Anyone who knows me well is aware of my undying love of period films. As a kid I used to watch them with my mom all the time. Our favorite was the ridiculously historically inaccurate Ever After starring Drew Barrymore. I admit it; I’m a sucker for elaborate costumes, sets, and olde timey accents. Another important element of the period film that was always a focus for me was the tragic romantic subplots. However, as a young lesbian I could see very little of myself in these movies. I never understood why the heroine, so resolute against settling down in an arranged marriage, would still eventually shack up with some charming Lord/Prince/whatever. As a 17-year-old in love with my first girlfriend and desperately searching for characters I related to, I became distraught over the fact that the movies I loved didn’t represent me. So my lifelong quest for lesbian period dramas began. With the recent release of Carol, I was inspired to compile this list of all the lady-loving period films that have sated my thirst for bodice ripping of the Sapphic variety.
1. Carol (2015)
This new Todd Haynes film set in early 1950s New York City is generating a lot of buzz. Autostraddle calls it “the best lesbian movie ever made” and Frank Rich wrote a great op-ed piece about Carol and the invisibility of lesbian culture. It’s based on the famous Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, written at a time when there were little to no lesbian representations and no happy endings for gay people if they were written about at all. Rooney Mara plays Therese Belivet, a shy young shopgirl/amateur photographer. She has a boyfriend she could care a less about and a tedious job. Then the mysterious and intriguing Carol Aird (the stunning Cate Blanchett) walks into her life. The plot is driven by the character’s internal emotional struggles rather than major twists and turns; it is a quiet and sensitive film. Blanchett as an icy blonde 50s housewife constantly draped in furs melts my heart. She captures this character perfectly and the chemistry between her and Mara is so tender.
2. The Duke of Burgundy (2014)
Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is a young entomologist studying butterfly wing classification under her mentor and lover, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knusden). The film focuses on their intense master/slave relationship, with Evelyn in the role of naïve maid to Cynthia’s serious and aloof Mistress of the House persona. As the film progresses, the fabric of their relationship slowly unravels, showing it to be much more twisted and complex than initially revealed. It is unclear what time period exactly this movie is supposed to take place, rather the atmosphere, clothing, and the score (written by Cat’s Eyes) are a nod to 50s & 60s film and style. All I know is everything is upholstered in red velvet, a Siamese cat is featured heavily, and there is a domestic argument about a custom-made human toilet chair. So basically, it is definitely worth watching.
3. Tipping the Velvet (2002)
Sarah Waters is the queen of lesbian period pieces. The BBC has adapted four of her novels into books, and three of them are on this list. Tipping the Velvet (the title is a euphemism for cunnilingus) is the Holy Grail of historical lesbian fiction. It is a sad, beautiful and hopeful story. I used to watch it all the time with my college girlfriend so now I have multiple reasons to cry about this movie. Taking place in the mid 1890s, the plot follows Nan Astley (Rachel Stirling), a simple oyster girl who spends her days shucking away in her family’s restaurant. Her life is plain and slow until one night at the local theater, she sees Kitty Butler (Keeley Hawes), a female vaudeville artist who performs in drag. Obviously, they fall in love and run away to London, where much drama and wild underground gay activity commences. It is a really fascinating look at sexuality and gender at this point in history. My favorite sequence is when Nan lives in drag for a period of time while making money as a male sex worker (badass).
4. Purple Sea (2009)
This Italian film is another interesting exploration of gender roles in the 19th century. Angela (Valerie Solarino) is a brash and outgoing woman living in a quiet seaside Italian village. After learning her childhood best friend Sara (Isabella Ragonese) is returning to their hometown, she becomes infatuated with her and makes no attempt to hide her love, expressing her adoration openly and often. Eventually Sara accepts her own love for Angela, and the two decide to live their lives together. In an interesting twist, Sara and Angela’s family agree to the arrangement as long as Angela lives as a man and takes over the family business. Beautiful aerial cliff side ocean shots capture the moody and solemn atmosphere of this film.
