Ah yes, the lesbian film—a quintessential part of the queer experience. Watching women on screen falling in love, feeling attraction towards each other, and grappling with the presence of heteronormativity in their lives can be life-changing for those still coming into their identity. It can also be a better moviegoing experience than the comphet alternatives that oversaturate nearly every screen worldwide.
Films about queer women can represent the sapphic experience and comment on gender roles and the male gaze in ways that change one’s perspective on art. All of this is to say—there’s nothing like a good queer film on a Friday night!
Some of the best queer cinema featuring lesbian couples is either foreign or older than you’d expect. So if you’re either new to sapphic films or have only watched contemporary and American ones, here’s a list of recommendations you might have yet to see.
Desert Hearts, directed by Donna Deitch, is the original lesbian movie. The film follows Vivian Bell, a college professor in the midst of a divorce, as she falls for the openly gay Cay Rivers—an artist with domestic issues and a wild side. Cay Rivers is the ultimate gay awakening, with her jean jacket aesthetic and carefree attitude. The film is the first, historically, to give its lesbian leads an unambiguously happy ending.
Made in the 1980s, the film was made on a shoestring budget, with money gathered mainly through fundraisers. Nevertheless, the whole project was a labor of love that still rings true to many queer women who either question their identity in the world or have their identity questioned by the world.
Unfortunately, many queer voices are lost due to the high prices of certain industries. Luckily, nowadays, there are more opportunities for marginalized people to get high-quality art and products without spending years fundraising and networking. While it’s the case for film, it’s also the case for perfume. Dossier attempts to make those left behind by the fashion and fragrance industries able to access cheap and high-quality perfume. If she had the chance now, Cay Rivers would 100% wear the fragrance inspired by Tom Ford Lost Cherry, filled with warm spices and vanilla, perfect for the desert.
If you’re not as into strict romantic drama but want a lesbian thriller, the 2016 Korean film The Handmaiden is for you. Talking in depth about this movie is difficult without spoilers. It’s best to go into the film blind. That being said, if you like slowly unfurling crime dramas with beautiful imagery and compelling character conflict—this film is a must-watch. The film also highlights queerness in relation to an oppressive male gaze that dominates the movie’s antagonistic force. If you like analyzing movies, you’ll also like The Handmaiden.
If you haven’t seen Portrait of a Lady on Fire yet, close this article and reevaluate your life. This 2019 French film is a hallmark of sapphic cinema, spinning a bittersweet love story between a painter and her subject that will leave a mark on you even years later.
The film uses gorgeous cinematography and mise en scene that evoke the painter’s eye, turning her love interest’s moments onscreen into little paintings of their own. From reinterpretations of the Orpheus and Eurydice story to a complete lack of speaking male characters—the movie has everything a queer woman could ever want and more.
Rafiki is a revolutionary film representing queer women in Kenya, where the film was banned due to its queer subject matter. Following two girls that fall in love and face violent retribution from their community, the movie is both a love letter to those queer women who are persecuted for their sexuality and to the country of Kenya itself. Filled with beautiful colors and landscapes, Rafiki is bursting with an explosive love that you can’t help but feel like you’re a part of.
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is a German film that came out in 1972. Not only does it explicitly depict queer women, but it also only features women in its cast. The film is gorgeously shot, taking place in one apartment studio throughout its protagonist’s relationship with another woman who she falls deeply for. It depicts power imbalances, gender expectations, familial trauma, and the intricacies of sadomasochistic desire, all while feeling like a close-up play. The film was also only shot in two weeks, making its stunning two-hour run time extremely impressive.
While there are a lot of iconic sapphic films out there, many of them are either old or foreign, so many don’t think to watch them. Even if you’ve watched the well-known Blue is the Warmest Color or Carol, you might still need to get around to these films. Hopefully, you will enjoy one of these films listed and feel moved by its depiction of queerness. Or, you can check out some queer novels to round out your Valentine’s month! The love between two women can be extremely cinematic, don’t you think?