Article/ Trying to Figure it Out: The Queerness of Queer Cinema

Clara Bradbury – Rance considers the films in this year’s POUTFEST

It’s an exciting time for queer cinema, a miracle nowhere better evidenced than in POUTFEST, a selection of five queer films from Peccadillo Pictures which, on the surface, have very little in common. You could say that queer cinema is going through something of an identity crisis. Or you could say that it is the refusal of identity that makes this new cinema so queer to begin with.

What’s in a name? In a year that has seen the success of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival rise and rise, it is interesting to note that this festival wonders whether to change its name to something ‘queerer’. What good are labels? What good indeed. A tragic love story by a Belgian director co-produced in France and Canada. A Swedish coming-of-age drama directed by a first time filmmaker. A gay porn/ drama hybrid made with non-actors in San Francisco by a director who has also worked with Hollywood favourite James Franco. A French documentary about senior gay men and lesbians made by a seasoned French filmmaker who teaches at Paris’s internationally acclaimed film school La Fémis. A documentary profile of an internationally remembered gay rights activist. These films hold a host of awards and honours between them, from screenings at the usual LGBT suspects – Outfest, Frameline, Inside Out – to the Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique, which has ‘discovered’ the talents of the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci and Wong Kar-wai. You’d think that to look for the similarities between them would be to point and say ‘look, they’re all gay’. Not this time: pushing modes of production, national boundaries, generic conventions and even recognisable identity formations, these films are all initiating new languages of queer desire, and they’re doing it well.

‘You’re still trying to figure it out, aren’t you’, asks one character of another in David Lambert’s Beyond the Walls (Hors les Murs). The word ‘gay’, or even ‘queer’ is never uttered. It is the rapture and trauma of the men’s touch, the unsettled shades of light and dark in the narrative and aesthetic, that evoke the tacit queer eroticism of the film. Nor does Lisa Aschan’s She Monkeys (Apflickorna) speak its lesbianism by name; identity labels are eschewed here along with the generic conventions of its Hollywoodised peers. Indeed it is the protagonist’s little sister who provides the discernible coming-of-age narrative in the film; the sexuality of the older girl Emma, toying with the ambiguities of discipline and risk that pervade the intimate moments of her competitive relationship with fellow gymnast Cassandra, is sublimated. I Want Your Love on the other hand, a collaboration between the gay porn studio Naked Sword and independent filmmaker Travis Matthews, sees sexuality everywhere, and it is intimacy that is instead veiled by sex.

Les Invisibles interviews 10 gays and lesbians over the age of 70 who recall openness and repression, sex and loneliness. ‘I was a seducer for sure’ remarks the woman with a glint in her eye, who always knew she was a girl who loved girls. ‘I was red with shame’, recalls the man who would do anything to hide his inevitable erection as he was forced to shower alongside other boys after PE lessons at school. It was their marginality that made them free, they say. Freedom also marks the affection and pride of Vito, Jeffrey Schwartz’s HBO documentary about Vito Russo, a trailblazer of the gay liberation movement.

We want visibility and positivity but we don’t want too much sentimentality. We want films that respect the cult queer audiences who would buy the DVD no matter whether the film was reviewed in The Guardian. We want films whose directors are successful enough that their budgets allow for more than a home movie aesthetic. We have an idea about a particular queer sensibility and we know when we don’t see it. Favourites of the B. Ruby Rich-coined ‘New Queer Cinema’ such as Lisa Cholodenko have issued Academy Award pleasers such as The Kids Are All Right, accused as much for its heralding of a domestic ‘homonormativity’ as for disrupting that domesticity with a hetero-experimental affair. With the release this year of Rich’s new book on New Queer Cinema, we’re wondering what queer cinema is now. We know what it isn’t: it isn’t only an Anglo-American narrative feature filled with mandatory sentimentality and just the right percentage of straight sex to make the mainstream. What is it? What does that matter. What’s important is that, for once, it’s coming (out) to a screen near you.