I’m not a big romantic (big surprise!). And I’m a pretty harsh judge of lesbian movies. But when the two meet and really work, it’s magical. Here are 10 romantic lesbian films (in no particularly meaningful order) I think are worthy of mentioning (and renting) for Valentine’s Day —or anytime you want a good dose of Sapphic sex and romance.
Drifting Flowers (Fleurs à la derive). This 2008 Taiwanese film is the second in a triptych of gentle, evocative lesbian films by director Zero Chou (The first was Spider Lillies). The story of Jing, a blind lounge singer, her younger sister May, and Diego, Jing’s butch lover who both girls call their family, is extremely sexy and endlessly moving. Because Jing is blind, her romance with Diego brings a heightened sensuality to the screen – Jing must actually feel (physically and emotionally) her way through life. When she reaches out to her lover, the effect is tantalizing.
This classic stands up well to the test of time. Made back in 1985, this story of sexual awakening stars the very sexy Helen Shaver as an uptight college professor who meets a local cowgirl in Nevada where she has come to get a divorce. The climatic love scene is slow and sensual, and the exquisite pleasurably pained look on Helen Shaver’s face on experiencing lesbian sex for the first time still sticks in my head as sexy and thrilling decades later.
Made in 1995, this tale of two teens in Small Town, USA discovering their lesbian sexuality is electrifying. Through exploring their mutual attraction and combatting ignorance and homophobia in rural nowhere Randi and Evie, the two girls in love, move past all that is irrelevant in their world to find themselves and each other.
Made as a mini-series for the BBC in 2005, this feature has been celebrated as a timeless lesbian romance. Sue Trinder, a pickpocket from the London slums sets out to swindle the rich and arrogant Maud Lilly. When Sue unexpectedly falls for Maud, all bets are off. As their romance blossoms, the passion of their relationship becomes incandescent.
This recent film (2009) might not be technically proficient, but as a romance it’s sizzles with the burning life-long love and between Hannah and Rachel. It’s the best (if not only) depiction of lesbian romance in later life. No, kids, love and sex do not have to wither or die with age. The erotic connection between these two screen characters, played out through their lifetimes to the very end, is awe-inspiring.
As much as this is a political film, it is also a movie about the enduring romantic bond between two women through a world war. The smoky, stolen Sapphic sex is thrilling to watch. The harrowing nightmare of Nazi Germany and the murder of her lover cannot put out Lily Wust’s fire for or memory of Jaguar, for even several decades later Lily mourns her lover and remembers the passion they shared.
Disclaimed as not a lesbian movie (or relationship) by writer/director Diane Kurys, this 1983 film starring French actresses Miou-Miou and Isabelle Huppert as two inseparable women with each their own heterosexual relationship and family, is still one of my favorite “Sapphic romances” of all time. Whether they were sexual or not, Lena and Madeleine had an emotional bond that could not be broken by anyone or by any means. The two women leave their husbands, move in together with their respective children, and live and work with each other until one of the women’s death.
Cheryl Dunye is filmmaker and star of this 1996 feature about documenting a nameless Black actress known only as The Watermelon Woman. The first feature film made by (and starring) a Black lesbian, there is a playfully romantic relationship is weaved in and around the film’s more political content. A male New York Times critic found the film endearing and engaging while a white male member of Congress wanted to pull NEA funding because of the “explicit sexual content”. In any case, another breakthrough film -- for lesbians of color, ergo, all lesbians.
I cannot fail to mention this groundbreaking film. When I went to the Go Fish screening at the Angelika Film Center in NYC in 1994, the place was packed with dykes desperate to see a lesbian film. Well, Go Fish now lives in the annals lesbian movie herstory as a breakthrough lezzie rom-com that also established the careers of many of the cast and crew who have since gone on to make more lesbian cinema and represent us in other mediums as well.
A period piece based on the true story of British landowner Anne Lister, this 2010 movie made the film festival rounds last year and won various accolades – and not without merit. The sensuality of the love scenes between Lister (Maxine Peake) and the love of her life, Mariana Belcombe (played by Anna Madeley), are sensuous and affecting. The fact that Lister lived out the latter part of her life with another partner, Ann Walker (Christine Bottomley), makes Lister’s “secret” love for Mariana, which she kept hidden in encrypted diaries, all the more romantic.