5. Farewell, My Queen (2012)
While every movie I’ve discussed till now is overtly (dramatically) gay, the lesbianism in this one is more implied (booo). However, it is a really beautiful film and it stars my wife Léa Seydoux of Blue is the Warmest Color fame. Agathe-Sidonie (Seydoux) is the official reader to Queen Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) during the last weeks leading up to her execution. She completely worships her Queen, staring at her longingly and remaining loyal to her, even till end. She is particularly invested in the “friendship” between Antoinette and La Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). At the time it was rumored the two had a romantic and sexual relationship. The costumes and sets are gorgeous so while the film is a little slow moving, you’ll never be left wanting as far as styling and visuals.
6. The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)
Anne Lister was a fascinating woman. In the mid 19th century, Lister lived in Yorkshire, England as a landowner, mountaineer, and industrialist who kept secret diaries written in code, detailing her various romantic affairs with women. The BBC mini-series (starring Maxine Peake) is based on her affair with married woman Mariana Belcombe (Anna Madeley). This production is incredibly well done and captures the overall badassness of this historical figure. Maxine Peake looks consistently fresh from the mountains, proudly handsome and angsty while wooing rural 19th century femmes using Lord Byron (in between studying Greek and Latin, of course). Various bejeweled top hats and smart skirt suits are worn, which I demand someone on Etsy replicate for me. I just want to be Anne Lister, to be honest.
7. Affinity (2009)
Anna Madeley appeared in another lesbian-centric production by the BBC based on this Sarah Waters novel. Madeley plays Margaret Prior, a woman grieving the recent loss of her father. She takes a position as a “Lady Visitor” at a women’s prison and becomes intrigued by inmate Selina Dawes (Zoe Tapper). You could say she develops an AFFINITY for her. Dawes isn’t like the other inmates; she claims to be able to commune with spirits. Once a respected medium, Dawes was incarcerated after a woman drops dead at one of her spiritual services. She insists upon her innocence, telling Margaret that one of the spirits she channeled committed the murder. A lot of broody, dark, prison atmosphere along with themes of rape, suicide, and mental illness make this one a little heavy, so approach with caution.
8. The Hours (2002)
Speaking of heavy stuff, The Hours is a great movie if you like feeling hopeless. Seriously though I don’t think I know any queer woman who hasn’t cried over this movie. Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf is enough to sob over, but combined with Meryl Streep’s storyline about caring for her best friend dying of AIDS, and Julianne Moore’s closeted, suicidal housewife character...well let’s just say it’s a doozey. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Michael Cunningham, the film follows how Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway effects three women living in three distinct time periods. The three main actresses are a powerhouse combination.
9. The Color Purple (1985)
I’m still holding a grudge about how film doesn’t show half of the relationship that Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) and Shug (Margaret Avery) share in Alice Walker’s Pulitzer winning novel, seeing as how Walker is an out and proud queer woman. But I can’t deny this movie’s greatness. If you don’t cry when Sofia (Oprah) can’t spend ONE DAY with her family because the horrible white woman she is legally forced to serve drags her away you have absolutely no soul. Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, and Oprah were all nominated for Academy Awards for their roles in this film and when you watch it you’ll understand why. If you haven’t read the book, just remember Shug and Celie are totally in love and the “Sister” song Shug sings to Celie will give you all the warm fuzzy feelings.
10. Cracks (2011)
You might remember Eva Green from the 2003 film The Dreamers (at least I do because she was topless in every other scene). In this movie, Green plays an eccentric teacher at an elite 1930s girl’s boarding school in South Africa. Miss Gribbon (Green) is beloved by all her students for the tea parties she hosts in quarters where she regales them with outlandish stories of her travels in far away lands. Overachiever Di Radfield (played by Juno Temple, whom I love) worships her. So when Miss Gribben develops an inappropriate obsession with one of her students, a beautiful Spanish aristocrat named Fiamma (Maria Valverde), Di is not pleased. It’s a disconcerting cycle of obsessions, culminating in a series of awful events. This movie heavily utilizes the problematic predatory lesbian trope quite liberally, but it’s really pretty and I love the costumes so it’s still on my list.
