It’s tricky to pinpoint the moment when the movie world could proclaim the first openly lesbian film. Identifying early cinematic representations of lesbianism was like collecting crumbs off the top table. Sapphic sisters were used to watching whole films just to see a character (usually portrayed as victim, killer, neurotic or prostitute) shoot a covert look that audiences could interpret as queer – for instance, the apparent lesbian subtext between Vienna (Joan Crawford) and Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954).
In the UK, 1967 was a milestone, the year that homosexuality was decriminalised (even if there was no mention of lesbianism in the new legislation). In the USA, the 1969 Stonewall riots were a turning point that led to the beginning of the modern gay and lesbian liberation movement. From those moments on, lesbians have been slowly coming out on celluloid, albeit often controlled by the gaze of male directors.
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In tracking the key films of lesbian cinema, we’ve restricted our list to films available on DVD or for streaming in the UK. This sadly means we’ve had to leave out many favourites: Mädchen in Uniform (1931), Club de femmes (1936), Personal Best (1982), Virgin Machine (1988), and great films by Ulrike Ottinger and Chantal Akerman. Which begs the question, why are there not more lesbian films available to watch on DVD/VoD? After all, Walter Benjamin did say that the lesbian is the heroine of modernism…
The Killing of Sister George (1968)
Director: Robert Aldrich
Childie: Not all women are raving bloody lesbians, you know.
George: That is a misfortune I am perfectly well aware of!
The Killing of Sister George is one of the greatest and most grotesque of all lesbian crossover films. Life B.G. (before George) held little hope for cinema-loving lesbians. Pre-decriminalisation dramas included 1967’s The Fox, which has the basic premise that all a lesbian needs is a man, and 1963’s The World Ten Times Over, which is possibly the first British lesbian film but was heavily censored before its release.
All hail Beryl Reid, magnetic in her portrayal of George, a loud, aggressive, cigar-chomping dyke who loses her job and her young lover. It has the mother of all lesbian love triangles: butch girl-chasing George; the predatory, sophisticated middle-class dyke (Coral Brown), and Childie, the coquettish neurotic femme (Susannah York). Rated X for its explicit sex scene, the film tanked at the box office but remains an era-defining cult classic. Significantly, some scenes were shot in an actual London lesbian bar, The Gateways Club, giving audiences a rare on-screen glimpse of London lesbian culture.
Director: Barbara Hammer
Born in Los Angeles but a New Yorker by choice, Barbara Hammer is a whole genre unto herself. Her pioneering 1974 short film Dyketactics, a 4-minute, hippie wonder consisting of frolicking naked women in the countryside, broke new ground for its exploration of lesbian identity, desire and aesthetic. Abdellatif Kechiche, director of last year’s sexually sensationalist Blue Is the Warmest Colour, might have done better if he had taken a leaf out of Hammer’s book. Hammer calls the film her ‘lesbian commercial’.
She went on to become one of the brightest and most significant lesbian avant-garde filmmaking voices of the past 40 years, whose work includes over 80 film and video works covering lesbian love and sex, women’s spirituality, radical feminist politics, the figure of the goddess, and lesbian/queer film history. Without Hammer, there would be no Born in Flames (1983), no Desert Hearts (1985), no Go Fish (1994).
Another Way (1982)
Director: Károly Makk
At time of writing, Ukraine is going through a 21st-century revolution and if the geopolitical land grab ends in victory for Russia, with its anti-gay laws, then the future for Ukraine’s LGBT community will be uncertain.
Another Way is set in another eastern European country dealing with its own revolution: Hungary immediately after the failed 1956 uprising against communism. The film details a courageous and intelligent love story between 2 pro-democracy journalists. The topic was a double taboo because it was the first Hungarian film to deal with homosexuality as well as a controversial look back at the consequences of the revolution. Director Károly Makk sensitively juxtaposes this tender but doomed love affair with the high hopes and bitter suppression of the Budapest Spring. It’s clear that Makk was not especially interested in homosexual rights in 1950s Hungary; nevertheless his portrayal of lesbianism is neither exploitative nor melodramatic.
Paris Was a Woman (1996)
Director: Greta Schiller
Oh la la! C’est Paris, c’est magnifique! Well it would have been magic if you happened to be a boho creative woman living on the city’s Left Bank in the early decades of the 20th century. Greta Schiller’s absorbing investigative documentary could have been called Paris Was a Lesbian for the amount of Sapphos living, working and loving together. Writers Collette, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, poets H.D. and Natalie Clifford Barney, booksellers Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier… the list goes on and on.
