When it comes to movies (or series) about women loving women, there are not many good examples that come in my mind. Unfortunately, most of the stuff I have seen is full of cliché and stereotypes, some of them are clearly just soft-porn-movies with a better plot. Movie industry seems to have a problem to make convincing movies with this theme.
But there are three exceptions that I really like and which I can recommend!
“Mädchen in Uniform” (1931, Director: Leontine Sagan) ["Girls in Uniform"]
This movie is one of the greatest “lesbian movies”, although the lesbian-theme isn´t that strong. I don´t want to describe every plot in detail, just a short summary: The plot takes place about 1900-1910 in Germany (although there are some minor hints that the story takes place in the 1930s, but nevermind). After the death of her beloved mother, Manuela is sent to a Prussian girls-residential school, that is extremely strict and quite horrible. Only one teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg, is kind and fond, and Manuela falls in love with here. The teacher is torn, because she also has feelings for Manuela, but must not show it. In the end Manuela tries to kill herself, but is saved at the last second, while the strict matron learns a lesson, to what a heartless regiment can lead.
Both Dorothea Wieck as the teacher and Hertha Thiele as Manuela are doing their jobs pretty well in this early German talkie. There are, of course, no sex-scenes or something like that (1931!), just one quick kiss, but you see on their faces what they feel. The way they look at each other tells very much.
Dorothea Wieck was hired by Paramount because of her portrait of the teacher and made two movies.
Wikipedia says, that Irving Thalberg from MGM liked that movie and the sensitive portrait of that theme so much that he approved to make “Queen Christina” with Greta Garbo in 1933.
Unfortunately, that movie is heavily cut today! The movie was cut for a second certification. During the Nazi-regime, the movie was banned in Germany (most likely because of the criticism of the military way they treat the girls, the criticism of authority and discipline, not so much because of the two women falling in love).
In 1949 the movie was again cut in Germany and approved for audiences of 6 years and older. This cut version is the one we have today. Nobody knows where the missing scenes are, or what they show. I hope they will be found and restored for a new Blu-ray release!
(There is also a remake from 1958, with Romy Schneider as Manuela, but that movie wasn´t good at all and is quite forgettable, except for the matron in that movie, who is very frightening and convincing in her role).
There are different written versions of this: Christa Winsloe, a german-hungarian lesbian writer, wrote a play in 1930 with this story, in 1931 they made this film of it (Winsloe wrote the script). After the movie, Winsloe wrote the novel after the film (and added the original ending, in which Manuela dies after her suicide) in 1933.
Winsloe and her girlfriend got killed in 1944.
“Desert Hearts” (1985, Director: Donna Deitch)
I was reading about the story of the movie and thought “Ok, another lesbian movie, this time from the 1980s, that means lots of unnecessary nudity and all that stuff”. But how I was wrong!
Here´s the beginning of the story, excerpt from Wikipedia:
In 1959, Vivian Bell, a 35-year-old English professor at Columbia University in New York City, travels to Reno to establish residency in Nevada (a process that takes six weeks), in order to obtain a quickie divorce. She stays at a guest house ranch for women who are waiting for their divorces to be finalized.
One of the women (played by Helen Shaver), is a lesbian who has short affairs, and she falls in love with the professor (played by Patricia Charbonneau), who is most of the time quite unsure, till eventually it comes to a first kiss. I won´t give away the ending.
What I like about this movie is, that both women are NOT supermodels, they look normal, and the story takes place in the 1950s, which makes such a story more interesting in my opinion. And this movie is not like so many productions from today: it does not play cheesy (piano)music when it comes to romantic scenes. There is only ONE sex-scene, but one of the best I have seen, not only because it doesn´t use any music at all, it´s filmed sensitive and erotically but NOT voyeuristic! And: the scene is not unnecessary, it doesn´t slow down the story; no, it shows how botch characters act and react to each other. You don´t have the feeling that the movie is try to give you some porn, but it tries to develop characters. Even Rogert Ebert wrote:
Then there is a sex scene of surprising power. Although "Desert Hearts" is not in any sense an exploitation movie, it does depend on that sex scene in order to work - because the movie's structure is so clearly leading up to just such a scene. (...) Then, eventually, comes the big love scene, and the reason it is so strong, I think, is that the director, Donna Deitch, didn't try to make it fancy. Instead of turning it into some kind of erotic music video - in which the real subject is not sex but the director's cleverness - she lets the scene build according to its own rhythms. The result is one of the few genuinely powerful erotic passages in recent movies. (Where did so many directors get the idea that passion in the editing room equates passion on the screen, and that if you have lots of fancy cutting, that indicates great sex?)