11. Sister My Sister (1994)
Adapted from the play by Wendy Kesselman, Sister My Sister is based on the infamous Papin murders. Christine (Joely Richardson) and Lea (Jodhi May) are sisters and live-in housemaids for Madame Danzard and her daughter, Isabelle. Both mother and daughter are completely unaware that Christine and Lea are carrying on an intense incestuous affair in their attic. I feel like kind of a creep for admitting that the love scenes between them are uncomfortably erotic and tender. The chemistry both actresses have as sisters and lovers is a truly masterful; they are both able to switch between roles with ease in a way that is warm and alarming. The film centers on the growing class tension between the sisters and their employers, which eventually culminates in the gruesome murders this story is famous for.
12. Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Apparently 1994 was a great year for lesbian themed true crime movies. This Peter Jackson film is based on the 1954 New Zealand Parker-Hulme murder in which Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) killed Parker’s mother. After wealthy Juliet transfers schools, her and working class Pauline develop an odd and obsessive friendship. As Pauline’s home life becomes tenser, her and Juliet create an elaborate fantasy world that they frequently escape to together. This was one of the first lesbian movies I ever watched and the innocent-but-not friendship portrayed struck a cord with me at an early age. It is a profound and scary movie with beautiful cinematography. Also, young Winslet and Lynskey are super cute. A must see to complete your dramatic lesbian movie education.
13. Aimee & Jaguar (1999)
Clara Bow brows, heavy kohl eyeliner, and forbidden love are the three phrases I would use to sum up this German movie. It chronicles the real life story of Lilly Wurst and Felice Schragenheim and their love affair in World War II era Berlin. Felice (Maria Schrader) is a Jew living under an assumed name. She is also an out lesbian who develops a crush on her sometimes-hook-up Ilse’s boss, Lilly Wurst, the wife of a Nazi officer. Yes, it’s all very dramatic. Schrader as Felice is painfully sexy with her suits and heavy makeup, hanging out with a group of lesbians that kind of reminds me of my friends. As a gay Jewish girl, I obviously imagine myself as this character. What makes the story even better is that these women actually existed and risked everything they had to be with each other. Break out the tissues for this one.
14. Fingersmith (2005)
Sarah Waters is nothing but consistent in her love of mid 19th century lesbian drama. Fingersmith follows Sue (Sally Hawkins), a thief living in the London slums with child trafficker Mrs. Sucksby (played by the great Imelda Stauton). When a drunken man who gambled all his money away wanders into their tavern one night, he presents them with a scam that could make them all rich. Before she knows it, Sue has signed on to swindle rich gentlewoman Maud Lilly (Elaine Cassidy). She takes a position as her lady’s maid, hoping to gain enough of her trust and take advantage of her naiveté. I think you can see where this is going...obviously there is kissing and many conflicted feelings on Sue’s part after falling so hard for Maud. This movie has big plot twists I won’t spoil that make it one of my favorites.
15. Bessie (2015)
Queen Latifah stars in the HBO biopic based on the life of Bessie Smith, and she does the role justice. The movie does a great job of both exalting Bessie’s strength and accomplishments while still acknowledging the foibles and demons that ultimately made her the complex person she was. The movie does not shy away from Smith’s bisexuality, even going so far as to represent a polyamorous relationship between Bessie, her girlfriend, and her husband, which may or may not have happened at all but it’s nice to think about. Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey is the number one reason to watch Bessie, especially the scene where she sings the famous “Prove it on me” in male drag (swoon). The film gives equal weight to Smith’s relationships with both men and women and is one of few non-offensive representations of bisexual women I’ve seen.
published December 8, 2015
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Annie Malamet is a fat, lesbian visual artist & writer living and working in Brooklyn. Her artistic and writing interests include queer art, sex work, female Internet subcultures, and digital trauma. Find her at on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.