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Cannes queer movies: All about love, sex and art

Cannes queer movies: All about love, sex and art

It would be one film that goes down to history.

The story represents gender identity in a subtle and gentle way, and it is a political 

As a straight femalethis is the first film that made me wet.

At the beginning of Pride Month, we wanted to review a few nominated films from the Queer Palm in Cannes and talk with you about the sex、love、life and art found in the films.

Laoyu, a film professional from SHQFF, has organised a discussion with three professional film critics who have reviewed countless films and attended Cannes many times. They talked about some famous queer film contenders for the Palm Award that they have seen over the years, and also about the Queer Palm Award itself.

120 battements par minute aroused applause from the film critics; Carol led their discussion to visual presentation and storytelling, causing some to say that “film language will develop no more”; and it is Adele’s story that not only caused Tuoluo (film critic) forget her professionalism and  impulsively post to her blog, but also made the straight girl Gucaocao (film critic) wet!

From this sparkling discussion, SHQFF has summarized these focal topics, so you can get a glimpse of these queer films from the professionals’ perspectives.




Are queer films at Cannes not queer enough?

Actually, I think, no matter Teddy Award or Queer Palm, they have a very key problem towards all these queer films. When the judges were choosing the films, they had not really watched them yet. As the result, some of them may not be relevant to LGBTQ themes. They may have picked some movies that they thought were relevant to LGBTQ themes. For example, Whiplash and The Lobster both have been nominated to the Palm Award. But despite how they define “queer”, these cannot actually be counted.


To be honest, I don’t think this year’s film How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a queer film. Some so-called metaphors in the film are difficult to understand, and I am not empathetic for those films.


I think How to Talk to Girls at Parties incorporates a kind of pan-LGBTQ culture and subculture because it has these symbols and alien garments, like the gel coat and the mouth-coverings. Besides, in this film, one family wears the same color clothes: red, blue and yellow. Actually they are colors of the rainbow. Also, the alien’s stars are different in colors, seven kinds of colors in total. Again, they are the colors of rainbow! What’s more, the director is a queer himself—he directed Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The plots also include some LGBTQ elements. For example, one of the human boys wants to make love with an alien girl, but the alien girl splits herself and produces one more alien boy who wanted a threesome. At the first time the human boy couldn’t accept it, but when he got into the cluster the second time, he changed his attitude, and accepted this invitation of threesome; it may be that he thought the boy is a part of the alien girl.




Cannes vs Berlin: one is not attractive enough, and another has a poor selection?

I really don’t think these gay films in Cannes are attractive enough, after all there is another option: Berlin. Though the film list of Berlin this year really sucks, its branding is quite good. When you screen your movie in Berlin, a logo of it with the film immediate declares its inclination. Cannes, from a different perspective, is more artistic.


I started attending Cannes film festival from 2012. At the same year, Laurence Anyways, directed by (Xavier) Dolan won the Queer Palm. Maybe it was after this event that I began to know about this award.


I began to attend Cannes in 2013, but it was not until Stranger by the Lake won the Palm that I knew its existence of the award, by then I had returned back from the film festival. The Queer Palm is not so famous compared with the Teddy in Berlin.


Perhaps it’s because Berlin prefers LGBT films, but also picked some flops.




Discussion on two queer movies from this year’s Cannes:
While They is very young and fresh, does Nos années folles try to be old-fashioned?

They talks about gender identification. There are two kinds connotations in this film: first, the main character didn’t know his/her gender, and this is the character’s gender identity issue. And there is one more, his/her sexual orientation. This film discussed the gender and sexual orientation separately. What’s more, they made a comparison: the differences between gender and sexuality and the feeling of being a foreigner as Iranian American. But it just took a dip. Because the main character is a teenager, he didn’t have any real sex relationships, and he only experienced some confusions and obstacles. And his experience just ended there. The film also does not include some sexual initiation topics as many teenage gay films usually do. So it can be called a fresh film with a soft touch.

Nos années folles also talks about transvestism, and it’s about the straight male’s transvestism. The male lead didn’t think he is female. He knows he is a married straight man who loves transvestism.

However, the love relationship between him and his wife is quite complicated and twisted. He would get jealous and crazy because of the relationships between his wife and other men. Though it may have not get as further as the French film Une nouvelle amie, still, they are very much alike.



In Nos années folles, what is the mentality of the straight male being cross-dressed?


