If we’re not being viewed as more expendable side-characters to our straight protagonists on the big and small screens, then our deaths are still featured in gay-focused stories where we do get to take the lead. Of course death is a natural part of the human story and is appropriate in many movies, but “bury your gays” is a long-running trope that’s intercepted a lot of meaningful gay and lesbian storylines.
Because we don’t have many stories to choose from, we want the ones that do exist to not cark it. You’d be surprised how hard it was to think of lesbian movies I enjoyed where we don’t die, but these five take the cake.
1. Desert Hearts (1985)
This film might be from the 1980s but beats most made today. It’s not lame, like the muddy waters of lesbians have battled through since the 80s. Having an amazing lesbian director like Donna Deitch makes all the difference and Desert Hearts exemplifies that. The movie, based on the novel Desert of the Heart (1964) by Jane Rule, was the first feature film to portray a positive lesbian love story to the mainstream.
What makes Desert Hearts great is that it is a fantastic love story, regardless of the lesbianism. We don’t have to accept crumbs or tolerate inferior quality just because we want to watch a movie that represents us. The characters don’t have to die or suffer greatly or receive a bad ending for it to be an interesting film.
Comparing the movie to other 1980s love stories, it rivals the best heterosexual ones. The sexual tension is up there with Dirty Dancing. It completely smashes Grease 2 out of the park. This film is made with love and care… and didn’t need the same budget as other 80s classics.
Donna Deitch didn’t play around. The sex scene(s) are both tender and explicit. In the same decade that homosexuality was seen as a disease, when so many gay men were dying of AIDS — and were being taken care of by lesbians — Deitch didn’t hold back on the homosexuality.
I’ve read the book Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule, and Deitch doesn’t tone anything down while adapting it to screen. If anything, she turns it up. So if you want to see a woman leave her husband and find her true self in a free-spirited cowgirl, then this is the movie for you.
2. When Night is Falling (1995)
Patricia Rozema made When Night is Falling with tenderness and care. Lesbian films have a propensity for superficial storylines, pornified sex scenes, questionable acting and haphazard techniques. When Night is Falling is authentic, believable and heartfelt.
The passionate chemistry between Camille and Petra is palpable; the starkly different worlds of Christian education and circus performing could have so easily fallen flat with cliché. When Night is Falling‘s storyline could have been implausible but, because the movie involves themes of synchronicity, fate, and testing safety, a circus performer and a Christian educator are the perfect match.
Camille and Petra’s lives both involve faith. While Camille researches it, and yearns for the romance in her favorite mythological tales, Petra’s life depends on making the right move from a great height. They have a lot to learn from each other. Camille has an abundance of safety and longs for Petra’s wild life, whereas Petra secretly wants a bit of stability. A must watch for the romantics.
3. The Runaways (2010)
If you love female rebellion and rock music then I’m sure you already know and love Joan Jett, but have you watched The Runaways? The movie is about the rise of the band, The Runaways, that Jett was involved in with Lita Ford, Sandy West, Jackie Fox and Cherie Currie. The cast, including Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, are perfect representations.
If you’re looking for sweet romance and women settling down then this movie isn’t for you. But if you’re keen for some hard-hitting music, a powerful storyline based on truth, and Kristen Stewart playing a woman who loves women before she even came out (this is the movie that clarified it for me!) then it’s available on many streaming platforms.
4. Novitiate (2017)
Even though the lesbians don’t die in this one, and the ending isn’t sad, it’s not a cheerful movie. If you want sex scenes and a romantic ending then I’d give Novitiate a miss. If you want a detailed movie with great cinematography that involves a dark portrayal of the Catholic Church, the self-sacrificial devotion of nuns, and how cult-like groups prey on disadvantaged young people to join their ranks, then I recommend Novitiate.
While there’s not a lot of lesbian romance in the film, the ending gives me hope that almost-nun Cathleen will fall in love with herself as much as she wanted to fall in love with God. I hope she gives herself the space to explore her lesbianism… that the church stifled. Lesbianism and religion are often linked in art and Novitiate is no exception. The guilt and shame instilled by the Church reflects the real life experience of many lesbians, religious or not.
5. Carol (2015)
This is one of those rare situations where the movie is better than the book. The cinematography and acting add to what already existed in the book, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, and some creepy dialogue that should have been left out was left out. Who can resist the allure of Cate Blanchett? Who can’t relate to Rooney Mara, who goes to water in Carol (Blanchett)’s presence?
I know this is a controversial addition to the list. The rest of the films were directed by women. This one was produced by Harvey Weinstein. Cate Blanchett “opened up about the disappointment she felt when Harvey Weinstein boarded Carol as a producer,” and thinks he “should go to jail.” She believes his name being associated with the film didn’t help its reputation, which is true. She admitted he has behaved inappropriately with her.
Being informed on what we consume is important. Carol is a good adaption of a lesbian novel written by a lesbian author. The actors are fantastic, the cinematography is beautiful, and the focus on hands and glances is very lesbian, especially for the period it was set — the 1950s — when we had to suppress our desire and interpret romantic signals in a covert way. If you do want romance, chemistry, fate, and true love, then I advise you watch Carol.