At last year’s Cesar Awards, three of the top contenders for France’s top film prize — specifically, “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “Stranger by the Lake” and “Me, Myself and Mum” — centered on LGBT issues. Compare that with the Oscars, where just one of the nine best picture nominees — “Dallas Buyers Club” — even so much as acknowledged homosexuality as a part of human existence.
What gives? It’s not merely a question of France being more progressive than the U.S. (It’s not, judging by widespread protests against marriage equality seen in Gaul over the past year.) Other countries, including several we think of as more conservative than the States, are also getting behind gay-themed pics.
Study the list of submissions for the upcoming Oscar foreign language prize — always an interesting indicator, since selection committees from each country are allowed only one film to represent them at the Academy Awards — and it’s clear that the U.S. lags in its willingness to make, much less celebrate, films dealing with homosexual themes.
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Brazil picked Daniel Ribeiro’s “The Way He Looks,” a coming-out story centered on a blind teen.
Portugal went for Joaquim Pinto’s first-person documentary “What Now? Remind Me,” in which the HIV-positive helmer reflects on living with the virus. It was awarded the Fipresci prize at the Locarno film fest.
Switzerland’s selection, “The Circle,” from director Stefan Haupt, blends scripted reenactment and non-fiction interview segments to convey a sense of the country’s nascent post-war gay scene.
Finally, France is sending Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent,” a Cannes-anointed biopic on the influential fashion designer that doesn’t shy away from its subject’s sexual proclivities.
(One could also count Canadian submission “Mommy,” from openly gay director Xavier Dolan, whose flamboyant protagonist isn’t identified as gay, per se, but certainly defies Hollywood’s heteronormative paradigm in nearly all respects.)
Past Is Prologue
Considering the Academy’s historical reluctance to reward films with queer content (exceptions being “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk”), it’s surprising to see five countries submit pics that, were they competing in other categories, show little precedent for nominations. Such a move suggests that regardless of how Oscar voters might feel, a group of key influencers in each country sincerely believes these films are the best they have to offer.
It’s hard to imagine an American committee deciding to throw its support behind a “gay movie.” But then, Americans seem uniquely inclined to pigeonhole films according to the sexual persuasion of their protagonists, whereas foreign directors have been far more successful in achieving mainstream success with human-interest stories in which the characters happen to be gay — though it hardly goes for all countries, with serious cultural obstacles in Russia, Iran, the Middle East and Japan.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., cinematic representations of homosexual identity are typically relegated to one of two categories: either “gay movies” (typically low-budget fare made for LGBT auds and released, often directly to homevid, by a handful of specialty distribs) or as side characters in mainstream movies (a relatively recent phenom for pics looking to score PC points, often revealing the news as a third-act surprise, a la “ParaNorman’s” gay jock).
Rare Crossover Success
This year brings an interesting exception in Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange,” a sweet, low-key romantic drama centered on a longtime gay couple, finally allowed to marry, who find themselves kicked out of their New York apartment and forced to rely on family and friends for housing — essentially a same-sex twist on Leo McCarey’s 1937 “Make Way for Tomorrow.” Sachs’ film was a rare crossover success, overcoming the obstacles one imagines facing a film in which the characters are not only gay, but gray (that is, well past the age of the average American moviegoer). This, of course, is what filmmakers want: for their work to appeal beyond the rigidly defined demographic of the characters themselves.
“If you look at the bulk of the work coming out of other countries, they’re still making human dramas about everyday life that are not being made here,” says Sachs, who deliberately — and somewhat defiantly — chose to tell stories centered on gay lead characters (first “Keep the Lights On” and now “Love Is Strange”) after a gap of 15 years.
The vast majority of independent helmers responsible for making the landmarks of American queer cinema — Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Kimberly Peirce, Gregg Araki — have subsequently gravitated toward more mainstream (i.e. straight) subjects in order to sustain their careers and court a wider audience. Sachs blames the system, not the filmmakers, since American distribs remain gun-shy about supporting directors who incorporate that aspect of their identity into their work.
“If there’s no economic incentive or possibility of sustaining a career as an American filmmaker making strictly personal, human films, there’s no way for those filmmakers to develop or become better over time,” notes Sachs, whose freedom comes from working outside the system. “I’ve built a community (of individual investors) around me that has supported my own personal filmmaking.”
Alternative to Hollywood
In other countries, where big-budget Hollywood tentpoles make it tough for local cinema to compete, there remains a wide gap for relatively inexpensive adult dramas, which have all but disappeared from American studios’ diet.
That creates an opportunity for foreign directors working to tackle stories not being done bigger and better by Hollywood — which is where gay-themed pics stand to shine and be recognized in their respective countries. The phenomenon is hardly limited to LGBT stories either: In Germany, a modest, black-and-white portrait of a twentysomething slacker called “Oh Boy” (retitled “A Coffee in Berlin” for U.S. release) connected in a big way, winning six Lolas.
The same was true in France of “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “Stranger by the Lake” and “Me, Myself and Mum”: All three connected with audiences because they presented mature, human-interest portraits seen lacking among the flashier American imports.
Ironically, the most commercially successful — Guillaume Gallienne’s “Me, Myself and Mum,” about an effeminate young mama’s boy who’s the last to accept himself as gay, whereas his entire family has long since accepted his identity — has yet to find distribution in the U.S., where it has two big strikes against it: The film is not only perceived as “gay,” but it’s also foreign to boot (whereas “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and “Stranger by the Lake” had a more sexually explicit hook, landing distribution from Sundance Selects and Strand Releasing, respectively).
Just because a film is submitted by its country to compete for the foreign-language Oscar doesn’t mean it’s assured a U.S. release. Of the five pics mentioned, only “Saint Laurent” (Sony Pictures Classics) and “Mommy” (Roadside Attractions) stand to do much business in the U.S. But they also represent what pics like “Love Is Strange” and British-made Alan Turing biopic “The Imitation Game” got right: They tell compelling human-interest stories in which the characters’ sexuality is acknowledged, but not the pic’s sole focus.
“People are always asking me, ‘Don’t you think this is a great time for gay cinema?’ And I think, what about Visconti, Fassbinder, Chereau? There’s a history that I feel connected to, that American cinema has forgotten, that existed of gay filmmakers making films that were not culturally positioned: They were part of art cinema in a larger way,” says Sachs.
Granted, there is more gay representation on American screens than ever before, but it’s been pushed to the margins: supporting characters and niche pics. However progressive its politics, the U.S. could stand to learn from other countries, where such stories are getting the treatment — and recognition — they deserve.