Queer narratives on the big screen are not a new phenomenon. They have existed overtly – or steeped in code – since the beginning of the film industry. Although there are many examples of queer-coded characters, there are enough direct queer narratives to choose from the pre-2000s. Often prevalent in these narratives is an attempt to tell palatable, heteronormative stories that feel stifled in their pandering rather than genuine feats of the storytelling surrounding more complex queer experiences. There is a lot of praise for the progression of queer cinema in the American landscape, yet I’ve found the examination of queer desire lacking [in some films], falling short of only confirming one’s identity for the sake of a label.
When I think of queer desires, I think of more than explicit sex. I think of more robust, non-normative behaviours of intimacy and yearning not meant to be legible to anyone but the characters involved. Through the history of film, I have found a refreshing exploration of queer desire in 20th-century films around the world. Though there is a lot to be said about the auteurs of these tales and their intention, the end product has much for us, viewers, to claim, inspect, and enjoy. Although many come to mind, these five films have truly stood out for their more visceral displays of uninhibited, messy attraction. Whether through the melodramatic acting or the unexpected scenarios, these films utilise the unsubtle aspects of queerness to entertain.
Mädchen in Uniform (1931)
Set in an all-girls military school established to train young girls to become dutiful mothers of soldiers, we follow 14-year-old Manuela, who enrolls after the death of her mother. Described early in the film as “sensitive” and “flighty”, Manuela’s countenance is filled with melancholy and melodrama in response to the school’s stiflingly rigid rules. But amid the tyranny is Fräulein von Bernberg, a more compassionate teacher, so much so that “all the girls have a crush on Fräulein von Bernburg.” And Manuela is no exception as her infatuation grows throughout the film, culminating in a grand (almost Shakespearean) drunken love confession that goes as well as one would expect. Radical for its time, both in its anti-fascist sentiment and blatant queer desire, the film also manages to never explicitly endorse the teacher-student dynamic whilst not villainizing Manuela’s unabashed display of her newfound attraction. Even at the end, when Manuela, unable to cope with never seeing Fräulein von Bernburg again, attempts to take her life, the rest of the girls rally to save her, ending the film with silent glares of condemnation against the unsympathetic Headmistress.
With an all-female cast in a production written and directed by women, such a blatant sapphic piece with all the constraints of the 1930s sociopolitical landscape took the repression of young girls, their teen angst and self-expression and managed a display so tender and engaging that still sits at the helm of queer cinema.
Happy Together (1997)
It goes without saying that Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together is one of the most recognizable pre-20th-century queer films. Ho Po-Wing and Lai Yiu-Fai’s love is a tumultuous one, laced with seemingly romantic grand gestures that fall into unadulterated resentment on a whim. A trip to Argentina, an already obvious plight to salvage their relationship, exacerbates a truth they skirt around – the familiarity of their romance isn’t enough to sustain it.
What should have been an escape from monotony in a romantic foreign land revealed to them all the ways their willingness to commit was equally foreign to them. Their good times rely on infatuation, while their bad times facilitate their codependency. Po-Wing, immediately resorts to promiscuity with white men, only returning to Yiu-Fai when he’s penniless or discarded. Lonely in this new country, Yiu-Fai keeps reluctantly taking him back while constantly ignoring the valid hostility and resentment he feels. Wong Kar-Wai employs the symbol of the Iguazu Falls, an ideal of their relationship so beautiful yet so far, exploring a relationship as turbulent as the waters. It is 96 minutes of suffocating emotional intensity that culminates in a melancholic catharsis that only heartbreak – and Wong Kar-Wai – can render.
Following Sonoko Kakiuchi, the protagonist of the 1964 film, Manji, is a whirlwind best portrayed by the titular Buddhist swastika, a depiction of the passionate chase of its four main characters vying for someone just out of reach.
Note: please remember the swastika was a religious and cultural symbol in many cultures before it was appropriated by the Nazis.
