10 great LGBTQIA+ break-up films

Our list of queer break-up movies spans 100 years of film history – from Carl Dreyer to Desiree Akhavan.

14 March 2024

By Alex Davidson

Our Son (2024)

In Bill Oliver’s new film Our Son, screening at BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival, Billy Porter and Luke Evans play a married couple whose relationship is rapidly dissolving, leading to a tough battle for primary care of their eight-year-old son. The sexuality of the couple offers an interesting spin on how the story unfolds, as questions about gendered family roles and rejecting heteronormative models of marriage surface in the bitter fight for custody.

Breaking up is a trauma most of us have gone through, and while films about same sex couples splitting up have led to a number of cinema classics, such as Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and The First Wives Club (1996), queer stories of relationship breakdown rarely take centre stage. Yet if you delve deep enough into world cinema history, queer couples have been splitting up on the big screen since the silent era.

Below, we explore queer break-ups on screen over the decades and across many genres, including film noir, melodrama, period drama, biopic, comedy and even horror. Some are sad, some are funny, some are cathartic and optimistic. One even suggests a break-up can lead to a string of violent, gory deaths, although hopefully this one is less relatable.

To avoid giving away key plot points, the focus here is on films where the break-up is a key central point of the story, rather than a narrative shift near the end. Otherwise a certain gay romance ending with a much-parodied shot of a young man gazing tearfully into a fireplace would certainly have made the cut.

Michael (1924)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Michael (1924)

“I have seen true love,” declares artist Claude (Benjamin Christensen) with heartfelt resignation in the final moments of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent melodrama Michael. Although Claude is at his lowest point, he is at least able to acknowledge that he has experienced love, owing to his passion for his model and muse Michael (Walter Slezak).

The film depicts the long, inevitable dissolution of the relationship between the two men, when his protégé falls for the charms of a visiting princess. While contemporary reviews did not pick up on the gay undertones of the plot, to modern viewers the subtext is hard to miss, not least in the various nude paintings of Michael that adorn Claude’s walls. It’s based on the novel by gay author Herman Bang and had previously been adapted for cinema in the Swedish film The Wings (1916), regarded by some as being the first gay film.

Girl with Hyacinths (1950)

Director: Hasse Ekman

Girl with Hyacinths (1950)

Warning: this section contains spoilers.

Hasse Ekman’s Swedish noir introduces us to its icy protagonist Dagmar (Eva Henning), only to kill her off five minutes later when she takes her own life. Her neighbours become obsessed with finding out the reason for her suicide, transforming the standard ‘whodunnit’ device into a ‘whydunnit’. It becomes evident through flashbacks that a break-up may have pushed her over the edge, and the amateur detectives unearth lovers from the recent and distant past, from gloomy ex-husbands to suffering artists, but the final moments reveal the surprising truth.

The context of the film appearing in this list may make you think you already can guess the answer, but the film is far cleverer than the standard queer-person-dies-of-shame storyline, and Dagmar is a strong, tough character, despite the many trials she faces. Its sympathetic portrayal of a central queer character is astonishing for a film made in the 1950s.

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

Director: John Schlesinger

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

As movie taglines go, you don’t get much more off-putting than the poster quote for Sunday Bloody Sunday: “It’s about three decent people. They will break your heart.” Both stiff (who wants to see a film about decent people?) and depressing, luckily it’s misleading as John Schlesinger’s film is fresh and touching as it explores a love triangle involving a straight woman (Glenda Jackson) and a gay man (Peter Finch) who knowingly share a lover, a bisexual sculptor, Bob (Murray Head). They know their relationship will end soon, for Bob is shortly to move to New York.

Jackson and Finch are excellent, delivering sensitive performances as mature adults who know their main source of happiness is soon to come to an end. The film won the four major awards at the BAFTAs in 1972 – best film, best director, best actor and best actress. For a film now over half a century old, its unsensational depiction of bisexuality and polyamory is remarkable.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) 

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

The title of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s drama, featuring only women characters, tips the audience off that the relationship between abusive yet pitiable fashion designer Petra (Margit Carstensen) and her model, Karin (Hanna Schygulla), is doomed to nosedive spectacularly. As a wallow in self-destruction, all set in one room (Petra’s boudoir), it has few equals, and Carstensen is dazzling, bouncing from passion to tenderness to despair to spite to self-pity, sometimes over the course of one act.

Fassbinder rarely showed much optimism for human relationships in his films, and the master-servant dynamic of Petra’s relationships with Karin (where Petra is submissive) and her silent maid (where she is anything but) may be too, well, bitter for some. As a showcase of magnificent performances and an unflinching view of the trauma of break-up, though, it is a very rewarding film. Just bring a stiff drink.

