It’s hard to criticize Valentine’s Day without fear of being accused of being some bitter, resentful singleton. But at the same time, it’s not exactly a hard thing to criticize. When it comes to cinema, you can be fairly confident that almost anything designed for a Valentine’s Day audience is going to offer a variation on the message that romantic monogamous love is a goal more worthy than any other, and that the protagonists selling such a message, 9 times out of 10, will be a beautiful young white man and woman.
Fuck that. If Valentine’s Day is about celebrating love, then why should that love be limited in terms of its scope, its nature or its participants? And if it is about lust and sex too, then can’t that be equally diverse? Of course, some of us don’t understand why people need a designated day to celebrate such things, but given that it happens, we couldn’t resist chipping in.
Here are ten films about love or sex in all its forms that we are fans of here at /bent. Straight or gay, young or old, wild or sober… the only thing connecting these films is that they offer a corrective tonic to the bland narratives and ideologies that Valentine’s Day traditionally sells us. Let us know what you’d include below.
“Amour” Hollywood is very willing to sell us the idea that true love can last a lifetime. It is less comfortable with depicting the implications of such an apparently appealing idea. In Michael Haneke’s film, love is duty, love is pain, and love has a very finite ending. After handing us such a resolution in the opening scene, Haneke makes us to creep back towards it with painstaking inevitability – a meticulous chronicle of the reality of until us death us do part.
“Beautiful Thing” “Once I believed that when love came to me / It would come with rockets, bells and poetry / But with me and you, it just started quietly and grew…” There’s a Mama Cass song for every moment in the heartwarming coming out classic “Beautiful Thing”. 1990s working class London: Jamie and Ste live doors down from each other in the same apartment complex. Jamie is teased by schoolmates and frequently skips out on gym class (sound familiar?), while Ste’s trouble lies at home with his abusive, alcoholic father. Ste is kicked out one night and briefly taken in by Jamie’s single mother, putting the two lonely souls together in one bedroom. Undeniably they find something in one another that they have not found in anyone else, and bittersweet first love begins to pave its way. Jamie does his very best to keep his feelings a secret from his mom, but when she eventually finds out we witness a relationship with equal poignance to the boys’ one: the unbreakable bond between a mother and son. Like the Mama Cass tunes that score the movie start-to-finish, this film is an anthem of togetherness and individuality.
“Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement” Fairytales are pretty resilient forms of storytelling. Pity they are also so stubbornly heteronormative. If monogamous coupling is your idea of a happy ending then “Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement” is an excellent queer alternative. Susan Muska and Gréta Ólafsdóttir’s 2009 documentary tells the story of Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer who, at the time of filming, had been together for 42 years and wanted to marry. If you think the whole issue of gay marriage is a distraction from what queers should care about don’t be put off; for this couple the desire to get married was not a fetishization of the institution but a desire for equal rights and recognition. Thea did not live to see those rights granted to her partner, and it meant that at her death Edie had no more legal standing than a passing stranger. Indeed, Edith Windsor’s name might be familiar to you: she was the fearless animus behind so much of the activism which saw DoMA struck down by the Supreme Court in June 2013. This is her back-story, and it’s a remarkable relationship – effervescent, devoted, and – by their own testimony – held together by a healthy sex life. If you have a problem with some of the ageist ways we represent sex, this is the film for you.
“Interior. Leather Bar” Sometimes sex is love, sometimes sex is sex. “Interior. Leather Bar” sets out to imagine just what was in the lost 40 minutes from “Cruising” (1980), the fabled scenes which would have landed the film an X rating. It ends up being so much more: the film is a fascinating exploration of gay sex and its perceptions, both from within and outside the community. The layered conceit plays out cleverly, and establishes Travis Matthews as one of the most exciting, intelligent queer filmmakers working at the moment. With it’s mawkishness and odd chubby cupids Valentines Day sells sentiment not sex. This film is the perfect antidote. Block your ears, though, during James Franco’s embarrassing bouts of Queer Theory 101, they’re a total boner-killer.
“Laurence Anyways” Xavier Dolan, Quebec’s little actor-writer-director superstar, crafted his magnum opus to date in this beautiful decade-spanning love story. Wild young couple Fred (Suzanne Clement) and Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) are completely mad for each other until Laurence tells his girlfriend something he has long been holding in: that all his life he has felt he is a woman. Thus begins an ongoing struggle to sustain a relationship with friends, family, and one another while transitioning gender in a world which denies anyone considered “different” the right to be themselves. Full of visually next-level music video moments, “Laurence Anyways” is in a realm of filmmaking where only the masters dare to foray. It is a rainbow I’d like to hang on my wall.
“Middle of Nowhere” In too many love stories, barriers are constructed artificially between characters as a means of creating conflict that can be overcome with little effort. In Ava Duvernay’s Sundance-winning film, Ruby and her husband are separated by the all-too-real barrier of a prison wall, and the consequences are equally real. The film depicts love as sacrifice in all its daily demands and humiliations. But it also reminds just how much love can take out of us and how lost it can leave us feeling as a result.
“Muriel’s Wedding” Come the revolution, P. J. Hogan’s 1994 film will take its rightful place among the canon of all-time classics, have no fear. One of the most cleverly and quietly subversive narratives of modern cinema, Toni Collette’s title character starts the film convinced that finding someone willing to marry her will bring her the self-worth she has always craved, before proceeding to re-write the rules of the contemporary rom-com, and in doing so, sending a glorious two-fingered salute to the idea that romantic love is the surest way to affirm a person’s sense of self.
“You Are Not Alone” This 1978 Danish coming-of-age story is set in an all-boys boarding school, where several of the students are beginning to discover the adult world which had once existed invisibly around them: problems with unfair authority, the body of the opposite sex, and for some, the body of the same sex. Strung together by a number of playful vignettes set against a student strike, the most unforgettable aspect of the film is the innocent relationship between 15 year old Bo and the younger headmaster’s son, Kim. Whether the boys will grow up to identify as homosexual is both unknown and irrelevant — their romance exists in the fairytale of adolescence and all that matters is that they are young and in love. “You Are Not Alone” is alive with the openness of 1970s Scandinavia and the idealism of childhood, with a spirit that likely couldn’t be replicated today.