Sonoko, a bored rich housewife in a loveless arranged marriage, begins to take lessons at a ladies’ art school to occupy her time. Much like Mädchen in Uniform, her obsession is apparent when the subject of her life-drawing piece is not of the model present but instead of a fellow student, Mitsuko Tokumitsu. After rumours circulate, Sonoko decides to clear the air with Mitsuko, and the two quickly decide to become friends, spending time on long walks, barely holding back their flirtatious quips. Director Masumura Yasuzō, influenced by European cinema, wanted to portray “the ideas and passions of living human beings” who were more concerned with their wants than the norms of society.
Sonoko’s unbridled desire for Mitsuko becomes evident in her insistence to redraw the portrait to perfectly capture Mitsuko’s body and even in the blood oath she makes with Mitsuko’s persistent husband-to-be to allow the two to share her. It becomes most apparent when Sonoko’s husband falls for Mitsuko leading to a troubling throuple filled with drugs, jealousy and suicide pacts. Undoubtedly, this sounds like a questionable portrayal of bisexuality and polyamory but what stands out is that Sonoko and Mitsuko’s relationship is done on their terms. Even when the men in their lives push back, their desires are bent to accommodate these women who have no intentions of being apart.
One of the more unique films discussed in queer film theory spaces is Nagisa Ōshima’s Gohatto. When a handsome young samurai named Sozaburo Kano enters the Shinsengumi during the Bakumatsu period (the end of the samurai era in the mid-19th century) his beauty brings many to question his sexuality (with some pursuing him) throughout the film. Like Masumura, Nagisa Ōshima wanted a story that focused on the individual. Rather than having his characters feed into their desires, he focuses on the suppression of those desires for the sake of the collective. There is also the limited inclusion of women (who are primarily there to seduce Kano or confirm his heterosexuality), purposely framing the film within the confines of the militia housing.
While his sexuality is always in question, even as his body is lusted for, Kano remains passive almost inviting their gazes. By exploring homoeroticism within an institution that is by nature a standard for hypermasculine homosocial relations, Oshima questions how patriarchy restricts sexual expression and individuality. In the last act, Hyozo Tashiro’s obsession (and possible relationship) with Kano has deemed the result of him being “touched by a certain madness”, that is, putting his desire before that of the group. This inevitably leads to their deaths – a calculated move by their fellow samurai to douse any flames of rebellion against the status quo. Using the jidaigeki (period drama) genre and Japan’s greatest symbol of masculinity – the samurai – doesn’t allow the subject of the film to stray. His distinct limitations allow him to disregard the conventions of these genres and instead ridicule contemporary structures of masculinity.
If I’m talking about the theatrics of 20th-century queer films, there are going to be outright questionable choices that beg for some intentional shift of perspective. The film begins with the birth of the titular, Alucarda. Before dying of childbirth complications, Alucarda’s mother, Lucy, elicits the help of gypsies to take Alucarda to a convent for fear that the devil will come for her. Fifteen years later, Alucarda befriends a new orphan, Justine. One day they happen upon an old castle in the woods where they find a crypt inside. After professing her love to Justine, they both unwittingly disturb the grave of Alucarda’s mother, prompting an evil force to overtake them.
What ensues is a lot of nudity, satanic rituals, and abrasive reactions from the nuns and Father of the convent. The demonizing of queerness is something that is all too familiar, equally so in media and the church. Whilst it is easy to see the correlation of this sapphic love to sin as reductive and distasteful, I want to consider the commentary on the Catholic church. When I step back from the sensationalism of a young naked girl being exorcised with sharp implements, I see the people holding them. I see the repression enforced by this patriarchal institution that has long loathed the sexual freedom of women. As their relationship grows, so does the church’s opposition to it. Justine and Alucarda are portrayed as “sick” and “unwell”, and the choice to juxtapose their sexuality with something more frightening than devils isn’t so peculiar a choice.
As these auteurs examine their country’s socio-political landscapes, institutions of marriage, religion, and the patriarchy at large, they’ve placed their queer characters plainly, validating their want for love, attractions and heartbreaks. And, as the past informs the present, so does the history of film, and I have found queer desire in 20th-century films across the world to be a great avenue for film lovers to explore.