The Special Shelf: Strange Romance
February brought a lot of thoughts to mind. In normal years, where the plague didn’t hold sway, romance would be in the air, and candy, flowers, and cards would be sold in great profusion. But in the Covid-19 era, things are a bit different. Also, add in the attempted coup at the beginning of January (note: due to deadlines, there may have been more, which is yet another sobering pitcher of water to throw on whatever embers one might be stoking up for February emotional displays), and everything feels atypically weird. So it’s not exactly the time for the usual approach to the Valentine’s Day experience.
It’s weird to try and put together a pantheon of queer romance at the cinema that isn’t plagued by a lot of footnotes. So many titles—landmarks in LGBTQIA+ representation and expression—end in tragedy of one sort or another. Brokeback Mountain is widely (and rightfully) considered a landmark in gay film, but its swoonworthy moments collide with its ending in a way that still resonates almost fifteen years after its release.
Last year’s exquisite Portrait of a Lady on Fire, despite the vibrant and visceral love story at its center, must end with the women at its heart separated by mores and era. And this, because of society (and things like the Hays Production Code), means that movies with happy endings for queer romances are a fairly recent thing in the history of cinema. Too often circumstances meant a tragic accident, murder, or suicide for one or both involved parties; or the substitution of a gay relationship for something more palatable to mainstream audiences, like murder (see: Strangers on A Train). But even as recently as 2004’s Troy, from gay director Wolfgang Petersen, the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus was changed from lovers to cousins.
There are some victories along the way, like the legendary Gilda, which is sultry and steeped in queer sexuality until about halfway through when the film decides it has to be about straight people and becomes tragically less enthralling, which is a suitable enough kind of gay victory for the ‘40s. Or when omnivorous bisexual jewel thief Laure manages to get away with the jewels, the husband’s money, and the girlfriend in Femme Fatale. Or that very special feeling of running into an ex and there’s still some romance there, but the time just isn’t right, so you wish them the best and find the morally ambiguous side piece that was always waiting for you to say ‘hey’ (Casablanca). Or when your kink is only being able to express your love for someone by compelling them to marry a Nazi and then periodically verbally degrading them for it (Notorious). There are lots of emotional textures that can resonate for queer viewers in all sorts of films.
Think about contemporary mainstream films that sort of do the same thing, but with modern techniques. Think about Wonder Woman, with its utopian space of Themyscira (which, first thing’s first, post-pandemic someone needs to open a lesbian bar called Themyscira) where men are canonically “essential for procreation but not for pleasure,” or whatever it is that 2 Fast 2 Furious is saying about dudes. Or Wild Zero, the rightfully legendary Japanese horror musical that posits a simultaneous zombie apocalypse/alien invasion as the perfect time to leave behind antiquated attitudes toward gender and sexuality. It’s not my place to necessarily call Wild Zero a trans narrative, but it is defiantly about expanding beyond gender binaries and it was saying so in 1999.
It’s delightful that we’re starting to get films like 2016’s Korean and Japanese-language drama The Handmaiden, which has all the lesbian drama one could hope for (romance, intrigue, grifting, octopus in the basement). It’s a rip-roaring adventure film that deals with intense material but never shies away from letting its characters find a path on their own Sapphic terms.
There’s a new director’s cut of But I’m A Cheerleader that aims to rectify some of the damage done by the MPAA-mandated cuts to its story, much of it pertaining to Megan and Graham’s burgeoning relationship.
Likewise the animated series Harley Quinn on HBO Max, which has its own continuity with all the swears, gore, and carefully nuanced portrayal of an evolving queer relationship (as well as multiple characters voiced by gay actor James Adomian, the finest living impressionist in the world). Even Lifetime is getting in on nuanced queer relationships, what with December’s The Christmas Setup (again, deadlines), which hurdled my minimal expectations and delivered a believable, relatable, and cozy gay coupling organizing itself with care and genuine frisson—let’s see if they step up their romance game for Valentine’s Day.
The goal, as a community, is daunting. And if you’ve got your special someone, spouse, polycule, den, or commune of folk, and y’all are happy, keep it going. And if you don’t have that, the dream factory that is the movies holds all sorts of possibilities, and February is a good enough time to explore your candy options (and it’s good preparation for when the Sweets-Industrial Complex starts getting really experimental during the Easter/Spring season). My custom, the few times I’ve been seeing someone around Valentine’s Day, has been to wrap up a copy of David Cronenberg’s The Fly. It is unbelievably gross, but it’s also the best tragic love story ever filmed (so tragic they even made an opera of it that I’ve never been able to hear or experience). As any queer person dealing with representations of romance will attest, your mileage may vary. But good luck, and hopefully next year there’ll be drunken barn dances for all.
Here’s where you can find the works discussed in this month’s column.
Femme Fatale, The Handmaiden – Amazon Prime
The Fly, Gilda – DirecTV
Notorious – FlixFling
The Christmas Setup - Fubo
2 Fast 2 Furious, Casablanca, Femme Fatale, Harley Quinn, Wonder Woman – HBO Max
Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Hulu
Wonder Woman - Sling
The Fly - Starz
Casablanca, Gilda, Strangers On A Train – TCM
The Director’s Cut of But I’m A Cheerleader and Troy are available for rent on several Video On Demand services. The R-Rated version of But I’m A Cheerleader is streaming on Tubi and IMDBTV)
Wild Zero is not streaming anywhere, but there’s a great DVD release from Synapse Films.