If we have only other worlds to experience vicariously while stuck at home and/or preparing for another lockdown, the spaces that are offered up in queer cinema are both escapes and confrontations. Reconciliations with trauma, colonialism, and racism sound like heavy stuff, but they’re built into dizzyingly entrancing and entertaining work that’s as emotionally stimulating as it is intellectually. Don’t be scared off by this introduction; there’s a wealth of queer cinema that’s available online now, and the selections here ask the audience, in both light and fun ways as well as more demanding manners, queerness’ relationship to politics, society, and cinema itself. From the work of a Black gay poet teasing out the intricacies of Black gay identity in a white gay world to the murder mystery on a gay porn film set, to a coming out story that’s defined by the way it reinvents and refreshes coming of age tropes, the films here, now streaming, offer alternatives to some more popular LGBTQ+ film choices that offer a melange of possibilities of what it means to be queer and what it means to make queer art.
Pornography is like any other art, particularly in Yann Gonzalez’s queer neo-giallo Knife + Heart. A painter’s blank canvas through which one can work through their melancholy and pain, finding space for it to transform into something else altogether. Well, that’s the case for a gay porn producer (Vanessa Paradis) who works through her breakup with her editor on the screen while her porn cast and crew get killed off by a mysterious masked killer one by one. A gorgeously sleazy and libidinal tribute to the power of film and the ways in which art can make bottoms of us all, Knife + Heart finds real humanity in a group of queers conceptualizing their own sense of self and their own relationship to desire in art, outside the confines of a society that would clean up a mess that wasn’t there.
In films like O Fantasma and The Ornithologist, Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues explores the connection between a deep relationship to Catholicism and abject queerness in the literal dump or in the annals of the forest. In To Die Like a Man, he makes a quasi-musical with his cast amateurishly singing Portuguese pop songs, the music both detailing the life of and functioning as an emotional vehicle for the trans drag queen at its center. Contemplating gender confirmation surgery at the behest of her self-destructive junkie boyfriend (Alexander David), Tonia (Fernando Santos) must also confront her own dimming star in Lisbon and the possible return of the son who abandoned her. It’s a subtle and patient film, emotionally potent and reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons, and as Tonia reconciles with her faith and her lived experience, she transcends beyond both cinematic and gender norms, fabulously.
Isabel Sandovel’s sophomore feature, Lingua Franca feels like the truth behind a lie and a lie hiding in the truth. Though the film, which follows a trans Filipina seeking US citizenship, doesn’t announce itself as a noir-like game, it sneakily and cleverly hides its ideas in plain sight, like reconceiving the melodrama as a puzzle to unlock humanity and tenderness, a reversal of the way that the insufferable immigration process is a game fixed against players. But in Lingua Franca, images tell part of the truth, a language not yet precise enough to know someone deeply, and the role you play is both costume and yourself. Featuring a striking needle drop of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by the Platters, Sandovel asserts herself as both capable of capturing raw humanity and unlocking the complexity of genre tropes and how they either bar otherness from entering or how they can be used anew, letting marginality and its nuance bloom.
The canon of gayness, in film, literature, and art, is dominated by whiteness that’s spoken like it’s ivory. The conception of queer identity beyond that framework and untouched by the taint of white supremacy is difficult. But Marlon Riggs, filmmaker, poet, and activist, articulates the complexities, contradictions, pains, and pleasures of Black queer identity in his essay film Tongues Untied. It’s both a survey of the images of Blackness and gayness that are irreparably shaped by oppression as well as the interiority that finds power, personal and political, and aggressively asserting Black gay identity, as well as a collage, poem, a series of bars, and a montage of the Black gay self.
Alice Wu made her debut in 2004 with a swiftly charming romantic comedy about the limbo of tradition and modernity, the first film about Chinese-American lesbian identity. Already adept at conveying the complicated balancing act of caring for the very person who struggles to reconcile with who you are, Wu has the hardworking surgeon Wilhemina (Michelle Krusiec) negotiate her life as an adult while living with her mother (Joan Chen) — she is out to her friends but closeted at home. As Wil develops a relationship with a dancer (Vivian Shing), Wu delicately dances with shame and respectability, care and carelessness, and whose life can take precedence when the family unit is shaken up.
The slick, paradoxically immaculate and yet tainted with damage (literally and metaphorically), male bodies of Beau Travail are slathered in sweat, light reflecting off of their skin like catching the reflection of a fire in flesh. Consumed with envy when a hot new recruit (Grégoire Colin) joins the French Foreign Legion under the unforgiving sun of Djibouti, Galoup (Denis Lavant) spirals into a fever dream of homoerotic desire and self-immolation. French filmmaker Claire Denis weaves in masculine self-destruction, colonial ruination, and wraps it up with a bow that screams into the darkness, and the rhythm, of the night.
Few narrative films capture the electrifying feeling of community and the power of mobilized action as Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute). In the thrall of the Paris ACT UP in the 1990s, the group plans actions, tassels through issues of accountability, lose themselves on the dance floor, and support one another as their French government continually falls short on providing systematic and institutional support or protection for people living with AIDS/HIV. But rather than didacticism, its immersive techniques burrow itself in the emotional spaces of these characters as they fight for their lives and fall in love. Culminating in a transcendent melting of sex, protest, and partying, BPM gets at the ways that queerness as politics can be in every fiber of us.
Drag pageants aren’t just drag pageants in Frank Simon’s 1968 documentary; beneath the rouge and wigs, the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest is as useful an arena for conversations about gender presentation and norms, sex, and race as a boxing ring. Ducking in and out of the tension between queens before an explosive ending and accusations of a crown unearned, The Queen simmers with crucial social and political frictions that continue to define and delineate queer and racial politics today. (Hey, it’s the racism of pageants like this that shaped ball culture.)