Responsibility in LBGT filmmaking: lesbians through the male gaze

2017 was (and pretty much still is) all about Call Me By Your Name. In case you were hiding underneath a rock for the entire year, CMBYN is the ultimate first love, summer romance film. Set ‘somewhere in Italy’ in the eighties, it tells the story of 17-year-old Elio and older graduate student, Oliver. Based on the novel of the same name by André Aciman, CMBYN is packed with heavenly cinematography, a wonderful soundtrack and memorable performances – we’re looking at you Michael Stuhlbarg. Now, cast your mind back to 2016. We couldn’t stop talking about Moonlight. Documenting the life of Chiron, a gay man growing up in a rough neighbourhood, Moonlight confronts drugs, abuse, adolescence, sexuality and masculinity.

Both films explore the lives and relationships of gay men. And do a pretty great job of doing so, with rave reviews across the board: “There is such tenderness to this film. I was overwhelmed by it.” - Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian.“Moonlight’s uniqueness as a film about a queer black youth cannot be overstated and it skilfully filters rhetoric through realism” - Adam Nayman, BFI. And, though not as widely known as CMBYN and Moonlight, films such as God’s Own Country (2017) and Love, Simon (2018) achieve similar critical acclaim – with the former achieving an impressive 99% certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and the later scoring 91%.

What makes them so good? It all comes down to responsibility. Although written by heterosexual male, André Aciman, CMBYN was adapted and directed by two openly gay men: James Ivory and Luca Guadagnino. This meant two gay men, with first-hand experiences of the joys and struggles of being homosexual in the eighties, were responsible for creating a film about a relationship between two men in the eighties. It’s this authenticity that made CMBYN so raw and emotional. Ivory and Guadagnino took something good and made it great. Interestingly, even Aciman struggled to comprehend the poignant outcome – the emotion created from a story he wrote in just four months seemed to surprise him. In an interview with Longreads, after being asked if he was sad when he’d finished the book, Aciman said: 

“No, not at all. In fact, that’s what I never understood. I got two emails a day apart. One person says, I’m on the subway, I’m reading your book and I’m bawling. I’m crying. Why would anybody cry at this book? It was just totally out of my frame of reference. And the next day I get another email from somebody who says, I’m on the subway, I’m reading your book and I’m trying to hide an erection. So that I can understand, okay? I can understand, because it’s a very graphic novel. But the sentimental part, the people that cry? I couldn’t understand that, because that’s not how I wrote the book, that’s not what I was feeling.”

Aciman also described CMBYN as being ‘about love… forget that it is gay, it is about love.’ As Aciman is heterosexual, this suggests he genuinely had no idea what CMBYN would mean to the gay community. Whether you buy that one or not (we’re not so sure), without Ivory and Guadagnino’s vision and guidance, CMBYN might not have been what it is today. They managed to show intimacy through more than just sex scenes and kept the main focus on the developing love and friendship of Elio and Oliver – something most LGBTQ films fail to do. Guadagnino said: “To put our gaze upon their lovemaking would have been a sort of unkind intrusion.”

The magic of Moonlight

Photo: Lovekin/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

In a similar fashion, director of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins is heterosexual – something which filled him with doubt when tackling a gay movie saying“I had some trepidation about it at the beginning, only because I think there are some stories that can only be told from a first-person perspective.” To remedy this, Barry teamed up with Tarell Alvin McCraney, the openly gay actor, playwright and author of In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue – the play Moonlight is based on. But it wasn’t just the hiring of McCraney that allowed Jenkins to create something authentic. Although not gay, Jenkins was able to relate to main character Chiron in other ways. Jenkins grew up in the now-demolished housing project in the same rough Miami neighbourhood as McCraney (and Chiron). His family dynamics were also similar – his single mother was a crack addict. So Jenkins wasn’t coming into the project cold. He saw aspects of his life throughout the play and felt that together, both him and Tarell could successfully and accurately tell Chiron’s story.

Similarly, God’s Own Country was written and directed by gay man, Francis Lee. And although he denies it’s autobiographical, his own experience of growing up on a farm and meeting a ‘beautiful, lovely’ Romanian man no doubt helped him create something special and honest. Likewise, Love, Simon was directed by an openly gay man, Greg Berlanti. So, it seems the most enjoyable, emotional, accurate portrayals of gay love stories are created, written and produced by gay people. Who’d of thought it, huh?

But what about girls who love girls?

