10 great French gay films

As acclaimed thriller Stranger by the Lake is released in cinemas nationwide and on the BFI Player, we look back at the best of French gay cinema.

Alex Davidson
Updated:

Stranger by the Lake (2013)

Stranger by the Lake (2013)

Traditionally France has been seen as one of the most liberal countries in the world, and it boasts an enviable record on gay rights, despite the occasional rantings from Brigitte Bardot. But has this homofriendly attitude translated to its cinema?

One of the best films of last year is released in British cinemas on 21 February and, from 7 March, on the BFI Player. Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac), a French mystery-thriller, is set in a gay cruising ground. The arrival of a handsome stranger stirs the passions of a young gay man, whose obsession continues even after the new arrival appears to have committed a violent crime. It’s a fascinating mix of thriller, comedy, explicit sex and escalating terror, and confirms France as one of leading producers of LGBT cinema. But what are the greatest French gay films?

We’ve kept the list to films that are easily available to watch in the UK, but honourable mention should go to The Ostrich Has Two Eggs (1957), a dated farce that at least has a sympathetic gay son, albeit one who never appears on screen, and Les Amitiés particulières (1964), set in a boys’ boarding school. Les Nuits fauves (1992) is one of the finest films to deal with the AIDS crisis, while the best work of the recently deceased Patrice Chéreau (especially 1983’s L’Homme blessé) narrowly missed the cut.

Where are the lesbians? Good question, as French cinema is particularly strong on sapphic cinema. Alas, pioneering films such as Club de femmes (1936) and Olivia (1950) aren’t easily available in the UK, but hopefully a list will appear in the future.

Un chant d’amour (1950)

Director Jean Genet

French writer Jean Genet is one of the key figures of gay culture, whose novels (including Querelle of Brest), plays and essays have been championed by gay and straight readers alike. His only venture into film was never meant to be seen outside of a small clique of intellectuals, yet has since been restored and released on DVD. It’s a heady fantasy set in a men’s prison, where passion, longing and sexual desire infiltrate every cell. The cast consists of non-professionals Genet knew personally.

Its scenes of nudity and masturbation lead to numerous bans and cuts over the decades. Ironically, its most celebrated erotic sequences involves two clothed men who never touch, as one blows cigarettes smoke through the cell wall into the mouth of his neighbour. It had a major influence on later cinema depicting queer longing, notably Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Querelle (1982).

Orphée (1950)

Director Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau is another major figure in LGBT history. While he was a renowned poet, artist and writer, his distinctive films are the most potent part of his legacy, particularly his gothic adaptation of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, La Belle et la Bête (1946), and his lyrical modernisation of the Greek myth of Orpheus, set in contemporary Paris. While the romantic relationships are straight, the iconic imagery is unquestionably queer.

Cocteau casts his former lover Jean Marais as Orphée, who attracts the romantic interests of a woman in black, soon revealed to be Death. After she claims the life of his wife, he must brave the underworld to ensure her return. The camera’s lingering gaze over the handsome male actors, the theme of leaving a normal reality to transgress into a world beyond society’s norms, and, most famously, the leather-clad bikers who accompany death on her reaping missions, mark this out as a key queer work.

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)

Director Jacques Demy

File this one under ‘queer aesthetic’. In the most excessive of Jacques Demy’s films, he creates an infectiously cheery musical in which everyone has a ball. Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac are the damsels of the title, looking for love in the sunny seaside town of Rochefort. But will any of the attractive men on offer fall for their charms?

There’s nothing explicitly gay here, but any film that shoves Jacques Perrin in a sailor suit, squeezes George Chakiris into tight white trousers and decorates itself with lavish, lurid sets definitely has a queer eye. Its relentless good nature isn’t for Scrooges, but it’s a hard heart that can’t enjoy Gene Kelly’s surprise cameo, or the vision of Deneuve in elbow-length gloves, chain-smoking while removing a chicken from the oven (trust us, it’s amazing).

La Cage aux Folles (1978)

Director Édouard Molinaro

“Une comédie très gay” smirked the tagline for this box-office smash. This frantic farce, based on a play by Jean Poiret and remade as The Birdcage (1996) and a long-running musical, is the ne plus ultra of camp, and a clear inspiration on later drag comedies such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). Renato, a nightclub owner, and Albin/Zaza, a flamboyant drag queen, play host to the former’s son, fiancée and her hugely conservative parents. The son wants Albin out of the picture for fear of offending his prospective in-laws, but Albin has other ideas.

It quickly became the most popular foreign-language film of all time at the American box office, and director Édouard Molinaro, the script and the marvellous costumes were all Oscar-nominated. Michel Serrault’s Zaza commands – and demands – the spotlight throughout, and the set pieces still fizz, notably the uproarious final soirée. Those seeking “straight-acting men, no time wasters” aren’t invited to this party. And they’re missing out.

