From forbidden love to lovesick confusion, London’s 24th Lesbian & Gay Film Festival explores the boundaries of love, sexuality and gender. It’s a fine bromance!
Waving, Not Drowning by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
With its fabulously glittery pink poster and rainbow’s ark of animals, London’s 24th Lesbian & Gay Film Festival is out and proud. And it’s nice for a change not to be relegated to a dark corner in Waterstone’s or to a magazine shelf up high with the pornography, to have LGBT stories up-close and centre-screen. But with lesbian and gay screenings attended almost exclusively by women and men respectively, and nary a straight couple in sight, maybe it’s time queer cinema came out of the closet.
The monoculture is all the more striking as much of the festival’s programme is undoubtedly universal. Whether it be Paris-based Paname, set in and around the anti-consumerist gauchiste demonstrations of 2009 or Lucia Penzo’s watery fable of lesbian love, patricide and police corruption El Niño Pez, there’s a whole spectrum of cinema on offer, enough to satisfy every left-wing, arthouse or lick-flick palate.
At this year’s LLGFF South America was particularly well represented, with another Argentine film proving one of the festival highlights for me, the awkwardly amusing Plan B with its rom-com premise of a young man attempting to break up his ex-girlfriend’s new relationship by seducing her latest boyfriend. With elongated moments of reflection and a cinéma vérité shooting style, Marco Berger’s Plan B magnificently shows the real and painful emotions behind two straight men who slowly start to fall for one another.
In stark monochrome contrast to such sexual awakenings, the third film in Julian Hernández’s Heavens trilogy following Broken Sky and A Thousand Clouds of Peace, Raging Sun, Raging Sky was an arousal of a different kind. A beautifully photographed gay love story raised to grand amour via the myth of Orpheus, Raging Sun, Raging Sky is a prolonged, intensely erotic tale of jealousy, cruising and star-cross’d reunion in sex cinemas and otherworldly underworlds.
Equally thought-provoking in its exploration of its own highly nuanced world, Assume Nothing is a documentary based around the photos of Rebecca Swan exposing the lives of five New Zealand women who define themselves in varying degrees of fe/maleness. From Mani, a woman who was realigned from boy to girl at the age of one, to a very straight-looking queer couple, Assume Nothing shows there is much more to gender than the simple binary division of man and woman.
Crossing gender divides is also at the heart of A Woman’s Way, in which a father and long-lost son attempt to overcome family trauma and found a new relationship beyond the normal rules. But it’s Uruguayan film Leo’s Room which really encapsulates the confusion of reinventing life with its sensitive depiction of young student Leo’s homosexual stirrings as he gradually allows himself to forget his heterosexual failures and start experimenting. Unable to commit himself to a gay relationship, or even to painting his room, the film charts Leo’s emotional journey from a private hidden love safe within the four walls of his room to a road trip of confident self-determination.
On a similar, albeit documentary, trajectory Stonewall Uprising is an excellent account of Sixties New York’s queer underworld and the gay pride movement following the Stonewall riots of 1969. Looking back to the dark days when there was no “out”, Stonewall Uprising is nevertheless tremendously uplifting, as gay and lesbian groups come together to fight for gay rights – a movement which quickly spreads from kick-dancing drag queens outside the Stonewall bar that fateful night to the first ever gay pride ‘run’.
Gay pride becomes the unlikely catharsis too in the devastating Prayers For Bobby starring Sigourney Weaver as a conservative Christian who only manages to come to terms with her son’s homosexuality after he has committed suicide. Based on the true story of gay rights crusader Mary Griffith, Prayers For Bobby is such an intensely moving account of a young man craving for his mother’s love and her desperate quest for answers that you can even forgive it the occasional whiff of TV movie. On the flip side of the mother-son bond however is Canadian Xavier Dolan’s screamfest I Killed My Mother, a hilarious 21st century battle of the sexes as single mother and gay son infuriate each other with copious amounts of shouting and swearing. It may be heavily indebted to Dolan’s cinematic influences, most notably Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love with its melodious slow-mos, but there’s such energy in Dolan’s auteur de force it’s hard not to just kick back and enjoy the hormonal rollercoaster of a gay son who can’t believe quite how much he hates his mother.
While Dolan treats homosexuality with throwaway insouciance, European films such as Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open put gay romance firmly at the centre, modestly covered up in a story of forbidden love. Both Ran Danker and Zohar Strauss give exceptionally moving performances as Haredi jews fumbling their way through tallit and tzitizit to find a little corner of happiness in a world spanned by tradition and duty. It’s a sensitive and moving love story between a lonely butcher and a handsome young student who never quite manage to tear orthodox Judaism apart and are ultimately left facing an incontrovertible dilemma – straighten up or fly, right?
Similarly, Nicolo Donato’s mesmerising debut Brotherhood focuses on two tentative lovers in the macho, queer-bashing world of neo-Nazism. Thure Lindhardt is stunning as Lars, the confused aryan keeping up appearances in the homosocial structures of army and fascism. Winner of Best Film at the 2009 Rome Film Festival, Brotherhood deftly conveys the short hop from muscular bonhomie to crepuscular sodomy, a fascinatingly queer explosion of the far right.
Like Brotherhood, Pascal-Alex Vincent’s Give Me Your Hand focuses on male machismo and rivalry in its tale of two penniless twins, Antoine and Quentin, hitchhiking their way across France to their mother’s funeral in northern Spain. Despite several heterosexual liaisons en route, it’s only when Antoine has a brief encounter with a young male migrant worker that Quentin snaps, selling his brother’s favours to a service station john. An interesting depiction of the fragile development of selfhood under the intimidating gaze of a loved one, Give Me Your Hand is more a commentary on the gradual estrangement of twins.
Also focusing on the break-up of an intimate male relationship, Kit Hung’s Soundless Wind Chime is a collage of poetic, spiritual fragments as Beijing-born Ricky heads for Switzerland to mourn for his dead, philandering lover Pascale. Beautifully elegiac, Soundless Wind Chime shows the soul’s aching search for a loved one he knows has gone.
With such a diversity of films on offer, the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival really does have something for everyone, whether gay, lesbian, straight or just curious. While there’s an argument for including big-name draws like Tom Ford, Almodovar, Gus Van Sant or André Téchiné to open the festival up to more cinemagoers, the LLGFF provides a unique opportunity for Londoners to see world cinema that may otherwise be considered too specialist for mainstream distribution. And while it’s great that movies like A Single Man, with its universal (if sexless) gay love story, have Orange Wednesday box-offices abuzz, it’s also comforting to know that the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival is on hand once a year when you’re in the mood for something a little more spicy. After all, oranges are not the only fruit.