More often than not, truly great films about lesbians are few and far between. And it all comes down to the male gaze. Coined by Laura Mulvey in 1975, it’s still happening today. And from it, we’re being forced to watch lesbian love stories dwindle into softcore porn. Films about lesbians are usually: overly sexualised, partial to killing off said lesbians and ridiculously dull or overwhelmingly silly. This tends to happen because heterosexual men are in control from start to finish – not a gay woman in sight! A perfect example is everyone’s go-to ‘gay movie’, Blue is the Warmest Color.  Now, it’s important to mention, BIWC does have emotional moments – it’s not completely terrible. But these fleeting moments are destroyed and rendered useless when we’re forced into a voyeuristic, sexual mess. Directed by straight man, Abdellatif Kechiche, BIWC contains multiple, extended shots of characters, Emma and Adéle having sex – something the film was criticized for before it was shown at Cannes Film Festival. With one scene lasting an uncomfortable six minutes, it begs the question: sensational or sensationalised? Based loosely on the graphic novel, Le bleu est une couleur chaude by Julie Maroh, Kechiche seemingly took something with depth and emotion, stripped it (pun intended) and left us with something pedestrian. On her opinion of the adaptation, Maroh said: 

“This was what was missing on the set: lesbians… all straight, unless proven otherwise… a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn.”

Even more damning, lead actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos spoke out about Kechiche’s behaviour on set, including his insistence on ‘hundreds’ of takes and their worry that they were ‘playing out a male’s fantasy’. Of course, Kechiche fiercely denies the claims and argued that this put people off going to see the film. However, there are also allegations of bullying from crew as well as violations of the Labor Code. So is it any wonder BIWC caused more controversy than class? By not having gay women as actresses, crew members, writers or producers, Kechiche was able to live, breathe and create the ultimate male gaze film. It’s a shame because there are similarities between BIWC and CMBYN: Emma is a graduate art student who takes younger Adéle under her wing – much like Oliver is a older graduate student who takes a shy, adolescent Elio under his. Adéle, like Elio, is heartbroken when Emma (and Oliver) move on and meet someone new. Both admit they’ll always feel for the other, forever. But unfortunately, it seems Kechiche’s lack of responsibility and love of his own ‘art’, dominated. Leaving most viewers - especially the gay community - disappointed. 

Rudimental Room in Rome.

Not a single woman was credited in the creation of Room in Rome – aside from the two main female actresses. Written and directed by Julio Mendem, the film centres around the first meet of Alba and Natasha and follows the night of passion that follows in a hotel room (can you guess where?). Like BIWC, it feels we’re watching through the eyes of a severely horny, straight man. And the worst thing? Seemingly no amount of sex scenes can create genuine chemistry between Elena Anaya and Natasha Yarovenko. With countless scenes of nudity and sex, it removes any hint of emotion and story. Intriguingly, Elena is a lesbian ‘in real life’. The success of Room in Rome is not Elena’s. responsibility, but as a lesbian, playing a lesbian, it must have been difficult to portray some kind of nympho throughout – what about love, intimacy and closeness? And although it’s hard to admit, even progressive film, Below Her Mouth - which utilised an entire female film crew - failed to generate a story. Directed by April Mullen, BHM arguably demonstrates an example of the female gaze (it’s literally created by a female crew) but strangely focuses more on characters, Dallas and Jasmine being naked. Katie Walsh from the Los Angeles Times said:"Despite the female filmmakers at the helm, the film treads into exploitative territory, with the ratio of screen time given to writhing female bodies far outweighing that given to their unique experiences as gay or closeted women in the world."

Photo: The Weinstein company

But of course, we couldn’t talk about lesbians in film without mentioning Carol. Named by the BFI as one of the best LGBT films of all time, it’s one of the few examples that proves films about love between two women can be good. Carol is based on the novel, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (responsible for Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley). But apart from her catalogue of work, Highsmith’s sexuality was quite the talking point. Although known to have relationships with men and women, it seemed she found women more sexually attractive"[I] tried to like men. I like most men better than I like women, but not in bed." Interestingly, The Price of Salt was semi-biographical – while having therapy sessions to ‘cure’ her homosexuality, she worked in a department store at Christmas. So we’ve got the source material, written by a gay woman. Next, openly gay screenwriter and director, Phyllis Nagy (responsible for Mrs Harris and Butterfly Kiss), adapted the story. Phyllis was also a close friend of Patricia Highsmith. And to complete the perfect wombo-combo, director Todd Haynes is also gay – and considered one of the pioneers of New Queer Cinema. Taking this into account, could Highsmith’s novel have been adapted and created by a better set of talented individuals? Nope. The answer is no. 

But sadly, films like Carol don’t happen often enough. Instead, films about lesbians are either being irresponsibly handled (or grossly misinterpreted) by heterosexual men who find it all too tempting to play out their fantasies. Or in order to attract a wider audience (and not ‘put people off’ the love story angle), there’s an unhealthy focus on sex and the naked female body. What we need is more films about gay women being handled with the care and authenticity is deserves like CMBYN, Moonlight and God’s Own Country. But it seems no matter how far we come in 2018, we’re still battling against the male gaze. 

Article by Shannon Watson. See more from Shannon here


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