He was influenced by one political event:the military service. During his cross-dressing, he got a feeling of pleasure. And it just shows that the film festival can mix many elements up, but also can discuss one point specifically and even solve the problem. For example, you can be gay; you can be a cross-dresser; and you can also be straight. But homosexuals may not be transvestites, and they also may not think they belong to one fixed gender identity like male or female.


I have seen Nos années folles, and I feel it is too plain and old-fashioned. It could be more on fire if it were made by Ozone. This film is kind like Une nouvelle amie. The director wants the film be way more vintage and more delicate and sophisticated, which would make it distant from our imagination about this theme.




Is this year’s Cannes hit 120 battements par minute your No.1 Queer film in the In competition category?

Personally speaking, 120 battements par minute is too heavy for me. But it might be considered as a monumental film in history. As I wrote in my article before, “Fear is the antidote for desires.” After I watched this film, I was terrified, depressed and so sad for a long time. It is a magnificent film from all aspects, no doubt, but I don’t want to watch it again. I don’t want to go through such a mental experience once more.


From my end, I reckon 120 battements par minute is the best film in this year’s competition category. Not only because it is a queer film, you know, to be fair, but also because of its’ extraordinary script-writing. The characters are so grounded, realistic and dimensional. And the relationship between characters being represented on screen is so exquisitely exploited in the traditional French Cinematic way. I like to see the possibilities between characters being explored on screen, for e.g, like in Strangers by the Lake and Rester vertical, even before you figured out the relationships between characters, their sex scene is already on. And you would be like, wtf…


I agree with Y. 120 battements par minute is the best film of this year’s Cannes. It did describe a different “possibility” regarding the relationships between people. I had interviewed the director during the festival and he said, “To be in a relationship with a HIV positive person in the Act Up is a very promising thing. In the normal relationships, for example, if I was dating a man, I could dump him if I didn’t like him anymore over six months, but it may get weird in Act up if your relationship keeps on. Because in the beginning, you two started with casual dating, but then he got sick, and highly possibly you might be the guy who companies him until the death knocks his door. There was one line in the film that deeply touched me, (I don’t speak French), and the English subtitle says: “I’m sorry. It has to be you. “


My favorite film of this year’s Cannes is Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. To be honest, 120 battements per minute didn’t speak to me at first. After I watched it for the first time, I very much don’t like the death scene; but I really adore the scenes that are about their debates, protests and campaigns. And during these scenes, their private life scenes are intersected within. I really like that. But in the last chapter of the story, the story changes the focus from the ensemble to the two main characters, and in the end, only on the protagonist. I think this is such a cliché. But after a while, after I thought about it and after chatting with friends, I started to accepting it. The director has done a great job dealing with the cliché. He did the scenes in a very subtle way. And it matches the film’s attitude, the attitude of living a positive life.


Yeah, that feeling of “I want to live a decent life as a human, and I want to love and have sex.


Yeah. The positive attitude is throughout the film. You see the protagonist died in the end, but the other people are still joking about him. We like that, and this is not a sad story. But Lucas said this film is too sad for him, I don’t agree with that.


Well, I think this film is so real. As we all know, directors use their own experiences to tell stories, and some of the stories are based on true events. I think why we were so moved by last year’s Toni Erdman is because it is so real, and there are so many fake stuff on internet right now, but the true things are always more powerful.

When I was interviewing the director, he told me that there is a scene in the film whereas the protagonist’s boyfriend is not mentally able to change the clothes for his dead lover. And he asked his friend to do it for him. And I was that “friend”. The director said, he was pretty sad back then, but he wasn’t fully empowered by the emotion; instead, he felt the whole situation was quite funny, and he wanted to say this to the dead guy’s mother “I think he’s dead.” You know, when you were at that moment, there was not enough time for your brain to process emotions. And this explains why the protagonist’s boyfriend didn’t cry at all until he was having sex with another person that night. That’s so real!!

And the director handled the humor very well. The director recalled, there was a nurse on that day, asking everyone do they need any coffee. He didn’t put that in the scene in the end, because he thought this was a little bit too much, even it’s real. And he balanced the death and the humor this serious topic that brings so well. And we were all touched by it. Especially when they were changing clothes for the dead protagonist, it was full on. You have seen his body before, he is awfully skinny and there were terrible ulcers on his skin. But after his death, compared to what you’ve seen before, when he was changed clothes, you would think he is just a boy.


I think his death scene could be cut shorter. It is too long. But I like seeing his friends coming one by one, and the focus was pulled from one person to the ensemble.


