Widely regarded as one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world, being the fourth country to legalise gay marriage and with thriving LGBT communities in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver, it comes as no surprise that Canada has made some of the most exciting queer cinema in the world, and continues to contribute wonderful features and shorts to the BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival.
“Est-ce que tu aimes les garçons?” Asked by the singer to her distant male lover in Claude Jutra’s classic À tout prendre (1963), a fresh and vital film with all the cocky swagger of the French new wave, this line is one of the first references to homosexuality in Canadian cinema and leads to a crisis of self in the male lead. Jutra himself was gay, and would go on to make one of the masterpieces of Canadian cinema, Mon oncle Antoine (1971). Directors became more daring in their representations of gay men in the 1970s. The drag queens in the misanthropic Once upon a Time in the East (1974) are a mean bunch who publicly humiliate one of their own, while one of the men in Montreal Main (1974) develops feelings for a 12-year-old boy. On a lighter note, in the much-loved Outrageous! (1977), Craig Russell tears the screen apart with his amazing drag recreations of stars such a Mae West and Ethel Merman.
After the wave of New Queer Cinema in the early 1990s, still more confrontational characters appeared in Canadian queer cinema. John Greyson is a hero of Canadian cinema – Zero Patience (1993), his riotous AIDS musical extravaganza, very narrowly missed the list, as did his glorious gay tragedy Lilies (1996). It’s not L, G, B or T, but the female necrophile in Lynne Stopkewich fantastic Kissed (1996) gave audiences another tale of romantic love that went way beyond social norms. Cheap and cheerful lesbian comedies regularly appear in queer festivals, with the loveable Better than Chocolate (1999) still a favourite, while the witty Portrait of a Serial Monogamist (2015) proved a hit at BFI Flare 2015. Canadian directors just can’t stay away from the Festival – Thom Fitzgerald, director of The Hanging Garden (1998) and Cloudburst (2003), has opened it a record-breaking three times. With Xavier Dolan getting more and more critical acclaim with each film, Canada continues to be at the forefront of brilliant queer cinema today.
Winter Kept Us Warm (1965)
Director David Secter
The first English-language Canadian film to play at Cannes, Winter Kept Us Warm, taking its name from the T.S. Eliot poem The Wasteland, is a touching, ultra low-budget drama about the close friendship between Peter, an effete young freshman (Henry Tarvainen) and Doug, a laddish senior (John Labow), which develops when the two are studying at the University of Toronto. When Doug humiliates Peter at a formal dinner, it looks like they will become enemies, but Doug grows fond of Peter, and becomes jealous when the latter starts seeing a girl and has less time for his friend.
The homosexual subtext quietly simmers below the surface, culminating in a violent confrontation between the two men. Director David Secter was just 22 when he made the film, and while the acting is sometimes awkward, its sweet scenes of youthful happiness, as the men gambol in the snow like wonder-struck kids, is very endearing. David Cronenberg, whose friends appeared in the film, saw it as a young man and has since stated it inspired him to make movies.
Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971)
Director Harvey Hart
Before Scum (1979) and the TV series Oz (1997-2003), homosexual relationships in prisons and gay rape was explored in this near-forgotten feature. Fortune and Men’s Eyes only just qualifies as ‘great’ – it’s a bit of a mess, but fascinating nonetheless, with a love-it-or-hate-it performance (I love it) from Michael Greer as Queenie, a bitter, witty camp man who is regarded affectionately by fellow prisoners on his cell block. But the real story focuses on new inmate Smitty (Wendell Burton), a pretty boy who immediately attracts the attention of the sex-starved prisoners, who rape inmates while the guards look away. A violent con offers to look after him, but expects something in return.
It’s based on the play by John Herbert, a gay Toronto playwright who based the character of Queenie on himself (Herbert was briefly interned for dressing as a woman in public). The film is too nasty to work as mere camp (the rape scenes are particularly grim) and too silly to work as serious drama (madcap music misguidedly accompanies some of the more dramatic scenes), but it’s well acted, and a valuable record of Greer’s barnstorming performance, a role he had played hundreds of times on stage in an LA production directed by Sal Mineo, starring a young Don Johnson in the Smitty role.
Director Norman McLaren
Gay British-Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren is renowned for his pioneering animated shorts, including pixilation classic Neighbours (1952), which won an Oscar, and the madcap A Chairy Tale (1957), starring director Claude Jutra as a man’s attempts to sit on a chair, which has other ideas. McLaren made many films featuring ballet, most famously Pas de deux (1968), photographed on high contrast stock to mesmerising effect. But by far the most homoerotic of his works is the gorgeous Narcissus.
The Narcissus myth, of a pretty boy who falls in love with his own reflection, has been queered by many artists – James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus (1971), available on BFI Player, is one of the best. In McLaren’s interpretation, the boy dances first with a female dancer, then far more enthusiastically with another man, before discovering that the greatest romance he can have is with his own beauty. Combining expert dancing with experimental film techniques, McLaren creates a heady fantasy, brought to a sharp conclusion when Narcisus becomes trapped in a heavily symbolic prison cell. It’s a superb swansong to a magnificent career – McLaren died four years later.
La Femme de l’hôtel (1984)
Director Léa Pool
Although not as overtly lesbian-themed as Anne Trister (1986) or the well acted Lost and Delirious (2001), Léa Pool’s first narrative feature, about a filmmaker (Paule Baillargeon) who develops an enigmatic relationship with a mysterious, troubled woman (Louise Marleau) she meets in a hotel, is infused with a queer aesthetic. The woman in the hotel becomes an unwitting inspiration for the lead character in the director’s next film, and the films explore the solidarity and intimacy of the female relationship, and the blurring between fiction and reality.
