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Not a pretty picture

No happy endings despite this year’s rather remarkable output of queer cinema

It seems highly likely that folks will look back at 2013 as a pretty notable year in terms of international gay and lesbian rights advancement, at least as far as same-sex marriage laws are concerned. France, New Zealand, Uruguay, Brazil and the United Kingdom were among the countries joining that particular party this year, just as the United States Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional in a landmark ruling.

As things go, one would think this might be reflected in what was also quite a significant year for portrayals of lesbian and gay characters in film. The privileged part of this world where lesbians and gays can increasingly put a ring on it gave us a rather remarkable output of queer cinema this year. From France’s Blue is The Warmest Colour and Stranger By The Lake to America’s Kill Your Darlings, Concussion and Behind The Candelabra to Canada’s own Tom at the Farm and Vic and Flo Saw a Bear, the film festival circuit (not the multiplexes, though that’s hardly surprising and besides the point) was ablaze with cinematic gays. But there were certainly no same-sex weddings up on those screens. Quite the opposite, actually.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour—perhaps the most discussed of any of these films thanks to it winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and, moreover, due to the intensely explicit sex scenes between its two leading ladies—is indeed the “sexy lesbian relationship drama” it’s consistently reduced to in small media blurbs. But (spoiler alert; the first of many)it doesn’t end well. After its lovers Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Lea Seydoux) enjoy a passionate few years of Sapphic bliss, their relationship crumbles into one of the most emotionally brutal breakups you’ll see on a big screen this year or any year, really.

Its French male counterpart Stranger By The Lake, which also won awards at Cannes and features explicit sex between its two extremely attractive leads, is even less romantically optimistic. In Alain Guiraudie’s thriller, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) meets Michel (Christophe Paou) at a cruising lake and begins a sexual relationship despite being secretly aware that Michel has brutally murdered his previous tryst. Franck follows Michel down an increasingly dangerous path that ends in something much more horrifying than a simple breakup.

Back here in Canada, things weren’t so lovely either. Denis Côté’s Vic and Flo Saw a Bear offered us the story of the titular lesbian couple (played by Romane Bohringer and Pierrette Robitaille), who are trying to rebuild their lives in the Quebec countryside after Vic is released from prison. But their attempt is met with some trouble from the past, leaving them, well, lying for dead in bear traps by the film’s end.

Somewhere in that same countryside, Tom from Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm is running for his life after developing a homoerotic relationship with the psychotic brother of his deceased male lover, who is essentially holding him hostage. Tom (played by Dolan himself) is a little more lucky by film’s end than Vic and Flo, but he definitely sees his share of bears as well.

Even in America, land of the cinematic happy ending, lesbians and gays were having a rough go at their onscreen love lives. Two major true stories—Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra and John Krokidas’s Kill Your Darlings—gave us depictions of famed gays Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) during very crucial relationships in their lives: Liberace’s with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), and Ginsberg’s with Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).

Though things start out promising in both regards, Liberace ends up trying to turn Thorson into a younger version of himself via plastic surgery, leading Thorson into a path of drug addiction before Liberace throws him out. Ginsberg, meanwhile, falls for Carr during college, but Carr’s sexual confusion, and involvement in the murder of another one of his male lovers, problematizes the continuation of the romance. The relationship still ended up feeling imperative enough in retrospect that Ginsberg ended up dedicating his famous Howl to Carr years later, only for Carr to demand its removal.

Another notable American entry to the gay and lesbian film canon this year was Stacie Passon’s Concussion, the one and only example here that features a contemporary same-sex couple who are actually married. Abby (Robin Weigert) is a fortysomething lesbian who lives with her wife and two kids in New Jersey suburbia. But she’s clearly not satisfied, and begins acting out by spending her days working as (you guessed it)a high-end lesbian prostitute. It proves both thrilling and lucrative, but Abby ends up coming back to her wife and their life when she begins to fear she’ll lose both. But Abby doesn’t seem particularly happy with her ultimate decision. She simply seems too scared to pursue a less normative life that might make her feel much more fulfilled. And Abby’s is truly the happiest ending of them all.

So while same-sex marriage became a growing reality in many parts of the world in 2013, filmmakers not-so-kindly reminded us that not all relationships should be destined for the altar.