I agree. I also like it where they scatter the ashes of the dead. It combines sports、night club and everything together.


I like that part as well.


The ending scene is the only scene in the film where visual experiments have been tried. It mixed cut the sex scenes, protest scenes and nightclub scenes all together, and it is a powerful summary of the whole film.


I think the opening is also visually haunting, as well as the scene whereas they were recalling their previous campaigns. I think the whole film is directed well. And I personally like the scene where the protagonist’s boyfriend was giving a hand job to him in the hospital.


Yeah, that scene is also very positive, not in the sad way. They didn’t hold each other in arms and cry, instead, the protagonist’s boyfriend did the hand job for his love immediately, and when it was finished, they laughed out loud.


This part exemplifies its dignity.



Why is the cinema hit Carol so well received by audiences?

Speaking of the queer films that I have watched in these years’ Cannes, the first one came to my mind is Carol, but I don’t like it.


I don’t like Carol as well.


Actually, I quite like Carol. It is a pretty straightforward story, but it is not just about the narrative. Todd Haynes, like all the other queer directors, he very much focuses on the visual representations in the film and how to unravel the emotions layer by layers throughout the lens. Same for Almodovar and Dolan, they all have special and strong visual languages.


But I think Almodovar is actually very good at storytelling.


Yes he is, as well as his visual languages. But Todd Haynes is kind of different. In Carol, the story is pretty straightforward, but what’s more fascinating is the emotions that he played with the visuals. For e,g, like the last long gaze of Cate Blanchett, it is emotionally powerful. In the last scene, Therese came back to Carol. And it is difficult to show this impact on screen, the impact that Therese’s decision that brought to them. I am not sure whether this scene is added later or not, but the director had directed it so well. Basically the whole scene was covered by still shots, but when Therese came to Carol, the camera started to swing, and the music was on. I was very calm until this scene, and I cried for the ending.


I said I don’t like Carol. But it does not mean that I was denying its excellent visual representations, actually I do value visual representations in films and I vote for it.


Yes, Carol is visually amazing as well as Dolan’s Mommy. In Mommy, the characters fight from the beginning to the end, and I find it very annoying. But when it comes to his mother’s imagining scenes, I was shocked, and I was stoned. I think queer directors are particularly good at telling stories through well-designed visual languages, and this is very important to cinema. Todd Haynes is fantastic at setting up the film’s visual tones and because of that, I love Carol. But this is not the same reason for me loving Brokeback Mountain. I was utterly touched by its’ storytelling, the narrative. I sense and feel for it. But towards Carol, I don’t have deep feelings. Nevertheless, I have to say, this is a well-made film featuring highest industry-standard production values.


To me, storytelling is very important, and on this level, Carol could not be considered as a great film.


But films have been on for a century. The stories’ structures are constantly changing, but the screen language could not develop anymore.


I don’t agree with you on this point. I don’t think there are new stories anymore, they are just old stories being put in a new suit, and no stories can really amaze you in terms of how refreshing the stories’ structures and plots are.


I am not saying that stories have to surprise audiences. Rather than that, I reckon the story’s structure and the political metaphors under the surface are constantly changing, following times. But screen language is a well-formulated language, hard to change. Nowadays, film has reached to a stagnation stage, and within this context, screen language has become more and more important. As I said before, Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is my No. 1 film in this year’s Cannes, simply because of its’ excellent visual languages; definitely one of the best in the In Competition category. It is a perfect example in its genre, as well as Carol. We all agree that both of the films’ screenplays are not that good, but the directors’ exquisite screen language saved the films.



Is Todd Haynes a good director?

I think Todd Haynes is a good director since he is good at directing casts. In such a boring story, he managed to hold up the story. It’s nothing but the good choices of characters and proper descriptions of their emotions. The actors’ performances are also good. It can be said they are attributed to Todd Haynes’s great casting direction.


Yeah, that’s right. Actors are directors’ touchstones. It’s not strange that Cate Blanchett acted well, but it’s the director’s contributions to Rooney Mara’s wonderful performance. Her other films are not as glorious as this one.


Actually I don’t think she played well in Carol, hahaha.


I find the good aspect of Rooney Mara’s performance is that she didn’t deliberately act. You know some people they just overexert themselves easily when acting, but Rooney Mara kept steady. You don’t talk, just hold the breath and look at her. This is not easy.