While not as immediately accessible as Pool’s later works, La Femme de l’hôtel (released in English-language territories with the title A Woman in Transit) is a haunting, beautiful and hugely rewarding film, with echoes of Chantal Akerman’s work. Marleau won a Genie (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars) for her performance. Pool has continued to explore queer and feminist themes in her films, few of which, sadly, are easily accessible in the UK.
No Skin Off My Ass (1991)
Director Bruce LaBruce
Bruce LaBruce’s films aren’t for everyone. They blend counterculture critique, political satire, dubious acting and real sex to often shocking effect, culminating in 2004 with the mighty The Raspberry Reich, an exploration of ‘terrorist chic’ and hardcore porn. In No Skin Off My Ass, a playful riff on Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park (1969), a queer hairdresser (LaBruce) picks up a skinhead (Klaus von Brücker) with whom he has become obsessed. But can they live happily ever after? Members of Toronto-based post-punk band Fifth Column star in the film, including G.B. Jones, a hoot as the skinhead’s lesbian filmmaker sister.
Far right imagery and camp Nazis crop up throughout LaBruce’s filmography, and are instantly fetishised for queer consumption, a provocative subversion which has won the director some devoted fans, including Kurt Cobain, who proclaimed No Skin Off My Ass as his favourite film.
When Night Is Falling (1996)
Director Patricia Rozema
Camille (Pascale Bussières) stands alone in her kitchen at night, staring sadly into middle-distance. Slowly, another woman, Petra, moves towards her from behind. She runs her fingers through Camille’s hair and kisses her neck, before disappearing and ending the brief fantasy. It’s one of the most gorgeous moments in Patricia Rozema’s When Night Is Falling, a romance about a woman pressured to marry her male partner to get promotion at the religious university, where she teaches. But when she meets Petra, a circus performer, her life is derailed as she experiences romantic feelings towards the woman. Will she stay with her male partner, or run off and join the circus?
Following her marvellous comedy debut, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1988), about a woman who becomes fascinated by a lesbian art gallery owner, Rozema took a more romantic and erotic turn with When Night Is Falling. Its magical realist touches – watch what happens to the dead dog – and unashamed romance are not to all tastes, but those who commit to the film’s inebriating aesthetic will be richly rewarded. Rozema would go on to direct her best-known film, a radical reimagining of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, in 1999.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée
Before becoming a major Hollywood player with Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Wild (2014), Jean-Marc Vallée scored a huge audience hit with this coming-of-age drama about Zac (Marc-André Grondin), a gay youth growing up with four brothers and a homophobic father in Quebec from 1960 to 1980. When his father catches him dressing in women’s clothing as a young boy, it kickstarts a long tumultuous relationship ridden with conflict, culminating in an explosive argument at the wedding of one of the brothers.
A canny sense of time and place is key to the film’s charms, and Vallée effortlessly captures the glam 70s aesthetic (in the most famous scene, Zac performs a woozy solo to David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, unaware he has an audience). C.R.A.Z.Y. was showered with Genie awards, including best film, best director and best actor, and remains a gay film favourite.
I Killed My Mother (2009)
Director Xavier Dolan
For a director to make a film as strong as I Killed My Mother is impressive enough. For a director to make such a film at 19 years old is remarkable. Xavier Dolan has since made other films, most involving LGBT characters, that have won awards and acclaim around the world, but this distinctive and vibrant tale of a difficult mother’s relationship with her difficult son remains his greatest triumph to date, with an incendiary performance from Anne Dorval, who would later give an astonishing performance in Dolan’s melodrama Mommy (2014).
Dolan casts himself as punky gay teen Hubert, who clashes repeatedly with his mother, Chantale. In one of the sharpest scenes, Chantale expresses her anger at Hubert, not for being gay, but for keeping his sexuality and his boyfriend a secret from her. It’s one of the great queer cinema debuts, and may be the best film ever made by a teenager.
My Prairie Home (2013)
Director Chelsea McMullan
Trans singer Rae Spoon has been a regular performer at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, and is the subject of Chelsea McMullan’s beautiful documentary about their (Spoon uses gender neutral pronouns) life and music. Growing up queer in an evangelical Christian community in Alberta, Spoon’s childhood was plagued by abuse, and they are refreshingly candid in their to-camera interviews. But the film’s real joy is in the unique and exquisite music, with Spoon’s compositions ‘I Will Be a Wall’ and ‘Love Is a Hunter’ interpreted through lavishly filmed sequences.
A dreamy blend of music video, documentary and travelogue, My Prairie Home was financed by the National Film Board of Canada, and was made as a response to Spoon’s perceived lack of marketability although, as the film shows, the haunting, lovely tunes speak for themselves.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013)
Director Denis Côté
Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) is released from prison and encounters Flo (Romane Bohringer), her former lover behind bars. They take off to the forests of Quebec to escape their past and start again, but things do not go to plan. Few recent films mess with the viewer’s expectations as much as Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, as the film veers dramatically in tone, and boasts the most unlikely terrifying villain since Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast (2000). It’s also wonderful to see a film that gives three main roles to actresses over 40 – Robitaille is especially strong as the sociopathic Vic, while C.R.A.Z.Y. star Marc-André Grondin is great as a gay cop who becomes involved with the pair.
A favourite at film festivals, director Denis Côté is still not more widely known. Much of his work are experimental pieces, and while narratively Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is atypically conventional, his background in artist’s film and video pulsates through the sheer daring of its shifts in mood.