Queer love reigned supreme at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival.
By
Stephen A. Russell

21 Jun 2017 - 11:18 AM  UPDATED 3 Aug 2017 - 9:20 AM

In what’s turning out to be a sterling year for LGBTIQ+ cinema, turbo-charged by Barry Jenkins’ Best Picture Oscar-winning Moonlight, the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival has delivered three sublime movies championing queer love. 

A rose by any other name

An incandescent ode to not quite forbidden love, director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger SplashI Am Love) delivers an effervescent and effortlessly enchanting adaptation of André Aciman’s already luscious novel in Call My By Your Name.

Enticingly shot by Sayombhu Mukdeepromand and co-written with James Ivory - one half of the heaving costume drama purveyors Merchant Ivory - it recalls Ivory’s own take on E.M Forster’s early celebration of queer passion, Maurice.

Strappingly handsome Armie Hammer stars as Oliver, a recent graduate whose antiquity studies draw him to “somewhere in Northern Italy” in the fragrant height of summer, 1983. There, he falls into the bosom of a family of liberally academic “Jews of discretion” as an intern to Michael Stuhlbarg’s American father. This begins an aching dance between him and 17-year-old son Elio, an incredible performance of tender sexual and soulful awakening by a rakishly chiselled Timothée Chalamet, in the hinterland of gawky teenage years and fast-approaching manhood.

At first, Elio rails against this intrusion, feeling spurned by 24-year-old Oliver’s brash nonchalance and clearly missing the coded lust of sports field squeezes. In no rush to name the dance that they are playing with each other, it’s a testament to the film's brilliance that when they do finally acknowledge the great animal magnetism between them, it is literally unspoken in a cinematographic triumph - a do-si-do around a town monument to the fallen of the Great War, in the shadow of a church tower. Love is, indeed, a battlefield, but with the implicit blessing of an unfazed mum and dad, it’s only a matter of time before they fall into each other’s arms with midnight balcony trysts and erotic antics in the attic, complete with a loaded peach that repurposes American Pie’s infamous farce as a pungent emblem of masculine love and blissful transgression, linked inextricably to that ancient garden and its forbidden knowledge.

Chalamet is a revelation, ably aided by Hammer’s generous performance, so indubitably soaked with common love that by its classic train-side final dalliance their rapture is searingly palpable.

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I am woman, hear me roar

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio was the toast of the Berlin International Film Festival in 2013 when Gloria - his joyous ode to older love - scooped three awards, including the Silver Bear for Best Actress for Paulina García in her incandescent turn in the title role. With something of Pedro Almodóvar’s tender touch for female-centric tales of tragic loss and self-determined empowerment, he once again delivers magic in the form of A Fantastic Woman.

Starring trans woman Daniela Vega as Marina - a waitress and cocktail bar singer gifted with an arrestingly beautiful voice - Marina's life is thrown into disarray when, shortly after moving into the apartment of her older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes), he tragically dies.

The tenuous nature of queer family is thrown into stark relief when the validity of Marina's grief is immediately interrogated by both a doctor (Alejandro Goic) and a detective (Amparo Noguera). Dripping with barely restrained disdain, theirs is an insidiously bigoted form of disgust that also oozes from Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) and her aggressive son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra). Banning Marina from the funeral and demanding she move out of Orlando's apartment and return his car as soon as humanly possible, Marina meets these callous requirements without question, insisting that all she wants to take with her is the dog she and her lover cared for together.

Just as with Gloria, what could so easily be a maudlin tale is given transcendent life through the glorious pride and determined drive of its lead. Vega is magnificent, and Marina indomitable. Again co-scripting with Gonzalo Maza, Lelio ensures that this is absolutely Marina’s story, entirely told from her perspective and be damned with her detractors, even when subjected to intrusive physical examination and a brutal attack. They cannot crush her spirit, but by hell she’ll crush their car.

Punctuated by surreal moments, including a gale force wind that bends her diagonally but does not topple Marina, and a laser-disco-set dance of choreographic brilliance that one ups Gloria’s jubilant finale, this fantasy only emphasises the unbending reality of her will to win. This leads to the most sublime unspoken act of love when, in a moment’s perfect silence amidst a magnetic electro score by Matthew Herber, she holds Orlando’s hand one last time and her beautifully expressive face is washed with the trace of a single tear.

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Torn at the farm

There’s a similarly transcendental moment of unspoken, all-pervasive love on a sunrise hilltop in the heart of blasted moors in writer/director Francis Lee’s harsh but tender God’s Own Country, all pastoral grandeur and grunting eroticism.

Though there are shades of Ang Lee’s staggering adaption of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, they are not quite alike. An early pub scene with a school friend (Patsy Ferran) makes it clear that the miserably booze-fuelled Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is out and unfazed, though his blunt brief encounters are limited to the odd cow stall spit and polish at market.

Labouring away almost single-handedly on the Yorkshire sheep farm he calls home with his disabled father Martin (Ian Hart) and gran Deidre (Gemma Jones), there’s little in the way of love either familial or otherwise, though the deep bonds buried here are of the stoic sort that prefer not to name itself.

This forceful resistance to intimacy begins to crumble upon the arrival of Romanian immigrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), all Heathcliff-like brooding good looks - who submits willingly to hard work but draws the line at taking the racist abuse Johnny doles out, most notably the pejorative "gypsy". Cleverly addressing Britain’s raging Brexit debate implicitly, it’s after one too many utterances of that unkind stab that the first arc of passion crackles in a knock down scuffle that’s very almost, but not quite, a passionate kiss, the possibility burning in the millimetres between their pouting lips.

When the inexorable nature of that aborted moment is unbound in a remote stone bothy that requires hard labour over several nights far from the farmhouse, layers of jacket and jumper are torn free, flesh writhing in the mud. It’s a long way yet until ignored emotion penetrates these silent lads’ embrace, but love need not be declarative. Indeed, for Johnny that’s almost impossible, but rest assured, it burns like the rare glint of spring sun piercing the wuthering clouds of this radiant testament to passion.

The Melbourne International Film Festival runs from August 3-20. Book tickets here.