig in a Box” and “Sugar Daddy” work brilliantly to tell the story through a series of memoir chapters.

The film’s writer-director John Cameron Mitchell does a great job performing shamelessly while still displaying the character’s underlying vulnerability and capacity for selfishness, and the supporting cast is great too, including a young Michael Pitt, a smoldering Maurice Dean Wint and cis actor Miriam Shor as Hedwig’s slightly underdeveloped trans partner Yitzhak. That is perhaps the film’s biggest weakness, that this subplot isn’t given more focus. Everything we need to know is there, and none of it is done through exposition, its rich, mostly visual storytelling, but it’s not given much time to seep in given how fast the film’s pace is, moving through its eighty-nine minutes very swiftly.

John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Hedwig initially presents as the embodiment of unapologetic self-empowered queerness, but as the film goes on, we see more and more of their insecurities and the way this is just another role they have been forced into playing and their seeming confidence is often employed as just a form of self-defensive hostility. Having spent their whole life first in the shadow of their domineering mother and then of their husband, with Tommy and Yitzhak, Hedwig finds themselves in the more senior role for once, becoming possessive and controlling, afraid of being abandoned once again. This results in a very different kind of journey as Hedwig reconciles the different sides of their person – expressed in the song “The Origin of Love” – and learns to let go of finding a place within a gender binary, and depending upon another for their self-definition, accepting their non-binary self. It’s an almost totally unique character arc that directs its intense and emotional themes of self-discovery at a queer audience while nonetheless offering a witty and insightful dissection of gender identity as a whole. By presenting such a flawed, complex and charismatic genderqueer character, Hedwig and the Angry Inch creates a relatable and insightful belated coming of age story that explores intense themes of identity but nonetheless often manages to be as funny is it is powerful.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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