CLASSIC CIRCUIT CELEBRATING END OF PRIDE MONTH:
To commemorate Pride Month, the Criterion Channel unveiled “Queersighted:” a collection of lesser-known LGBTQ+ classics broken into thematic subcategories. One section, “Turn the Gaze Around,” focuses on films that reverse cinema’s default heteronormative male lens. Within each of these narratives, conflict stems from nontraditional objectification. Men find themselves at the mercy of a radical perspective shift. Meanwhile, women step into the role of both voyeur and sexual liberator of their gender. “Purple Noon” (1960), “Querelle” (1982), and “Water Lilies” (2007) are prime examples of queer cinema aggressively subverting Hollywood’s dominant gaze.
Before there was Matt Damon in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” there was Alain Delon in “Purple Noon” working an even bigger sweat on moviegoers as the title killer. This original French-language adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s homoerotic crime thriller is shot with whirlwind European romance in mind. However, it’s the audience that’s being swept off its feet, their lover a smoldering man whose beauty is the only truthful thing about him. Director René Clément’s script, co-written with Paul Gegauff, turns Delon’s physical attractiveness into deadly star power, beguiling everyone in his orbit while hatching scheme after scheme.
Although the background is provided, Ripley lies so easily that nothing about him can be certain – his nationality, his purpose, or whether he truly has the friendship connections he says he does. The story promises no answers to Tom’s mysterious nature, just the sensual thrill of being an accessory to his crimes through a voyeuristic lens.
Because of strict censorship guidelines, Clément was unable to overtly present any evidence of sexual entanglement between Delon and Phillippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), the man whose identity he steals. That, however, doesn’t keep the pair from oozing sexual tension, Ripley even claiming he once worshiped the ground Greenleaf walked on. This is more than just simple identity theft – Ripley wants to transform into this masculine Casanova idol of, perhaps out of shame of his own male “shortcomings.”
Ripley stalks the streets and rooftops of Italy and France with feline dexterity. There’s a coded subtext of femininity within Ripley that he’s determined to never reveal. This self-deception can be construed as a metaphor for closeted gay men who go to great lengths to prove their masculinity. Even once “out,” there is still pressure to conform to gender behavioral expectations. Clément never lets Ripley get away with eluding his prettiness, the camera always available to capture the actor’s stunning features. His piercing blue eyes hypnotize everyone from Greenleaf’s girlfriend (Marie Laforêt) to the detective close to cracking the case. The most prominent instance of gaze inversion is when Marge is framed at an eye-level medium shot that then cuts to a low-angle closeup of Ripley’s face peering up in soft lighting. When the camera captures the male face with the same tender intimacy as a Hollywood starlet, you know a revolution has begun.
Two decades later, bisexual German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder released “Querelle,” a lurid cesspool of sexual fluidity set in the French port city of Brest. The sets are noticeably fake, serving more as a denizen of purgatory than an authentic replication of the famed military harbor. Here, men in uniform are at the forefront of cinematographic appetite. Male patriotism – considered the furthest thing from homosexuality in conservative minds – is subverted into a symbol of sodomy. This provocative twist on sailors unwinding in a portside bar and brothel reassesses the male mentality of separating love and sex.
For officer Querelle (Brad Davis), a first-time murderer and anal sex recipient, he yearns to connect with someone that can quell his confused rage without judging it. The problem is constant solicitation by every officer, his closeted transgender captain, the local police force, and even the bar owner and his wife. Fassbinder uses the cloud of sexual disorientation that envelops Brest to criticize military indoctrination. Enlisted men are forced to subscribe to one code of masculinity that prohibits any kind of deviation or agency. In “Querelle,” sex between men is encouraged (a substitution for fraternity), but kissing is a sin. Querelle even admits he only “receives” because anything else means “making love” to someone of the same gender. This obscure adaptation of Jean Genet’s novel uses voyeurism as a means of extracting truth – Querelle and the rest of the sailors only provide glimmers of repressed gay love when driven mad.
Céline Sciamma’s “Water Lilies” emboldens the power of gaze when governed by a woman. Through the lesbian auteur’s lens, three young girls’ sexual rite-of-passage is handled with sincere trepidation. The camera plays a key role in distinguishing when Sciamma’s characters feel comfortable taking that giant step, and whom with. 15-year-old Marie (Pauline Acquart) is not emotionally prepared to explore that side of herself yet. Instead she becomes enamored by the school’s synchronized swim team, especially the most physically developed member, Floriane (Adèle Haenel).
Ashamed that her body still appears prepubescent compared to her female classmates, Marie remains entranced from afar. It’s never clear whether Floriane is an object of self-idealization or true love. Such ambivalence taps into the confusing and fragile mindset of adolescents in their formative years. Marie and Floriane are physically opposite in many respects but adore what the other lacks: restraint versus compulsion.
Marie’s best friend, Anne (Louise Blachère), has insecurities about her weight but exhibits her natural curves to attract a young jock with eyes for Floriane. Anne quickly learns that bodies are not vessels into the soul, especially for young men looking for detached gratification. Sciamma depicts the cold cruelty in male carnality, manipulative, and self-serving. In contrast, Marie and Floriane portray female sexual exploration as a slow endeavor built on lasting trust. When Marie agrees to fulfill Floriane’s sexual initiation request, it’s because she understands the sanctity of the first-time experience. Sciamma’s camera tastefully observes the stark physical differences between the three girls, using shifting perspective to capture how young girls feel gazing at a familiar body that isn’t their own.