Select your language

Download HER

A Very, Very Brief History Of Lesbian Cinema

Jan 29, 2014

By Sarah Leeves
As with all history lessons, you never get the full story; some bits are forgotten, dumbed-down or missed out entirely. If film history is anything to go by, many viewers would believe that us lesbians didn’t exist on screen until the 1970s. For your pleasure and entertainment, I have compiled a short list of some iconic Sapphic films that you may not have heard of.  You’re welcome.

Mädchen in Uniform (1931)
A whole seventy-five years before Loving Annabelle hit our screens German schoolgirls were falling in love with their teachers. Mädchen in Uniform is a forgotten gem of early cinema and also a middle finger to the fascist movement that was sweeping Germany at the time. The pupils of an all-girl boarding school are besotted by their teacher Fräulein von Bernburg (great name) and one pupil, Manuela, voices her feelings.
Of course, the principal is none too pleased with the revelation and confronts Bernburg who responds with possibly the greatest line ever written: ‘What you call sins, Principal, I call the great spirit of love, which has thousands of forms.’ Predictably, the film was destroyed by the Nazis (bastards) and all but forgotten until those plucky feminists of the 70s rediscovered it and took it to film festivals, establishing it as a true lesbian classic. Thanks ladies.

Night of the Iguana (1964)
A women’s church group takes a guided tour round Mexico with a male tour guide; it’s just asking for trouble really. To start with, the self-appointed leader of the group Miss Fellowes is both hilarious and stalky. She has an unrequited love for a young blonde lady called Charlotte and the situation is less than ideal for her. Miss Fellowes is just about managing to keep it together until she spots Charlotte swimming  with Shannon (the guide) and screams from the shore ”You only got to come on this trip because of me! … Stay away from that man!” Awkward.
As any sane lesbian would, Fellowes plots her revenge by trying to get Shannon fired by the company but no avail. Having made a rod for her own back, Fellowes is knocked down a peg (or seventeen) by a less than sympathetic remark: “Let’s level for a while, butch ole gal. You know what you’re sore about, what you’re really sore about, is that little quail of yours has a natural preference for men!” Miss Fellowes; well and truly friend zoned.

The Hunger (1983)
What list of lesbian films would be complete without an obligatory salute to the vampire movie. The Hunger is a brilliant film starring David Bowie (side note: trousers not as scrotum-tickling as in Labyrinth), Susan Sarandon and the insanely gorgeous Catherine Deneuve. The plot is one of the hunt for eternal life; vampire Miriam (Deneuve) has the ability to live through the life-blood of others and grant everlasting life to her sexual partners… until she gets bored of them. Sarah (Sarandon) is a scientist studying the effects of the aging process and becomes embroiled in Miriam’s game.
After a lengthy seduction (two minutes), Sarah and Miriam end up in bed sucking the blood out of each other; for the advertising buffs amongst you, you’ll note the music in the scene was also used in a British Airways advert a few years ago… mile high club indeed. The film is sexy, sultry and Sarandon-y. Not a classic perhaps but a true gem of sexual awakening and it has one key ingredient: Deneuve.
From defiant, anti-Nazi schoolgirls to immortal, piano-playing vampires, cinema has some secret lesbian icons. Although their portrayals of lesbianism differ (and sometimes not in a good way), it is important to look out for the forgotten gems and remember that, since the early years of cinema, there has always been us.

Sarah enjoys coaching trampolining and drinking well-made mojitos… Not necessarily together. She writes columns for DIVA, reviews for her local paper and postcards for friends. Find her on Twitter: @sleevsie22

Newsletter Sign Up