The brush of lingering fingertips. The gaze held for a second too long. The forbidden, burning desire, hidden in plain sight under a carefully coded tactile presence – a hand on a shoulder in a sports match, the adjustment of an art model. These are the scenes that take you by the hand, finger to your lips, and usher you into the lush, liminal space of queer desire. This is the realm of commercially successful contemporary queer cinema, characterised by films that transcend the confines of arthouse distribution and gain mainstream critical acclaim.
The slow-burn romance, the subversive love story, the sensual classical score – it all hinges on the delicate, unspoken rule that all of it is happening ‘somewhere else’. Displacing the queer is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that has influenced the viability and commercial success of gay cinema from the late twentieth century onwards.
What has changed in recent years is the kind of displacement at work. Where once queerness existed on the fringes of society, under the cover of darkness – the sordid city streets and underground clubs – now it has been thrust into the sunlight, quite literally, through the use of remote natural settings. The complexities of touch, the intricacies of the queer gaze, the reliance on the body as translator, as secret keeper: these are portrayed with exacting, microscopic finesse, driven by a cinematic paradox of voyeurism.
In terms of mainstream hetero-dominant cinema, the role of queer film has long been to subvert in a manner that adheres to a heterosexual fantasy. This is a ‘safe’ subversion, something familiar and perceptible within the strict parameters of heteropatriarchy, achieved through the utilisation of historically established tropes. One example is the fastidious gay criminal prominent in mid-century noir films – think Bruno Antony in Strangers on a Train or Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon – and his glamourous lesbian counterpart, like Pussy Galore in Goldfinger or Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct.
Queerness in pre-1970s mainstream Anglo-American cinema is frequently characterised as villainous, scheming, threatening and dangerous. The physicality of queer sex is implied through careful, precise moments of light touch and glance, tensions of eroticism hidden beneath the veneer of heterosexuality. A wink and a nudge to the queer viewer, carefully enclosed within the behavioural tropes of ‘boys being boys’ and ‘gals being pals’. Look at eponymous rebel Jim Stark’s tactile flirting with his adoring friend Plato in Rebel Without A Cause, or the familiar rhythm of sexual domesticity conveyed by charmingly nefarious Brandon as he adjusts the tie of doe-eyed Phillip in Rope. There is a distinct note of performativity to these interactions, a perceptible awareness of the camera. Even these moments of implied intimacy are deliberate and elusive: we are seeing brief moments of tacit erotic familiarity, but there are more important things going on elsewhere, and our attentions are swiftly displaced. These films all work within the same contextual thread, correlating the queer with danger, social subversion, and ultimately, death. ‘Bury your gays’ as the trope goes. Contemporary queer cinema is perhaps not so overt in its destruction of gay love, but tragedy almost always ensues.
In contemporary cinema, queerness is othered through geographic, historical, and socioeconomic displacement. The luxurious villa in Call Me by Your Name, remote and idyllic; the desolate, lonely mountainside in Brokeback Mountain; a craggy, near-uninhabited island of the coast of Brittany in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. These are sparsely populated, often silent locations, the magnitude of nature echoing a romantic obsession with the sublime. The most intensely emotional scenes in Call Me by Your Name and Portrait of a Lady on Fire occur against the backdrop of breathtaking natural scenes, crashing waves and vertiginous cliffsides, wide open fields and overgrown hidden pools. Nature functions as secret-keeper, a silent voyeur. As viewers, our desire to invade the privacy of queer love is matched by our breathtaking affinity for the natural sublime, and cinema gives us two for the price of one. Long gazes and lingering touches are not weighted with the same degree of defiance, and the natural space serves as an impetus for both erotic moments and frank discussions. In this way, queerness is once again associated with a realm of fantasy and impossibility, implying an inevitable return to the heterosexual status quo.
Capitalism is another strong displacing force in modern queer cinema. Just as we are inclined to accept the ‘different rules’ of an idyllic European setting (‘Gay or European?’, ponders Legally Blonde), wealth comes with an understanding of bourgeois hedonism, a lavish and notably exclusive lifestyle. These characters discuss philosophy, art, and literature, they recite Greek poetry in one moment and play piano concertos from memory the next. They are sophisticated, intellectual, and extravagantly rich. Queerness and capitalism, however, are inherently antithetical, and even the wealthiest, most blue-blooded ‘raised right’ characters are marred by disappointment and tragedy – Elio, crying alone by a marble fireplace; Carol Aird left alone in her luxurious fur coat.
When regarding the recent canon of commercially successful queer cinema, there is one film that stands out in direct contrast to the bourgeois, dominantly white portrayals of homosexuality: the 2016 Oscar-winner Moonlight, which centres on a young Black man’s coming of age in working-class Miami. Black masculinity, vulnerability and sexuality are explored here through the arthouse lens, and the film utilises elements of this ‘new’ brand of queer cinema through distinct nature-based metaphors and geographical displacement. The tender moments of physical affection between Chiron and Kevin take place at the beach in the dark, the sublimity of the ocean revisited as both a space for transcendence and destruction. This is yet another example of a transient, idyllic setting serving as both backdrop and narrative catalyst in the fulfilment of queer desire.
Moments of tenderness are rendered with palpable emotion, and the film is visually mesmerising, but there is an argument that much of Moonlight’s considerable commercial success can be attributed to its ‘sanitised’ portrayal of queer romance, showing nothing more explicit than a kiss and an artfully concealed handjob. Queer film has long been associated with voyeuristic titillation, especially in the case of straight directors filming needlessly long or cringe-worthy sex scenes that are clearly designed for heterosexual (male) pleasure. There is a glimmer of hope, however, in the box-office success of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a film written and directed by a lesbian, starring a lesbian; the sex scenes playfully interrogate hetero-dominant ideas of queer sex, exploring the body’s capacity for erotic pleasure without focusing on audience gratification.
The empathy and tenderness of recent cinematic successes offer hope for honest and diverse representations of queer realities to be portrayed on the big screen. There remains, however, a distinct note of tension between the inherent anti-capitalism of queerness and the commerciality of mainstream cinema. Authentic, uncensored depictions of queer life must not be repackaged into something palatable for a heterodominant context, solely for financial benefit. Whether contemporary commercial cinema will truly be able to accommodate queerness in all its paradoxical antithesis to capitalism, remains to be seen; for now, we must allow space for both interrogation and celebration.
Image: Still from Portrait of a Lady on Fire