In praise of the rare queer films that aren't trauma porn nor facsimiles of heteronormative cliches

When queer people watch any explicit queer content, we are steeling ourselves for an inevitable dose of tragedy. Conditions have improved, but the memories of watching, say, Tara get shot and killed by a stray bullet as soon as she and Willow rekindle their relationship in Buffy or Ennis stroking that goddamn bloodstained shirt in Brokeback Mountain are formative. They stick like a shameful resin, and they teach us that, if we want to see even a slim version of ourselves reflected on-screen, we will see that slim version of ourselves succumb to a horrible and premature fate. Less violent examples, at least in my experience, prove to be almost worse, a little too close to the bone. I watched My Summer of Love as a tween, which convinced me that if a woman was ever to show romantic interest in me, it would only be to manipulate and use me for her own gain. The violence is still there but less explicit; a sad, gradual erosion of any hope of having a strong and healthy queer existence.

More recent examples suggest that the alternative is to give queer stories neat and happy endings. 1999’s But I’m A Cheerleader was ahead of the curve: Megan (a young Natasha Lyonne) goes to gay conversion therapy and falls in love with Graham (a young Clea Duvall), instigating a real-life iconic and lifelong best friendship; to win Graham over, Megan does a cheer routine and professes her love. I had never read The Price of Salt, so Carol was a pleasant surprise. The trailer, with the moody 1950s aesthetic and melancholy Carter Burwell score, looked like a harrowing and painful tale of forbidden love. I flexed my tolerance muscles, preparing for the inescapable moment when Carol would cut Therese off for good in favor of her abusive alcoholic husband. The final scene of the film, then—when Carol and Therese, we are invited to believe, end up together—was a beautiful shock. A stockpile of examples had taught me that queer romances were doomed to fail, especially period dramas.

There is a dark side to this more positive form of queer storytelling, an inference that narratives which do not end in doom and gloom must be packaged into a heteronormative happy-ever-after. The British film Imagine Me & You, in some ways, couldn’t be gayer: Lena Headey (aka Cersei from Game of Thrones) plays Luce, a lesbian florist, and that’s all that needs to be said on the matter. But the queer qualities start to fizzle as the movie plays out with the standard banality of a vapid and badly written romantic comedy. Luce gets the girl in the end, and it’s implied that they spend the rest of their lives together; but like so much of the genre, it’s unearned because they’ve shared hardly any screen time except for furtive glances and flirtatious interludes. Like a teen movie that ends with high school students falling madly in love, are we really supposed to believe that this relationship will last forever?

I find the greatest merit in queer narratives that don’t end with a metaphorical walk into the sunset, but don’t end in death and destruction, either; stories that show us what an equal relationship looks like between two people that doesn’t rely on heteronormative ideals of romance and pursuit. Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is, in my mind, a perfect film. (If you didn’t catch it in theaters, it is available on Hulu; a petition to release it early on streaming services was pioneered by my partner, so you can thank her for that.) Portrait tells the story of a painter, Marianne, who goes to Brittany to paint the portrait of Héloïse, a young noblewoman. They have just a few days together, and their connection is pulsing with chemistry and tension until they finally collapse into each other. “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” Héloïse asks Marianne, mid-embrace. Portrait is quiet, tender, and all-consuming; as Marianne’s imminent departure looms, I was still in no way focused on the sadness of what was going to happen because I was so enthralled in what was.

The loss, when it happens, is momentous, and the fact that their relationship could only be so fleeting makes it acutely felt. But Sciamma pivots the agency back to Marianne and Héloïse, resulting in a finale that I won’t spoil here, but one that is imbued with a theatrical, messy dialogue between empowerment and loss, and the romantic entanglements that stay with you long after they’re gone. It makes so much sense to me that a film about queer love would look like this. It is lucid, alarmingly present, and lives in the endlessness of a moment that can’t last forever. Sciamma, a queer woman herself (which obviously has a large role to play in this), said in an interview that she “wanted a love story with equality.” Unlike, say, Carol, which is an easy comparison, the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse isn’t plagued by the gulf between their socioeconomic worlds, even though it’s a consideration that we see in each frame. Instead, we witness the deep, heady intimacy of falling in love, and we watch it end too soon. It’s a lived experience so many of us know to be true, but transposed into 1770s France with a thrilling dramatic conceit. Even outside of queer stories, it’s what a good film should do.

The same weekend that I first saw Portrait, I caught Desert Hearts at Brooklyn Academy of Music, a film from 1985 set in Nevada in the 1950s. It follows Vivian, a Columbia professor who temporarily moves to Reno for a quickie divorce and meets Cay, who is young, free-spirited, and queer as the day is long. Desert Hearts spends a lot of time focusing on Vivian’s anxieties about feeling attracted to a woman—a conflict that was blissfully void in Portrait—but it makes sense for the story. Marianne and Héloïse are essentially in isolation, able to act on their desires without any skeptical onlookers; Reno, by comparison, is a bustling nightlife town, and Vivian is expected to assimilate into the tight-knit community that is overwhelmingly straight (Cay is treated by her neighbors as a wild, unruly exception). It also creates the space for this brilliant line of dialogue from Cay: “I don’t act that way to change the world, I act that way so the goddamn world won’t change me!”

Like Portrait, I was struck by Desert Heart’s more considered and realistic approach to concluding a story of queer love. There are so many signs that Vivian and Cay couldn’t possibly make it work: Vivian needs to go back to New York for work, Cay has the call of the desert in her blood. Vivian is literary and repressed, and Cay wears her heart on her sleeve. As Vivian gets on the train back to New York, she asks Cay to ride with her to the next station. “What is it you want?” Cay asks. “Another forty minutes with you,” Vivian says. My impression is that Cay never makes it to New York, but the ending signals a transformation—Vivian is now confident enough to ask for what she wants—and that their relationship won’t be permanently severed at the train station, a bleak heteronormative cinematic location that traditionally suggests love will be lost or broken forever.

There are more queer narratives that capture this nuance. I have always been a strong proponent of Blue is the Warmest Color, in spite of the controversy, because of how well it conflates a burgeoning queer identity with a teen coming of age. The romance between Adèle and Emma that originally fuels the plot ends long before the film does, giving the viewer time to reconnect with Adèle and her personal growth, and to remember that her story is only just beginning. Dee Rees’ Pariah is brutal and devastating as it follows Alike, a butch lesbian teenager, who must codeswitch into a demure feminine persona for her conservative family. Pariah is a violent and all too familiar story, but Alike calls the final shots. “I’m not running; I’m choosing”, she says. That line, paired with Héloïse’s question about lovers inventing something, gets at the heart of what I want a queer story to look like on-screen. I want to see authority and ownership; I want to see worlds that feel like new inventions, even if they’re telling me a version of a story I already know.

Watch Brokeback Mountain on Hulu
Rent My Summer of Love on Amazon Prime
Rent But I’m A Cheerleader on Amazon Prime
Rent Carol on iTunes
Rent Imagine Me & You on Amazon Prime
Watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire on Hulu
Watch Desert Hearts on Hulu
Watch Blue is the Warmest Color on Netflix
Rent Pariah on Amazon Prime