The feminist’s guide to love on screen: a list

Let’s talk about love on screen – when women are behind the camera as well as in front of it…

Sophie Mayer
Updated:

Kiss Me (2011)

Kiss Me (2011)

“Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman,” giving all your love to just one cinema. Or as Kennedy puts it to Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “you always turn off the Moulin Rouge! DVD at chapter 32 so it has a happy ending.”

As Annette Kuhn says: “In classic Hollywood cinema, women end up by falling in love, by ‘getting her man’, by getting married, or otherwise accepting a ‘normative’ feminine role. If not, she may be directly punished for her narrative and social transgression by exclusion, outlawing or even death.”

“Fortunately for feminists,” Kuhn continues, “things are not always so clear cut in dominant cinema,” but have improved achingly slowly. Viewers looking for the full spectrum of love have long sought out avant-garde and independent cinema, where directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes have created astonishing, sympathetic and taboo-breaking female characters.

But female-identified filmmakers remain underrepresented, so here are 10 female-helmed feminist films (and a TV series) to adore. The Female Gaze collection on BFI Player adds some recent feminist lovehearts such as Appropriate Behaviour (Desiree Akhavan), Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold) and Second Coming (Debbie Tucker Green). In all of them, as in the films below, love and desire startle individuals, shake social divides, and bring the promise of change.

The Bigamist (1953)

Director Ida Lupino

The Bigamist (1953)

Director-producer-writer-actor, Ida Lupino was the first Hollywood woman to do it all. Often on suspension for refusing roles at Warner Bros, she shadowed directors before producing her own ‘women’s pictures’ addressing taboo subjects. The Bigamist covers adultery, adoption and working women: Lupino plays against type as Phyllis, a worn-down LA waitress sold on marriage by refrigerator dealer Harry (Edmond O’Brien), still married to Eve (Joan Fontaine) who runs the dealership and wants to adopt. Caught out by the adoption agency investigator – a witty variation on the hard-boiled detective – Harry gets his just desserts. Both romantic naif Phyllis and ambitious, clever Eve come out on top: if only they could have left the courtroom together!

Unfolding (1969) and Tales (1969)

Directors Constance Beeson / Cassandra Gerstein, Andrea Loomis, Gail Porter

Tales (1969)

Despite Lupino, it wasn’t until the sexual – and feminist – revolutions of the late 1960s that women began making, and showing, their films in earnest, albeit on alternative circuits. Coni Beeston was aligned with west coast avant-garde collective Canyon Cinema – but some of her films, including Unfolding, an experiment in translating the inner experience of sex (straight and gay) to screen, also circulated via the National Sex Forum’s educational Multi-Media Resource Centre.

Tales, which screened at the Whitney and was reviewed by Jonas Mekas, is more exterior and less erotic but no less radical: a collective documentary of candid conversations about sex. Together, they’re opposite and equal images of the summer of love.

Dyketactics (1974)

Director Barbara Hammer

Screening with Unfolding and Tales, Dyketactics is a utopian vision, feminist science fiction made real, a film utterly made with and for a lesbian gaze. As the filmmaker describes in her memoir Hammer! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life, Dyketactics was a movie made out of sex and life in the lesbian collective where Hammer lived and worked. Opening with swoony images of the collective revelling nakedly in nature and each other (Hammer shot the film wearing only jeans and Bolex), it moves inside to document loving sex between two women – the first canonical, non-pornographic film to do so, and possibly still the most glorious. 

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990)

Director Beeban Kidron

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990)

I was sent out the room when this TV mini-series first screened on BBC Two, so I knew it must be good (it won the BAFTA for best drama to prove it). Plus it starred Marmalade Atkins; or rather, the instantly recognisable Charlotte Coleman, translating Marmalade’s rebellious energy to Beeban Kidron’s and Jeanette Winterson’s adaptation of Winterson’s first, semi-autobiographical novel. Wrestling with evangelical religion, adoption, class, her all-powerful mother (Geraldine McEwen), her desire for Melanie of the fish counter and an entanglement with teacher Miss Jewsbury (Celia Imrie), Jess (Coleman) gave the screen a brand-new kind of lover and fighter: doughty, deadpan, open-hearted – and lesbian.

