Frameline, San Francisco’s annual LGBTQ film festival showcasing new LGBTQ talent and stories about the LGBTQ community, features much lauded films from the festival circuit.
This year, Frameline offered some expected fare — about the new marriage equality laws (Freedom to Marry), LGBTQ people in the public eye (Film Hawk, Political Animals), and major LGBT movements (Strike a Pose, Kiki, Check It) — but it also boasted more unconventional programming that expanded understandings of queer cinema.
Some films at the festival were only incidentally queer, like LGBTQ actress-filmmaker Cléa DuVall’s directorial debut, The Intervention. It’s a smart drama about a group of friends on vacation who plan to stage an invervention for a seemingly unhappily married couple. DuVall plays the lone lesbian who is making her first go at a serious relationship with Natasha Lyonne’s character. But this is an ensemble film. It’s as much about what goes on behind closed doors in straight marriages as commitment-phobia across sexual orientations. That DuVall’s character is a lesbian is never really commented on. She’s one of the group with her own set of fears and problems — not all LGBTQ specific.
Women He’s Undressed
Gillian Armstrong’s terrific documentary Women He’s Undressed about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly is equally about his work and his sexual identity — and how the latter complicated the former. He taught his lover Cary Grant how to dress. He found ways to make Bette Davis’ droopy breasts seem like they’d been propped up. And he designed the iconic costumes in so many classics Hollywood’s Golden Age. He picked up Oscars for his designs in Some Like It Hot, An American Paris, and Les Girls. Orry-Kelly also insisted on living as an openly gay man, authentic to the core. This was especially difficult in a time where appearing to be straight was crucial for your career. Despite his accomplishments, his story had remained hitherto untold, in part because he was a behind-the-scenes man, but more so because he had to keep so much of his life and identity a secret in homophobic Hollywood. The film is as fun and cheeky as Orry-Kelly, but it also works as an introduction to the art and craft of costume design: a fascinating, beautiful work.
Three of the festival’s lesbian coming-of-age stories about first love— Summertime, AWOL, and First Girl I Loved — are less about the difficulties of coming out than about how denying who you are can have catastrophic consequences. Homophobia is an ever-present force, but other social factors are just as influential on their lives. These aren’t films about external hatred or violence.
Catherine Corsini’s Summertime
In Catherine Corsini’s 1970s-set Summertime, Delphine (Izïa Higelin) falls for the cosmopolitan Carole (Cécile De France) when she accidentally finds herself in the middle of a women’s rights protest in France. As a girl from the country, where women do the same hard labour as men without decisionmaking privileges, the concept of feminism is entirely new to Delphine. The outspoken women in the group like Carole are exotic, grown up, and exciting.
Though there’s an obvious attraction between the two and plenty of lesbians within the group, Carole has a hard time coming to terms with her feelings — she lives with her boyfriend and can’t imagine life as a lesbian. When Delphine gets called home to care for the family farm because of her father’s illness, she transforms from a woman entirely sure of her sexuality to one who sneaks around behind her mother’s back. Corsini captures the era’s lack of women’s rights and opportunities and women’s were just as constraining as homophobia. It’s not always clear which is the driving force behind Delphine’s struggles, and Corsini is comfortable in that ambiguity.
Deb Shoval’s AWOL
Deb Shoval’s AWOL may be set in the present day, but rural Pennsylvania can be just as conservative as the world of Summertime. Again, this is a story of a younger, sexually assured woman, Joey (Lola Kirke), falling for an older woman, Rayna (Breeda Wool) in a straight relationship. But this love story is as much about the specificity of their socio-economic positions as it is about the effects of homophobia.
Rayna is trapped in her marriage as much by her own fear of being ostracized for being attracted to women as she is by her economic situation: she’s a mother of two without job prospects who relies entirely on her husband and welfare for support. When she falls in love with Joey, a woman with the potential to have the world at her feet but without the resources to make it happen, she recoils as much out of financial fear as internalized homophobia. Rayna’s fear of change forces Joey into a precarious position that can only end in heartbreak for them both.
Kerem Sanga’s First Girl I Loved
Kerem Sanga’s First Girl I Loved is set in a more recognizably modern, open, and cosmopolitan world. But since its subjects are teenagers, love is just as confusing and murky. It doesn’t take much for Anne (Dylan Gelula) to figure out she’s a lesbian, but labels seem beside the point to her. She has a crush on Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), and her desire to explore it is just about this particular girl. Her best friend Clifton (Mateo Arias) is in love with her, and their comfort with blurry sexuality means it doesn’t take much for clothing to get removed even when there isn’t reciprocated romantic affection. As Anne navigates the changing waters of her friendship with Clifton, Sasha’s parents extreme homophobia and her fear of disappointing them put a straing on her budding romance with Anne. The girls are kissing passionately one moment and Sasha is ghosting Anne the next.
In Being 17 and Closet Monster, however, internalized homophobia drives everything. Both are coming-of-age stories about young gay men, meaning both are intrinsically coming out stories. But the biggest obstacle to the protagonists’ happiness is the boys themselves — not their parents, friends, or community.
Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster (one of Canada’s Top Ten films of 2015) externalizes this struggle with body horror. Oscar (Connor Jessup) is haunted by a homophobic hate crime he witnessed as a child. The film is about him fighting the associated demons and embracing his sexual identity.
André Techiné’s Being 17 (or is it really Céline Sciamma’s?) is about a fraught friendship between two boys. They can’t turn away from each other or interact positively. It’s only by admitting their feelings to themselves and each other that they’re able to find peace and comfort in one another.
Fire Song and Girls Lost
Fire Song and Girls Lost are also coming-of-age stories and landmark achievements. Adam Jones’ Fire Song is the first Canadian film by and about a Two-Spirited (Queer and Native) person. It’s about a young gay man’s struggle to leave the reserve in search of a more accepting community where he can be openly gay. The film also tackles the other ways in which life on the reserve is confining. The community is plagued by suicide, perpetually coping with grief.
Alexandra Therese-Keining’s Girls Lost is a beautiful and moving magical realist film. Kim begins to question her gender identity when a bit of magic sends her — and her two friends — into the bodies of boys. For all of them, the experience is liberating as they face brutal misogyny on daily basis. Life as a boy is tourism for Kim’s friends. But it’s the first time Kim feels like he’s in the right body. As Kim, in this new body, explores a new friendship with a boy in his class, writer-director Alexandra Keining further complicates our understanding of general roles. Kim’s friend is just as trapped in the performance of masculinity as Kim felt in a girl’s body.
Looking: The Movie
The festival closed out with Looking: The Movie, the wonderful wrap-up special for the HBO Series Looking, one of the best shows on television. It’s also one of the only shows to be completely and unapologetically set in and around the gay San Francisco community. It’s fitting that the final image of the film is of the Castro Theatre sign, the very place where the film was screened and where much of Frameline took place.