By Peter Knegt | Indiewire November 21, 2013 at 10:26AM
It seems highly likely that folks will look back at 2013 as a pretty notable year in terms of international gay and lesbian rights advancement, at least as far as same-sex marriage laws are concerned. France, New Zealand, Uruguay, Brazil and the United Kingdom were among the countries joining that particular party this year, just as the United States Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional in a landmark ruling.
As things go, one might think this would be reflected in what was also quite a significant year for portrayals of lesbian and gay characters in film. The privileged part of this world where lesbians and gays can increasingly decide whether or not to put a ring on it gave us a rather remarkable output of queer cinema this year. From France’s “Blue is The Warmest Color” and “Stranger By The Lake” to Canada’s “Tom at the Farm” and “Vic and Flo Saw a Bear” to America’s own “Kill Your Darlings,” “Concussion” and “Behind The Candelabra” the film festival circuit (not so much the multiplexes – though that’s hardly surprising and besides this particular point) was ablaze with captivating cinematic gays. But there were certainly no same-sex weddings up on those screens. Quite the opposite, actually.
– spoiler alert (the first of many, so tread carefully if you haven't seen all these films) – doesn’t end well. After Adele
(Adele Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Lea Seydoux) meet by chance when the
former is just a teenager and the latter is in her mid-20s, they enjoy a
passionate few years of Sapphic bliss. But as they begin to
domesticate, the two women become distanced in large part due to how they each evolve into their own adulthood (which is considerably influenced by their very different social backgrounds) and are driven to other partners. As a result, their relationship crumbles into
one of the most emotionally brutal breakups you’ll see on a big screen
this year or any year, really. Some time later they reunite relatively amicably, only to find acceptance in their lives without one another.
A French male counterpart of sorts to "Blue," Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger By The Lake” – which also won awards at Cannes and features explicit sex between its two extremely attractive leads – is somehow much less romantically optimistic. In the deceptively simple thriller, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) meets Michel (Christophe Paou) at a cruising lake he frequents, and gets shut down when Michel's lover witnesses their flirting and pulls him away. But a few days later, Franck secretly witnesses Michel murder his lover by drowning in him said lake, and decides to choose passion over safety and pursue an intense sexual relationship with him anyway. Franck, who otherwise seems like a kind, gentle guy, continues to follow Michel down an increasingly dangerous path that ends in something much more horrifying than a simple breakup.
Two French films from Canada with queer relationships at their core were similarly unlovely. Xavier Dolan's "Tom at the Farm" finds its titular character (played by Dolan himself) traveling to the Quebec countryside for the funeral of his lover, Guillaume. But things on the farm aren't what Tom expected. Guillaume's mother (Lise Roy) had been entirely unaware of her son's sexuality. His monstrous older brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), meanwhile, seems to have some secrets of his own as he essentially takes Tom as his rather willing hostage. A homoerotic cat-and-mouse game develops as a result, and Tom's lethal desire for Francis turns a little "Stranger at the Farm" as he's left beaten and bruised, yet comes back for more. Though in the end, Tom has a little more sense than Franck, finally and successfully running for his life back to the city.
Somewhere in that same countryside, Vic and Flo (Romane Bohringer and
Pierrette Robitaille) of Denis Cote’s “Vic and Flo Saw a Bear” don't end up so
lucky. The film -- which debuted in competition at the Berlinale -- offers the
story of a lesbian couple who are trying to rebuild their lives (and their relationship) after
one is released from prison. But their attempt is met with some trouble
from the past. And though Vic and Flo's relationship -- already on some
seriously rocky ground -- is tested by this, they do end up the first
couple on this list that doesn't break up by film's end. Which would be
great if the film's final moments didn't find them both lying dead in bear
Over in America -- land of the cinematic happy ending -- lesbians and gays were having just as rough a go at their onscreen love lives. Two major biopics – Steven Soderbergh’s "Behind The Candelabra" and John Krokidas’s "Kill Your Darlings" – gave us depictions of famed gays Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) during very crucial relationships in their lives: Liberace’s with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), and Ginsberg’s with Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).
Things start out promising in both regards, more or less. In "Candelabra," Liberace meets Thorson -- 35 years his junior -- when his agent brings the young man backstage at one his shows. Liberace is immediately smitten and soon enough Thorson is hired on as Liberace's "secretary." The two quickly begin a serious romantic relationship that for a time seems to be at least partially built on whatever love either is capable of offering. But then things get weird. Liberace starts going off the rails, cheating on Thorson and requesting him to have plastic surgery to look more like Liberace himself. This drives Thorson into considerable (and well-reasoned, frankly) drug addiction and their relationship spirals into disaster. In the end, Thorson sues Liberace and they cease communication, only to reconcile (platonically) when Liberace begins to succumb to AIDS (the film actually works as a bizarro world companion piece to "Blue Is The Warmest Color" -- think "Gold Is The Warmest Color").
In "Kill Your Darlings," Ginsberg and Carr meet when are both are attending Columbia University in the 1940s. The young, inexperienced Ginsberg is immediately drawn to Carr's almost inhuman allure and charm. The two become inseparable, with Carr helping Ginsberg come out of his shell and Ginsberg providing Carr with a muse to manipulate. The nature of their relationship exceedingly flirts with romance, culminating in a kiss as the two lay in the grass. "This is just the beginning," Carr whispers to Ginsberg before Ginsberg kisses him. But in all actuality, it is the beginning of the end. To no surprise, the kiss pushes away Carr, who has made it clear all along he's only good at beginnings. And he's also still dealing with the extended ending of an extremely dysfunctional relationship with David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a much older man who has been obsessed with Carr for years. Carr only comes crawling back to Ginsberg when he's murdered Kammerer and needs Ginsberg to write his deposition for him. Suffice to say, Carr goes to jail and the two never speak again, though Ginsberg does dedicate his famous "Howl" to him (which Carr immediately requested to be removed future editions).
Finally, another notable American entry to the queer film canon this year was Stacie Passon’s “Concussion,” the one and only example here that features a contemporary same-sex couple that’s actually married. Abby (Robin Weigert) is a forty-something lesbian who lives with her wife and two kids in New Jersey suburbia. But she’s clearly not satisfied, and after getting hit in the head by her kid's baseball begins acting out by spending her days working as -- you guessed it -- a high-end lesbian prostitute. This extreme mid-life crisis proves both thrilling and lucrative, though Abby ultimately ends up coming back to her and wife and their life when she begins to fear she’ll lose both. But Abby doesn’t seem particularly happy with this conclusion, and "Concussion" ends by perhaps suggesting that married, suburban gays are as destined for mundanity as their straight counterparts.
The interesting thing about these seven films collectively is that while they each offer examples of doomed romances, none of them are particularly focused on a "forbidden love" derived from the fact that the characters are gay or lesbian (a significant tradition in film depicting queer folks). There's certainly moments of sexual identity crises in the films, and in respect to historical biopics like "Kill Your Darlings" and "Behind The Candelabra," the characters reasonably are at least semi-closeted due to the social constraints of the times. But these films are not at their core about being gay or lesbian. They are all studies of human relationships, and of human existence and its many dualities. One of which is that love -- no matter how it begins -- is often not meant for the altar.
"Que(e)ries" is a column by Indiewire Senior Writer Peter Knegt. Follow him on Twitter.