Hollywood has made major strides in LGBTQ+ representation in recent years, but it is small-budget international features that have been ahead of the curve in telling stories. Smaller audiences and budgets allow international filmmakers to bring a liberated sensibility to their films, busting taboos and disregarding the expectations of mainstream audiences. International cinema displays queer lives in all their diversity and beauty, in a range of contexts far wider than we can see in Hollywood.
The following list could be endless – there is a great variety of international queer cinema on offer – yet here is where to start:
One of the big names in international cinema is Spanish filmmaker Pablo Almodóvar. Starting out in the 1980s, and gaining international recognition by the late 1990s, his films are characterised by melodrama, bold colours, complex narratives, and irreverent humour. Perhaps his most famous film is 1999’s All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2000. The film tells the story of Manuela, a nurse whose son is killed in a car accident on his seventeenth birthday. She travels to Barcelona hoping to find her son’s father, a transgender woman, who she’d never told about her son. The film is a celebration of women and sisterhood, and explores issues such as AIDS, homosexuality, faith, and transgender identity.
Almodóvar treats his subjects with generosity and sympathy, especially significant at a time when there was still a huge amount of stigma around AIDS, and transgender representation in Hollywood was invariably damaging. All About My Mother stands out in its representation of trans women through the scene-stealing Agrado, a transgender sex-worker, notably played by a trans actress. She is witty, grounded, and sympathetic, delivering a monologue towards the end of the film that explores her trans identity in a way far ahead of its time; it ends with the memorable line, “You are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.”
Secondly, French filmmaker Celine Sciamma has explored queer themes in a number of her films, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire from 2019 is her most widely acclaimed work. The film, set on a remote island in Brittany in the 18th century, follows the aristocratic Heloise, and a painter, Marianne, commissioned to paint her portrait which will be used to help secure her marriage to a nobleman. A slow-burn romance develops between the painter and her subject, with the film exploring the nature of power and desire. Sciamma described the film as a “manifesto about the female gaze,” and a key theme of the film is what it means to be looked at, and to direct your gaze at others.
Other films take more abstract approaches to queer themes.
Titane, for example, is a French body horror drama written and directed by Julia Ducournau: it became the second film directed by a woman to win the Palme d’Or in 2021. It is a bold, surreal, and often shocking film that mostly defies description. The protagonist of the film is a female serial killer who is attracted to cars, who is later taken in by a firefighter who mistakes her for his son who went missing 10 years previously. A strong stomach and high tolerance for weirdness is needed to enjoy the film, but it explores gender identity, androgyny, and the malleability of identity in a way that is truly unique.
There are also exceptional international documentaries that explore queer themes. French documentary Little Girl (2020,) tells the story of transgender seven-year-old living in provincial France, and the experiences of her and her parents as they struggle to understand each other and gain acceptance in the wider world. The film is a testament to the strength of trans children, and the depth of parental love in the face of an unaccepting society. The film’s considered and empathetic approach is a welcome contrast to deeply polarised debates in the press about trans children.
Whilst artistic and entertaining, such films also have a unique social value. Roger Ebert, one of the most respected film critics of all time, described a film as “a machine that generates empathy” through helping us “understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.” In this context, the utility of queer cinema is obvious; empathy is a powerful tool in advancing LGBTQ+ rights globally.
Particularly noteworthy in this regard is A Fantastic Woman, a Chilean film from 2017 that follows Marina, a trans woman who deals with grief after her partner dies, and hostility from his family and Chilean society at large. Political scientists Carsten-Andreas Schulz and Cameron G. Thies argue that the international recognition that the film received temporarily made support for trans rights a matter of national pride in Chile, paving the way for the passing of new laws that advanced trans rights in the country. When stories are told authentically, and when people are in charge of telling their own stories, cinema can be powerful in generating empathy for marginalised groups, leading to tangible political change.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but I hope that it may inspire anyone to step out of their comfort zone. These films may feel ‘foreign’ in their settings, subject matters, and styles, but in their humanity and empathy they are universal.