Pariah (2011) and Stranger by the Lake (2013)

why the oscars need to champion challenging queer cinema

Call Me by Your Name’s success is sweet and all, but to truly move forward we need to catapult our more bleak and sordid stories into the mainstream.

by Douglas Greenwood
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06 March 2018, 9:54am

Pariah (2011) and Stranger by the Lake (2013)

Before we begin, let's make something clear: Call Me by Your Name, the coming-of-age drama that has spent the past 12 months causing heartbreak and turning Timothée Chalamet into a bonafide star, is nothing short of a masterpiece, and it deserves to be seen as such. It's touching; a comely, inherently queer film that defied the odds stacked against it, winning a greater following than a work of art considered “gay” by the public usually does.

But it’s a rarity. An LGBTQ+-themed film going semi-mainstream doesn’t happen all that often, but there’s certainly a commonality between the ones that do. Those films tend to romanticise queer existence, painting it as an imperfect but blushing and warm way of being; not dissimilar to the way straight people make sense of their burgeoning sexuality too. Those that do attempt to focus on the political elements, like Gus Van Sant’s Milk, have their efforts offset by enlisting a starry, mainly heteronormative cast and the backing of blockbuster studios. Independent films about the realities of queer culture, however, have a harder time finding their audience.

Call Me by Your Name’s director, the Italian purveyor of high drama and romance Luca Guadagnino, made the conscious decision to shift his vision of Elio and Oliver’s summer romance a few years forward from the book’s original setting, to avoid the hysteria of when the AIDS epidemic hit. Making a queer film without dwelling on the complications of queer reality isn’t always a bad thing – if we were constantly bombarded by life’s dangers, we'd starve ourselves of the kind of escapism that we desperately need sometimes. Besides, Call Me by Your Name’s climactic scene, “The Speech”, made by Elio’s father, feels like the kind of landmark movie moment that could help young closeted kids feel more comfortable about the prospect of coming out. The urgency might not be there, but it’s hardly an ineffective example of LGBTQ+ moviemaking.

The past decade has given us so many complex and militant examples of queer cinema -- many of them stemming from mainland Europe’s arthouse scene -- that have failed to get the same shine as films like Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name did. Perhaps we shouldn’t blame the films themselves, but how reliant we are on flashy awards ceremonies like the Oscars and the Golden Globes to give these films a wider platform, and how foreign-language cinema in particular suffers if it’s not given that recognition.

Take Alain Guiraudie’s Hitchcockian masterpiece Stranger by the Lake as an example, a film that expertly set a scintillating murder-mystery against the sexually explicit backdrop of a sun-soaked gay cruising ground. The immaculate script has been compared to the work of Patricia Highsmith, and the storied French film journal Cahiers du Cinema named it best film of the year, alongside a slew of other American publications. But France chose to enter the middling Saint Laurent over it at that year’s Oscars, knowing that biopics -- not gay films -- fare well with the Academy.

Then there’s Dee Rees of Mudbound fame, and her 2011 drama Pariah. A story of a Brooklyn-hailing young woman of colour coming to terms with her lesbian identity, while simultaneously grappling with her working class social status, it gained widespread critical acclaim when it bowed at Sundance seven years ago. When awards season came around, the film’s lead actress, Adepero Oduye, gained an Independent Spirit Award nomination, but the big leagues snubbed her. Even Meryl Streep found time to shout her out for her remarkable work in her Best Actress acceptance speech for The Iron Lady that year.

While the standard of films with queer protagonists seems to be getting stronger, the Academy still struggles to make the right calls on what to honour. We’ve had a remarkable 12 months for fresh LGBTQ+ cultural figures as a whole (we’ve got killer queer musicians like Nakhane and Hayley Kiyoko, and novelists like the inspiring Joseph Cassara), there’s this still an unavoidable sense of tokenism that feels like it’s permeated the voting process at movie ceremonies like the Oscars. Honouring three queer masterpieces in one year? Perhaps they’d consider that overkill.

The story of a trans singer at odds with the people around her after the death of her boyfriend, A Fantastic Woman rightfully made the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, but missed out on what would be a landmark Best Actress nomination for its lead star, Daniela Vega. Meanwhile, there was another film that deserved just as much shine, but was snubbed completely.

In fact, what was arguably the year’s most potent and proud example of LGBTQ+ cinema didn’t even make the Academy’s 10-strong longlist. France’s entry was the angry, militant and celebratory BPM. Set in the suburbs and nightclubs of Paris in the early 90s, it’s a film about ACT-UP, an activist group that existed to boldly thrust the AIDS epidemic into the face of the politicians, pharmaceutical companies and religious figures who were trying to ignore it.

At this year’s Césars, France’s equivalent of the BAFTAS, it swept the boards, winning six of the 13 awards it was nominated for, including Best Film. Its cast, headed up by a trio of monumental performances from Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois and Adèle Haenel, is so gay and diverse that it puts the hetero-favouring choices made by Hollywood casting directors to shame. It’s the epitome of queer celebration, but by failing to make it visible on their influential public platform, the Academy make it more difficult for pertinent films like it to get made again.

It’s still a love story, but it’s bound together by the kind of harsh truths that are so absent from films like Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name: that queer existence is wonderful, yet lethal. We should treat cinema as a medium that can force the world to face that.

Cinema is a pivotal point of contact for so many young queer people, who find themselves contemplating their identity or struggling to face the idea of coming out. If we continually present them with serene visions of blushing romances set over Italian summers, we start to remove the reality of queer existence from everybody’s line of vision.

It’s worth noting that arthouse cinema is still a seldom-encountered luxury for those who live outside of big cities; the films that slip through the cracks and reach a multiplex audience rely on the support of the Oscars to do so. However outdated they seem, ensuring these glitzy ceremonies do their part in celebrating LGBT+ cinema – in all of its heady, sexual and furious glory – is more important than any Academy voter could believe. We lose part of ourselves when it feels like the culture we consume doesn’t reflect our lives, but allowing a challenging queer movie to take home an expensive golden statue has the symbolic potential to help change that.

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