It´s also not a prude scene, where the actresses try to hide themselves from the camera. (I think maybe it was easier to make such a movie in the 80s …. Think of the movie “Splash”, where you can see the naked breasts of the mermaid – in a kids movie! Unthinkable today.)
And the ending is not an ending you would expect from such a movie.
“Tipping the Velvet” (2002, Director: Geoffrey Sax)
This is a TV-miniseries in three parts from the BBC, based on the 1998 novel of the same name by Sarah Waters. (Please ignore the horrible cover of the DVD! The movie is not like it looks here!) When I read the plot, I was interested: it takes place in the 1890s in Victorian England, and it was something about a girl who is fascinated and later falls in love with a female crossdresser, who plays a pants-role on stage (when a woman plays a male character on stage). I´m a big fan of the theatre and much more of the opera, so I wanted to see this, but I had doubts: this was produced in 2002, so this will surely be another kind of “The L Word” or something like that.
But again: I was totally wrong.
Together the movie lasts for 177 minutes, and it´s hard to describe the plot, because there are so many things going on. Basically it´s about the young woman Nancy Astley (played by Rachael Stirling, the daughter of Diana Rigg … I knew her face looks familiar while I was watching this!) who visits a theatre and is fascinated by an actress who plays a guy on stage. They fell in love, but then she is betrayed by the actress for another man, and also because the actress has a problem to be officially together with a woman. After that disappointment, Nancy travels around searching for the right woman, and has a lot of adventures. She works in the theatre and plays a man herself, she is a prostitute for a short time, then she is kind of a callgirl for a very rich older woman, who has decadent costume parties, etc. etc. I will not give away the ending here too, if she will find the right one or not.
So what do I like about the movie? First, the actors, especially the main character, played by Rachael Stirling, who is also not a supermodel but very charismatic and likeable, with an expressive face. You really feel for her when she is sad or happy. The story itself isn´t that great or very creative, it´s more the way they filmed it. Altough it´s a period movie and there are some dramatic scenes, it´s not really a drama, because there is much humor in it, it´s a lighthearted movie.
Yes, there are some sex-scenes, not only one, but they are tasteful, not voyeuristic, and always important for the plot, and they differ in the way they are filmed or staged, so it´s not always the same thing over and over again. When a sex scene happens without any feelings, the camera shows it from a distance, when there is more passion, the camera also is more sensitive, with the focus on the faces; sometimes you see naked bodies, but, as I mentioned, not in a voyeuristic way, it feels natural and like a minor matter.
But what I registered is that relaxed, laid-back feeling this British production handles nudity and sex-scenes. They show that stuff and you never feel uncomfortable, everything, even the more “weirder” scenes (when it comes to the rich woman) are handled very carefree. It´s not a (S)Exploitation movie, the actresses keep their dignity. It doesn´t say "Hey, look here, a naked body, isn´t that a big thing?!"
Some of those scenes also have some kind of humor in it, when they laugh together or the camera shows scenes from a weird angle or there are fast cuts.
I love American movies, but when it comes to nudity or sex, I register two extremes: either the actresses wear bras in the bed or cover themselves with a blanket and everything is very prude and "family friendly", or they have much freedom (like HBO productions such as Game of Thrones), and they use this freedom to show as much as possible, even if it doesn´t add anything to the story.
"Hey, let´s show some genitals! Why? Because we CAN!!"
Of course there are exceptions (like “Desert Hearts”), no doubt. But I think British productions handle that things more relaxed.
Finally I can recommend those three movies to everyone who is interested in seeing good "lesbian movies" with good actors and a good story, without porn, without (S)Exploitation, but feeling and passion, when it fits to the story and the characters.
Edited by Sandra Merkatz, 16 June 2017 - 06:31 PM.