Tenue de soirée (1986)

Director Bertrand Blier

There’s something to offend everyone in Bertrand Blier’s riotous comedy. A long-suffering husband (Michel Blanc) and his vindictive wife (Miou-Miou) have a blazing row in a restaurant, when an oafish burglar (Gérard Depardieu) interrupts, hits the woman and becomes embroiled in their relationship, taking them on his stealing outings. He has seduction in mind but, to the growing horror of the husband, it’s he, rather than his wife, whom the burglar has in his sights. But persistence pays off, and political correctness is given another kicking.

Blier’s films often focus on two inadequate men uniting against women (Les Valseuses, the Oscar-winning Get Out Your Handkerchiefs), and undertones of homosexuality have always lingered in the air. Here it’s made explicit, albeit in an occasionally homophobic context – the scenes where the husband is forced to don women’s clothing are particularly uncomfortable. Yet its gleeful offensiveness is catchy, and the energetic performances are top notch, particularly from Blanc, who won the best actor award at Cannes.

Une robe d’été (1996)

Director François Ozon

Before his acclaimed features (8 Women, Potiche, In the House), François Ozon was a celebrated short filmmaker whose distinctive work was the toast of film festivals worldwide. Une robe d’été is the most fun, a playful three-piece comedy set on a summer holiday by the beach. When Sébastien’s queeny performance to the song ‘Bang Bang’ irritates Luc, his boyfriend, to distraction, the latter heads to the beach for some gratuitous skinny dipping. There he encounters Lucia, and unexpected polysexual attraction enters the equation. But the summer dress of the title comes along to save the day.

Whereas Ozon’s later queer films were tinged with darker themes (Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Time to Leave), Une robe d’été is a magnum of fun champagne, where all are good at heart and everyone gets laid. The summer dress becomes an emblem of acceptance – butch or femme, masculin ou feminin, it’s a frothy lesson in sexual freedom and gender diversity.

Beau Travail (1999)

Director Claire Denis

Only two films directed by women made it into Sight & Sound’s last round-up of the greatest films of all time – Chantal Akerman’s feminist masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and Claire DenisBeau Travail (1999), a sweaty sort-of adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. Denis Lavant plays Sergeant Major Galoup, who oversees his troop in a remote garrison based in east Africa. The arrival of the beautiful and charismatic Gilles threatens both his authority and his command on his sexuality, as an unrequited homoerotic attraction takes hold. Galoup responds with sadism, punishing the younger man for the uncomfortable new feelings he is experiencing.

Few female directors choose to set their films in an all-male setting (Kathryn Bigelow is a notable exception). Denis is fascinated by the physicality of her subjects, and transforms military manoeuvres into energetic tributes to the masculine form. The final scene, featuring Lavant dancing alone in a nightclub, is one of the most unforgettable endings in French cinema.

Anatomy of Hell (2004)

Director Catherine Breillat

Gay men hate and fear women, even more than straight men. At least, that’s the thesis of Anatomy of Hell, Catherine Breillat’s extraordinary and shocking exploration of society’s reaction to female sexuality. When a woman (Amira Casar) slashes her wrists in a gay bar, she challenges her homosexual rescuer (Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi) to spend four nights with her to “watch me where I’m unwatchable”. Graphic sex acts, rake handle insertion and menstrual blood quaffing ensue. Forget the cliché of the gay best friend, this guy can’t stand women.

It’s easy to snigger at the portentous dialogue (“The elasticity of a boy’s anus doesn’t lie about the tightness of the lower intestines”) and the assumption of misogyny may rile male viewers, gay or straight. But it confirms Breillat as one of the most genuinely provocative filmmakers around today. It goes even further than her previous essays on female sexuality (the graphic Romance, the controversial À ma soeur!) to create a real one-of-a-kind viewing experience.

Le Clan (2004)

Director Gaël Morel

This little-discussed film deserves far more attention. Directed by Gaël Morel (Our Paradise) and co-written by Christophe Honoré (Ma mère, Man at Bath), it tells the story of three brothers. The first segment focuses on the middle brother, a drop-out in trouble with some thugs, the second on the ex-con trying to go straight, and the third on the youngest sibling, who starts a relationship with another man. Only the final third is explicitly gay, but homoerotic tensions simmer throughout.

Most reviews focus on the showy performance of the frequently naked Nicolas Cazalé as the rebel without much of a cause in the first chapter, but the emotional heart lies in the final third, as Morel explores the complexities of the vulnerable gay youth who must choose between fraternal loyalty and a chance at romantic happiness. The last scene, backed by weeping violins, is achingly moving.

Les Invisibles (2013)

Director Sébastien Lifshitz

Sébastien Lifshitz is best known for his gay features (Presque rien, Going South), but his finest work to date is this revealing documentary in which gay men and women in their 60s and 70s talk about their lives and loves. While some tell stories of repression, family estrangement and catholic guilt, all are out, proud and inspiring, from the infectiously enthusiastic lesbian activist to the octogenarian bisexual shepherd unrepentantly recalling his many sexual conquests. Stirring archive footage from the 1960s shows pro-gay demonstrations – interestingly, many of the straight onlookers support the liberal marches.

These witty, charismatic and courageous people paved the way for the freedom gay men and women enjoy today. Their disarming frankness creates an invaluable oral history, while their tales of oppression show how far gay rights have progressed over the decades.

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