Schiller (Before Stonewall, 1984), together with her long-term collaborator Andrea Weiss, rewrites (her)story with unseen home movies and new research to create a magical film about this most original of women’s artistic communities. Weiss’ British queer film history documentary A Bit of Scarlet (1997) is also worth a look and can be watched on the BFI Player.
Director: Lana and Lilly Wachowski
No lesbian film list is complete without the Wachowski siblings’ dazzling sexy noir/crime caper/slapstick comedy Bound. It was their pre-Matrix breakout film, a titillating Playboy hybrid thriller mashed up into a lesbian feminist love story. The Wachowskis don’t just play with the male gaze, they flip it sunny side up and get feminist writer Susie Bright in as their lesbian ‘sexpert’.
The story concerns a mobster’s girlfriend falling in love with the ex-con dyke next door. Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon positively sizzle as couple on the run, Violet and Corky, giving audiences plenty of girl-on-girl action. Taking inspiration from Billy Wilder and their love of comics, Bound completed a 90s trilogy of (in critic B. Ruby Rich’s phrase) ‘Lethal Lesbians’ films (beginning with Thelma & Louise, 1991, and Basic Instinct, 1992) – a cinematic expression of lesbian feminist desire.
Stranger Inside (2001)
Director: Cheryl Dunye
US indie writer/director/educator Cheryl Dunye burst onto the New Queer Cinema scene in 1996 with The Watermelon Woman, an audacious, self-styled ‘Dunyementary’. However, it’s her rarely screened follow-up film, Stranger Inside, which really impresses. Made for HBO and produced by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, it’s set within the US women’s prison system and tells the story of an incarcerated young African-American woman who goes in search of her biological mother.
Based on 4 years of research into the lives of women inside, the drama is a powerful study of prison life in the 21st century. Far away from the piss and vinegar of Scrubbers (1982) and Prisoner Cell Block H (1979-86), Dunye’s film makes a potent case for how race and class have created a new caste system behind bars.
Do I Love You? (2002)
Director: Lisa Gornick
In 2002, when Lisa Gornick’s debut feature premiered at the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (now BFI Flare), it was a significant moment because the film was the first British lesbian feature in 10 years. As such, the film and director attracted considerable attention both at home and abroad. Gornick wrote, directed and starred in this breezy, urbane comedy, which she described as “a thesis on love and its labels”.
The life and loves of 30-something Marina are explored as she searches for answers to the big questions in her life. Made 2 years before the internationally successful TV series The L Word (2004-09), Do I Love You? deftly captures the zeitgeist with its investigation of lesbian identity and sexual mores in the 21st century. It’s like a lesbian Annie Hall (1977) or Frances Ha (2012), with Gornick (who recently starred in The Owls) cornering the market as the thinking woman’s favourite dyke.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Lesbian cinema finally hits the big ‘O’ time with Lisa Cholodenko’s (High Art, 1998) family-friendly comedy The Kids Are All Right ratcheting up four Oscar nominations in 2011, including best picture. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore tear up the straights-can’t-play-gay rulebook as long-term married couple Nic and Jules, who hit midlife parenting and partnership problems.
The mainstream press went nuts, joyful that they had a homosexual film they could write about without unsettling their more conservative readers – though Cholodenko suffered a backlash from some queer corners for her inclusion of hetero sex (with beefcake Mark Ruffalo), and for her film’s apparent advocacy of traditional family values.
Director: Céline Sciamma
The French term for tomboy is ‘garçon manqué’, which translates literally as ‘failed boy’. “I don’t need to comment, you can see how bad it is”, said writer/director Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, 2007) on the phrase, preferring to give this honest little film about gender confusion an English title.
Laure/Mikael is 10 years old, her/his family has moved to a new town and we follow her/his adventures over one summer as s/he negotiates the early complexities of selfhood: playing a game of football, finding s/he is attracting the attention of local girls and facing the ultimate test of wearing a bathing suit. In France, the film was received as a family film and went on to be shown in primary and secondary schools as part of classes about cinema.
Break My Fall (2011)
Director: Kanchi Wichmann
The second British lesbian film to be included on the list, Break My Fall is the story of the painful end of a one-time loving relationship. A previous BAFTA nominee for best short with 1999’s Travelling Light, writer/director Kanchi Wichmann made this feature debut shooting on 16mm on the streets of east London. (Campbell X’s East End-set Stud Life, made a few years later, is also worth a peek)
Influenced by the formalism of early Chantal Akerman films such Je tu il elle (1975), it boasts music from local bands (Wet Dog, Peggy Sue) and the kind of realistic characterisation of people and city that can be found in Bette Gordon’s cinema (eg Variety, 1983). Released in 2012, Break My Fall (together with Weekend and others) was identified as part of a new wave of queer cinema, charting queer experience in all its complexities.
Originally published: 11 March 2014