• Stills from 'The Handmaiden', 'Kiki', and 'Helmut Berger, Actor', which are screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival. (Melbourne International Film Festival)Source: Melbourne International Film Festival
From a film that tackles trans identity and homelessness while showcasing New York City's ballroom dance scene, to John Waters' favourite film of 2015, we take you through the queer highlights of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Stephen A Russell

11 Jul 2016 - 12:34 PM  UPDATED 11 Jul 2016 - 12:34 PM

When prince of provocateurs John Waters - aka the Pope of Trash - dubs Helmut Berger, Actor his favourite flick of the year, it’s a must-see for those not faint of heart. 

A doco featuring the iconic and terrifyingly awful actor Helmut Berger, it's just one of the 65th Melbourne International Film Festival’s (MIFF) queer highlights, sitting alongside the voguing, activist teens of New York’s still vibrant ballroom scene in Kiki, as well as Park Chan-wook’s hilariously saucy take on Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, The Handmaiden.

MIFF programmers Al Cossar and artistic director Michelle Carey reveal these and more in their top ten queer picks.

Don’t Call Me Son (Mãe só há Uma)

Brazilian writer/director Anna Muylaert’s Don’t Call Me Son stars Naomi Nero as Pierre/Felipe in a refreshingly gender fluid take on a teenager’s fractious coming-of-age when the mother he grew up with ends up in prison for abducting him and his sister as babies, forcing them to fit in with their far more conservative biological family.

“There’s a huge degree of tension and it’s a very interesting character piece coming at a point in this young man’s life when he’s finding his whole identity as well as his sexuality,” Cossar says. “It’s an insightful commentary around Brazilian class as much as anything else, very sensitively written.”

At only 80 minutes, Don’t Call Me Son screens with half-hour Australian short Problem Play, which sees a young woman coming to terms with her identity while rehearsing Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.


The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)

Oldboy director Park Chan-wook’s fabulous reimagining of Sarah Waters' Victorian era, London-set novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden relocates the sensual lesbian crime caper, starring Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae Ri, to 1930s Korea under the heel of Japanese colonial occupation, with more than a hint of The Duke of Burgundy.

“It’s a double and triple crossing, with a couple of characters looking to manipulate an heiress and her acquired wealth,” Cossar says. “In a way it’s actually quite lurid and tawdry, almost trashy, but at the same time it’s obviously the work of an absolute master, so beautiful and precise in what it does, very visually striking and erotic.”



Being 17 (Quand on a 17 ans)

Very much in the vein of his adored Wild Reeds, French stalwart Téchiné is a natural fit with rising star writer/director Sciamma (Girlhood, Tomboy) on screenplay duties in Being 17’s achingly tender take on two teenage boys, played by Kacey Mottet Klein and Corentin Fila, warring even as they’re inescapably drawn to one another.

“It’s at that point in adolescence going on manhood where there’s a lot of suppression of complicated feelings between these two young men who ostensibly hate each other and have a bit of a bullying relationship which erupts into violence at times,” Cossar says. “It’s done in an incredibly considered, intelligent and compassionately written way.”


Helmut Berger, Actor

Andreas Horvath is a brave man, tackling an intimate doco portrait, Grey-Gardens-meets-John-Waters-style, of Austrian actor Helmut Berger (The Godfather: Part III) whose atrocious behaviour saw Little White Lies magazine describe him as, “one of the most vile, self-serving and ugly (with a tiny pinch of the tragic) documentary subjects in the entire history of cinema.”

“It’s a pretty shocking film,” Cossar laughs. “Helmut is an incredibly abject human being who obviously had a reputation for all kinds of hedonism in his heyday but is very clearly past that. There’s a troubling dynamic with the relationship between Helmut and Andreas, oscillating between pure hatred and scorn and trying to seduce Andreas. It won’t be for everyone, you’ve been warned.”



Touted as an unofficial sequel of sorts to the spectacular Paris is Burning, Sara Jordenö’s Kiki revisits New York’s voguing kweens in the city’s impressive ballroom scene, showing the world beyond the battling dance offs, tackling homelessness, trans identity and the fight for equal rights in an ethnically diverse youth community. It won the Teddy Award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.

“It’s a fantastic and fascinating highlight of our Dance on Film showcase,” Cossar says.


From Afar (Desde Allá)

Taking out the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Venezuelan writer/director Lorenzo Vigas’ debut feature From Afar sees an older man - played by Alfredo Castro - getting more than he bargained for when he picks up a young hustler, portrayed by Luis Silva.

“Their relationship is fraught with aggression from the get go and that feeds into something which is very complicated and gets filtered through a degree of repression and animosity before it gets to a very interesting place,” Cossar says. “Very beautiful and cinematic.”

Do straight audiences understand the most recent Golden Lion winner?
'From Afar' will challenge audiences, as the final scene divides viewers with its apparent ambiguity.



MIFF favourite enfant terrible Sebastián Silva (Nasty Baby) helms the Dance Dance Dance segment of compendium film Madly that also features shorts from fellow actors and directors Gael García Bernal and Australian Mia Wasikowska.

It’s a New York-set queer love story that’s really lovely,” Cossar says. “He’s someone who’s a natural provocateur in terms of the buttons he pushes but I felt there was something different with this film that we haven’t seen in his features.”


Winter at Westbeth

Melbourne director Rohan Spong returns to New York, following his heart-rending musical doco All the Way Through Evening, about Mimi Stern-Wolf’s concerts honouring queer composers lost during the HIV/AIDS crisis. This time he visits the ageing residents of Westbeth community housing in the West Village, an artist-run space where the residents have been able to grow old in colourful style, including queer talking heads poet Ilsa Gilbert and dancer Dudley Williams.

“It’s very lovely and warm-hearted and speaks to the delight of creation,” Cossar says. “Westbeth has been their lifelong haunt and they’ve built a community there to support each other and the creation of their art above all else.”


Neon Bull (Boi Neon)

Scooping the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and Best Feature at the Adelaide Film Festival, Brazilian writer/director Gabriel Mascaro's sophomore dramatic feature Neon Bull dives headlong into the hyper-masculine world of rodeo stars Juliano Cazarré as a sexually ambiguous cowboy who dreams of being a fashion designer for dancers.

“He’s operating in a very masculine sphere of bullfighting, but in terms of his fixation with fashion and how that actually feeds his romantic soul, it’s a pretty untoward film,” Cossar says. “It gets to this place at the end which is very graphic. It’s a very impressive piece of filmmaking.


Paris 05.59 (Théo et Hugo dans le Même Bateau)

Kicking off with a 20-minute hardcore gay orgy, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau's Paris 05.59 transforms into a sweet romance between two perfect strangers played by Geoffrey Couët and François Nambot.

Michelle Carey was transfixed. “It’s an achingly beautiful film told in real time in the streets of Paris, exploring that palpable feeling of intense desire, vulnerability and fear that comes with meeting someone you really like, all in 97 minutes. So many emotions in one film.” 

The Melbourne International Film Festival runs from July 28 to August 14.