Looking for appropriate international viewing fare for Pride Month? Veronica Scott Esposito offers a catalog of foreign films based on queer books.
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Brazilian director Héctor Babenco’s adaptation of Argentine Manuel Puig’s novel of the same name transfers the setting from Argentina’s military junta to Brazil’s. It stars William Hurt and Raúl Juliá as two perfect strangers trapped together in a prison cell—the former for being queer, the latter for being a revolutionary. Molina (Hurt), who identifies as “she,” passes the time with arch-macho Valentin (Juliá) as they seek to preserve their sanity and survive their imprisonment. Surprises and betrayals ensue, including, an amorous encounter. This multilayered film is a testament to Freudian psychoanalysis (via genre cinema, for good measure’s sake), a bizarre love story, and a searing exploration of authoritarian government and its captive minds.
Death in Venice
Luchino Visconti’s classic adaptation of Thomas Mann’s classic novella features a profoundly androgynous Björn Andrésen as the young man whom the doomed Gustav von Aschenbach falls in love with in Venice. Visconti makes excellent use of the aching Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, as well as works from Beethoven and Modest Mussorgsky, and the visuals are equally sumptuous: film historian Lawrence J. Quirk wrote that “some shots of Björn Andrésen . . . could be extracted from the frame and hung on the walls of the Louvre or the Vatican in Rome.” A winner of Cannes’s Palme d’Or, it has gone down in history as a cinematic classic, the rare adaptation that’s as good as its literary source material.
Beyond the Hills
Set in a convent in Romania, and based on the novel Spovedanie la tanacu (Deadly confession) by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, Beyond the Hills is the tale of a romance between two orphaned women. As one might expect, things get a little rough, including the priest and nuns at the convent bodily restraining one of the women, and a rare Black Fast, considered the most austere form of fast in the Christian religion. Based on a real-life incident of an exorcism gone terribly wrong, this haunting movie made the esteemed film journal Sight and Sound’s top ten list for 2012.
Strawberry and Chocolate
Based on Senal Paz’s novella El lobo el bosque y el hombre nuevo (The wolf, the forest and the new man), Strawberry and Chocolate is partly about, in the words of Roger Ebert, how being homosexual in Cuba “is to make an anti-authoritarian statement whether you intend it or not.” The film involves the gay artist Diego and his attempts to seduce the ostensibly straight David, who is torn between masculine expectations and his artistic inclinations. It’s a coming-of-age story with a decidedly queer slant wrapped in an exploration of Cuba’s sexual politics.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s final film before his tragic death at thirty-seven was an adaptation of Jean Genet’s 1947 novel. It’s now considered a breakthrough for gay film, as well as a feat of aesthetics that Edmund White called “visually as artificial and menacing as Genet’s prose.” The plot begins with a lowlife named Querelle who purposely loses a dice game in order to be sodomized by brothel manager Nono, quickly moving on to further crimes and sexual exploits. The film’s ambition challenged some critics, who viewed it as a failed experiment, although its partisans often see it as a forerunner of German New Queer Cinema.
Bye Bye Blondie
Based on director Virginie Despentes’s novel of the same name, this film ignores the book’s heterosexual leads to instead chronicle the endless ups and downs of a lesbian relationship between two punk rockers. Considered much more restrained than Despentes’s earlier, X-rated novel (the French title translates as “Fuck Me”), this one tones down the graphic content to instead become a character study of two individuals that society classifies as deviant.
Before Night Falls
A biopic of Cuban author and refugee Reinaldo Arenas, this film is based on Arenas’s autobiography of the same name and directed by Julian Schnabel, who made this his follow- up to his idiosyncratic biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Starring Javier Bardem as Arenas, and co-starring Johnny Depp as both the transvestite Bon Bon and the super-macho Lieutenant Victor, it chronicles the author’s altercations with the law—both for being gay and for publishing without approval—ultimately portraying his escape to the United States and his diagnosis of AIDS.
© 2018 by Veronica Scott Esposito. All rights reserved.