Maurice (1987)

Director: James Ivory

Maurice (1987)

Break-ups happen for all sorts of reasons, but, before the partial legalisation of homosexuality in the UK in 1967, fear of prosecution and imprisonment could be key factors, as shown in James Ivory’s exquisite adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Maurice (published posthumously in 1971). In the early 20th century, Maurice (James Wilby) falls in love with Clive (Hugh Grant), but when a gay friend is arrested and sentenced to hard labour, Clive breaks off the relationship and lets himself be pressured into marrying a woman.

Maurice is devastated, and even seeks medical help to ‘cure’ his homosexuality, but a better remedy for a broken heart awaits thanks to the introduction of seductive gamekeeper Scudder (Rupert Graves), who makes welcome advances towards our hero. Will he stick around or is Maurice doomed to loneliness? Maurice remains one of Merchant-Ivory’s most underrated films, with particularly strong performances from Grant and Graves.

Happy Together (1997)

Director: Wong Kar Wai

Happy Together (1997)

It’s clear from the opening moments of Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together that all is not well in the relationship between Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung). They’ve travelled to Argentina, the other side of the world from their homeland of Hong Kong, nominally to visit Iguazu Falls, but it becomes clear they both have their reasons for escaping their former lives. The sex may be great, but the men can be cruel, even violent, to one another, exacerbated by Po-wing’s infidelities and heavy drinking.

Wong expertly shows the turmoil of a break-up – the men make up, then split again, unable to make a decisive break, but a connection Yiu-fai forges with a Taiwanese co-worker leads to the men ending their relationship once and for all. Leung won best actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his portrayal, but bisexual actor Cheung is no less impressive as the off-the-rails Po-wing.

Laurence Anyways (2012)

Director: Xavier Dolan

Laurence Anyways (2012)

Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (Suzanne Clément) are in love, but when the former reveals that they are trans and want to live their life as a woman, the couple break up. Later they resume their relationship and Fred offers loving support to Laurence’s transition, but ultimately these two are not meant to be together as lovers, or possibly even as friends.

Laurence Anyways was a polarising film when it was first released. The Guardian gave it a one-star review, and even critics who praised the film balked at its length (close to three hours). Its casting of a cisgender actor in a trans role has dated the film. However, it’s a visually stunning production with a deep understanding of how two people can love each other but be destined to be in each other’s lives only for a short time.

Appropriate Behavior (2014)

Director: Desiree Akhavan

Appropriate Behaviour (2014)

Bisexual Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) is in a mess. She’s lost her job, her apartment and her girlfriend, and she’s not dealing with it well. Ricocheting from unwise attempts to win her ex back to resolving to come out to her Iranian-American family, Shirin struggles to cope with all the drama. If this sounds like the basis for a grimly serious exploration of depression and loss, fear not – Appropriate Behavior is one of the funniest comedies from the 2010s.

Shirin tries to heal, with varying degrees of success, through throwing herself into work and casual sex – the film has an awkwardly realistic threesome scene that is simultaneously funny and poignant. Shirin is sometimes selfish and needy, but in Akhavan’s hands she emerges as sympathetic and relatable. Akhavan followed the film with the teen drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018), but now works mainly in TV. Here’s hoping she returns to cinema soon.

The Happy Prince (2018)

Director: Rupert Everett

The Happy Prince (2018)

Most biopics about Oscar Wilde – and there have been a great many – focus on his very public downfall, on his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’), his disastrous decision to sue his lover’s father for libel and his conviction and imprisonment for gross indecency (ie homosexuality). The Happy Prince is a rare film that explores what happened after Wilde’s release from jail, his exile in France and Italy and the dying throes of his relationship with Douglas.

Rupert Everett is superb as Wilde, now bereft of friends and family, unable to end the toxic relationship with the cruel and petulant Douglas (Colin Morgan). Although the men finally separate for good following the threat of being cut off from family financial support, the relationship has been dead for years. Everett’s Wilde makes terrible choices, as do we all when we are at our most vulnerable, and his borderline masochistic relationship with Douglas is horribly relatable.

Knife + Heart (2018)

Director: Yann Gonzalez

Knife + Heart (2018)

Some break-ups are healthy, some are traumatic, but few seemingly provoke a series of violent murders. Enter Anne, explosively played by Vanessa Paradis, a gay porn director working in 1970s Paris. She is first introduced hurling abuse at her ex-girlfriend in an expletive-filled phone call. Her rage seems to be linked to the deaths of her cast of gay men and trans women; every time Anne sees her ex moving on with her life, one of her cast members dies in an operatically shot kill scene worthy of Dario Argento. Could she be the killer?

Director Yann Gonzalez deftly balances the camp excesses of the plot with the real horror of vulnerable, queer people falling victim to a savage murderer. Anne herself is a complex creature, sometimes abhorrent, sometimes pitiable. The fury of the jilted is seldom explored with such excess and style, while the final, quiet ending after all the bombast is very touching.

Our Son screens at BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival and will be released digitally on 25 March.