Kissed (1996)

Director Lynne Stopkewich

Kissed (1996)

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was part of a new wave, named ‘New Queer Cinema’ by B. Ruby Rich in 1992. Explicit yet romantic, confrontational and emotional, NQC changed how love is filmed. In its heady atmosphere, Canadian MFA student Lynne Stopkewich adapted ‘We So Seldom Look on Love,’ a short story by Barbara Gowdy about female desire – and necrophilia. A Toronto and Sundance hit, Kissed launched the career of Molly Parker as Sandra Larson, who loses her mother as a child. Fascinated by death, during her mortician training she attracts the attention of medical student Matt (Peter Outerbridge). Tenderness and lyricism are the top notes, particularly in Parker’s electrifying performance, but it’s also a rare instance of unpunished, unbridled (to the extent the BBFC tried to ban it) female desire.

Fire (1997)

Director Deepa Mehta

Fire (1997)

Blame Canada: as well as Stopkewich, America’s northern neighbour produced noted screen love-reinventors David Cronenberg, Bruce LaBruce, Richard Fung – and Deepa Mehta. Born and raised in India, Mehta began screenwriting when she moved to Canada in 1973. Fire, her third feature and the first of her Elements trilogy, took her back to shoot near Delhi. She cast local actor-activists Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi as the central couple, daringly named Radha and Sita. Adapted from a 1942 story by celebrated Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai, the film was released uncut in India, but experienced a backlash from extreme right-wingers Shiv Sena. Luminous and unabashedly romantic (especially in a Mabharata-inspired dream sequence), Fire burns brightly.

Love & Basketball (2000)

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood

Love & Basketball (2000)

Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan, as neighbours and players Quincy and Monica, are a smoking slam-dunk on-court and off-court in a rare indie film that shows sex as joyous, playful and sustaining. In her feature debut, Prince-Bythewood (sound)tracks the decade-spanning story of the lifelong friends with pitch-perfect beats. Fair to both lovers, the film’s heart beats particularly for Monica, struggling against double standards on court as in dating. As Quincy and Monica compete for sporting recognition and each other’s hearts, the film makes its emotional encounters as dramatic as its all-action games. Alfre Woodard, as Monica’s mother Camille, steals a late scene with a reminder to her daughter that love isn’t just hot young bodies. 

Shrek (2001)

Directors Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson

Shrek (2001)

Frozen (2013) broke box-office records, parental wallets, eardrums, and the internet with its post-feminist spin on the Disney princess. It followed in the footsteps of warrior-princess animation Brave (Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman) – both late to the party compared to competitor Dreamworks’ Shrek series. While Princess Fiona’s (voiced by Cameron Diaz) fate is bound up with love and marriage, over the course of the trilogy she wanders the wilderness, turns down Lord Farquaard, survives imprisonment, decides she prefers being ogre to being human, and organises a resistance composed of fairytale princesses. Despite the heroics, she has the most fun pre-princess responsibilities, exchanging Hawksian love-hate banter on the road with Shrek and Donkey.

Kiss Me (2011)

Director Alexandra-Therese Keining

Kiss Me (2011)

It’s a new romcom trope: the bride (to-be) who falls in love with another woman. Imagine Me & You (Ol Parker), I Can’t Think Straight (Shamim Sarif) and Swedish version Kiss Me, surprisingly the first lesbian feature from Sweden since Lukas Moodysson’s Show Me Love (1998). The twist in Alexandra-Therese Keining’s film is that Mia (Ruth Vega Fernandez) falls in love with her beloved father’s new fiancée’s daughter Frida (Liv Mjönes), an out lesbian. As we know from Swedish TV, family makes things complicated. Keining, the youngest woman to direct a feature in Sweden with Hot Dog (2002), offers a liberated look at love that echoed producer Josefine Tengblad’s real-life experience.

Love Is All (2015)

Director Kim Longinotto

Love is All (2014)

First screened for Valentine’s Day 2015, Love Is All is part of a series pairing archival footage with music: here, swooning songs by Richard Hawley. Documentary-maker Kim Longinotto took the bold decision to include fiction alongside news reports that capture a black schoolgirl being crowned May Queen in 1944. With films such as Flames of Passion (1989) showing how desire can break down social barriers, her clever supercuts of Piccadilly (E.A. Dupont) and Brick Lane (Sarah Gavron) offer a heartfelt history of migration, multiculturalism and women’s desire shaping how we love.

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