I don’t think she played bad. I just don’t feel it was a good performance. Cause I believe performance is literally to act. For example, how a certain scene proceeds needs the act.


I feel Todd Haynes is not an all-round director. All of his screenwriting is not good. I agree his visual effect is awesome, especially the vintage style. Just because of this, I feel that him is too obsessed with himself. This strong point is repeated again and again and this makes me feel a little sick.



 T: Speaking highly of La vie d’Adèle on Weibo with much regret afterwards

As for lesbian-themed films, I watched a-little-after 7:oo pm La vie d’Adèlein Cannes, 2013. After the film, I rushed to eat spaghetti. On that day, all the journalists tweeted they were gonna eat spaghetti. As soon as I came out the cinema, I felt this film was incredible and on the spur of the moment, I wrote a commentary. At that time, I sent a quite sensational Weibo post and it was forwarded a lot.

But, I regretted. Because I consider such sensational commentary is irresponsible for me. Since I hold a press card in Cannes, I should be responsible for every film. It is wrong to mark 1 star or blame it on Douban when you just watched a film or even not finished watching this. You need a process to think and digest. And you can’t criticize with subjective feelings. Or you are a movie fan rather than a movie critic. Movie critics wonder why the director to does so. Directors don’t aim to make you feel comfortable, they are purposeful.

Take last year’s It’s Only the End of the World, Personal Shopper, America’s Sweethearts and The Neon Demon as examples, if I straight away made comments on Douban after I watched them, no film reviews would be positive. That Dolan’s work, from beginning to end, is just roar. Personal Shopper, what the hell. America’s Sweethearts is an aimless repetition for three hours. None of feelings were positive. Even when you watched a good film, you still need to think about the negative aspects and whether there is something needs improvement. You’d better get rid of subjectivity and then watch them. So after the reflections, I told myself never to be impulsive to make comments right after watching films.



La vie d’Adèle: How do lesbian stories create empathy?

Before I watched La vie d’Adèle, I had watched this director’s non-queer themed film, Vénus noire. I find La vie d’Adèle is no better than this one. At that time, after we watched La vie d’Adèle and came out the cinema, everyone was really exited, whereas I was calm. Cause I sat on the stone step for three hours and really needed to answer the call of nature.


I have also watched Vénus noire, and actually it’s better than La vie d’Adèle. Although film critics can’t only rely on subjective feelings to make critics, but probably, the reason I like La vie d’Adèle is precisely a sort of subjective feelings. Half of those people who watched La vie d’Adèle in other film exhibitions were disappointed cause they didn’t have the on-the-spot feeling. For Toni Erdmann, it’s the same. The atmosphere at the scene raised the film’s popularity.


My experience might be different from yours. The first time I went to Berlin, I found the enthusiastic atmosphere of the film festival was a reasonless and deviant status. Everyone was like a tourist but I stayed sane, and would not rely on subjective feelings to make a judgment on the film. Just like America’s Sweethearts and It’s Only the End of the World, at the beginning of the films when I felt uncomfortable, I started thinking why the director did this. For example, family issue in Dolan’s film matches my point of view.


Well, actually, it is still subjective feelings that we just said. For those people who don’t have family issue, it would take more time to think about this.


That’s true. I admit that everyone’s comments on films can be conditioned by their experiences. The boundary of your experience is the boundary of your world. But La vie d’Adèle managed to be universal. It explores something larger than life and universal. It’s not the reflection of life but with a lot of art creation. This is a little girl’s life and all the things are kinda treatments and a forceful desensitization treatment. It feels like someone open everything of life.


In relation to ‘universal’, I’m afraid that La vie d’Adèle doesn’t do well enough. The emotions conveyed through the story are universal, which would make straight men and straight women cry. But the story isn’t universal and it can only happen between two females.

I’d like to talk about another film, Call Me by Your Name. This film has truly managed to be universal. It’s a love story between a teen boy and a male adult. But throughout the film, a little girl can replace the little boy and the story still makes sense. This is indeed universal.


Actually I was thinking, in a relationship, can it be truly universal?


I consider human beings are specific and everyone should be treated specially. So I believe this exists. I am a Kantian and I believe emotions are universal.


I think no matter gays or lesbians, everyone has a different emotion expression way, a way to make friends and make love. They are more or less different. But when deep emotions are involved, they are universal.


That’s exactly the point why I really appreciate La vie d’Adèle. It’s not a queer film and needs no such label.



Their discussions will continue, as there are no easy answers to these questions.