Far too often in the Anglophone world, we limit ourselves to movies in our native tongue and are all the poorer for it. Cinema is a wonderful means to understand the lives of others across the world, including the lives of LGBTQ+ people who may live in societies which do not fully accept their truths. This article aims to highlight some of these movies, limiting the number of movies in the English language to two in order to showcase the vibrancy of international LGBTQ+ cinema.
Wherever you live in the world, love is love. Here are some of the finest examples of movies which place lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lives front and centre in their stories.
Chile: A Fantastic Woman (2017)
To describe this movie as “fantastic” would be doing it a disservice. A Fantastic Woman won the 2017 Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language Film” and deserves resignation beyond this niche category. At its core, the movie is a delicate study of grief and loss, and the dignity of the trans community against the challenges they face.
Trans Daniela Vega is electrifying as a young woman whose life is turn upside down when her older boyfriend suddenly dies, and she becomes the prime suspect. What follows is a confronting examination of transphobia in Chilean society – which has many parallels around the world – which, although frequently uncomfortable to watch, always focusses on the respect Vega’s character deserves. A Fantastic Woman is a fine example of strong representation a marginalised community, with an absorbing story and emotional power to boot.
France: 120 BPM (2017)
The battle against and search for a treatment for AIDS is a common theme in many films about the LGBT community. While the activities of the legendary American direct action group ACT UP (Rest in Power, Larry Kramer) are well storied, the actions of their sister groups around the world are less well known.
120 BPM focusses on the actions of ACT UP Paris. It’s an exhilarating film, told with ferocity and urgency as the film’s characters fight for justice and to live their lives to the fullest without knowing how many days they have left. Rarely has the phrase “the personal is political” been so acutely realised on film. It’s intense, emotional viewing, but that’s exactly what makes it so vital.
France: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
We’re staying in la France for this next entry. Both of these movies are too good not to include on this list.
Céline Sciamma has created something of a masterpiece with this film. Not only is the depiction of an affair between an aristocrat and the artist hired to paint her portrait (played by Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant mesmerising, but the film is an outright repudiation of the male gaze through which lesbian relationships are often portrayed.
“Is that how you see me?” Héloïse demands of Marianne when she sees the artist’s first attempt to capture her likeness. It’s a sentence which perfectly sums up the film: an exploration of “the gaze” in art and in life. You can believe the hype around this film.
Georgia: And Then We Danced (2019)
This website has sung the praises of this gorgeous film plenty of times already. But it really is just that good! Described as “a moral threat to the fabric of our society”, this love story between two male dancers was greeted with violent protests when it premiered in the conservative republic of Georgia. And Then We Danced has a relatively straightforward plot, but it’s held aloft by devastating performances (Levan Gelbakhiani’s prodigious performance as the young dancer Merab is a particular highlight) and excellent production.
This film looks stunning! The hilly streets and lacy balconies of Tbilisi are realised in beautifully warm light, and the cinematography captures the dancing in a way which gives the film an inherent physicality. It’s impossible not to get swept up in this intoxicating haze of this gorgeous story of self-discovery.
Great Britain: Pride (2014)
If you ever find your faith in humanity in need of restoration, watch this film. This joyous Brit-com tells the story of an unlikely alliance between a group of gay rights activists and a Welsh mining community during the Miner’s Strike of 1984, and is a life-affirming tale of solidarity and ally-ship in unexpected places. The cracking period soundtrack and magnificent cast (featuring a mixture of British legends like Imelda Staunton and talented up-and-comers including 1917’s George MacKay) are enough to make this worth your time. But Steven Beresford’s screenplay which, while full of heart without being sentimental, propels the story along with an unmistakably British sense of humour is a work of art. Pride with make you laugh, cry and cry with laughter.
Iran: Circumstance (2011)
In Iran, same-sex activity can result in the death penalty. American-Iranian director Maryam Keshavarz was the ideal person to bring this story of teenage sexual awakening to an international’s audience, being able to depict the culture with all the authenticity of an insider while being able to take a critical examination of its faults and how it constrains its citizens. The threat of the state looms large throughout Circumstance, but that makes this an even more important film to see. It’s an astonishing debut from Keshvarz, and sticks in the mind long after viewing.
South Africa: The Wound (2017)
In Xhosa culture, the “Ulwaluko” ceremony marks the transition to manhood. In it, young men are circumcised and spend weeks in the bush supervised by adults in the community, marking their initiation.
International cinema is valuable because it can give a window into cultures unfamiliar to the audience. While The Wound generated some controversy for depicting cultural practices which are normally shrouded in secrecy. But since other films have depicted Ulwaluko without drawing such criticism, there could be a homophobic motive behind these complaints. Whichever it is, The Wound serves as a fascinating exploration of masculinity in a community rarely depicted on screen. It’s gutsy, potent filmmaking.
South Korea: The Handmaiden (2016)
There is a valid debate about whether this erotic thriller’s graphic lesbian sex scenes are exploitative or empowering. But there’s no denying that this visually gorgeous, superbly acted movie from the director of Oldboy and The Little Drummer Girl isn’t a deliciously entertaining movie which should be entered into with as little prior knowledge of the plot as possible. All you need to know is that a thief enters into a deal with a conman in order to defraud an heiress of her fortune. Any more would ruin the Hitchcockian twists this story takes.
You’ll have to decide for yourself whether The Handmaiden has its feminist text undermined by titillation and the male gaze, or whether it uses eroticism to comment on the situation presented in the film (if this article was any less vague than this it would spoil the movie). This conflict is part of what makes The Handmaiden such an interesting movie and is worth discussion. But as controversial as its depictions of lesbian sex are, the movie makes for an engrossing tale of deception, power and desire.
Taiwan: Blue Gate Crossing (2002)
This dreamy coming-of-age film dances right on the dividing line between fluff and empathy, and is all the lovelier for it. If you’re looking for something lighter than most of the entries of this list, and want a very real-feeling film about adolescence in all its contradictions and silliness, you couldn’t do much better than this.
United States: Tangerine (2015)
It’s hard not to talk about this film without paying tribute to the fact it was entirely shot on an iPhone 5S camera with a shoestring budget of $100,000. The film feels raw, due to this. Its subject is presented without artifice, cutting through the layers of pretence wrapped around Los Angeles with surgical precision.
Tangerine is one of the best examples of authentic trans representation in recent cinema. Transgender sex workers Sin-Dee and Alexandra are both portrayed by trans-actresses (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor respectively), and the experiences of trans-women in the sex industry are integral to the plot. That’s not to say that the film is dour in its depiction of the seedier side of Los Angeles. Quite the opposite: the plot which follows Sin-Dee’s search for her boyfriend (and pimp) after he cheated on her with a cis-gender woman makes for some hilarious banter. The chemistry between the lead actresses makes them hugely entertaining company for the film’s 88 minute runtime. This is low-budget, low-tech filmmaking at its finest, and places a spotlight on a community all too often overlooked by cinema.