Duke of Burgundy
In theaters Jan. 23, IFC/Sundance Select's The Duke of Burgundy is already off to being the most intriguing lesbian film of 2015. Set in an uncertain period in the past, Burgundy combines intense eroticism with a stylized languid feel that reminds one of what would happen if Sofia Coppola were to make a 1960s-era European sexploitation film. In this Peter Strickland film, a couple of lesbian entemologists, Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), act out a daily S/M ritual that often ends with Evelyn locked in a wooden chest. Sort of the anti-50 Shades of Grey, Burgundy is a deeply affecting love story in which one woman yearns for a more conventional relationship while the other is wedded to ritual, and it's likely not which woman you'd imagine. The cast is almost entirely female and the scenes in which the entomologists attend lectures about insects woven throughout their domestic scenes offer up untold metaphor and allegory, each woman revealing a part of herself through the tiniest of nuance, moving through this relationship like a still-cocooned butterfly.
Yasuomi Umetsu's cult anime, Kite, about an orphaned tween turned assassin slash sex slave, was so controversial it was banned in several countries. But this toned down film version (now on DVD from Anchor Bay) still packs a punch, especially if you apply a feminist lens and recognize the impact of filmmaker Ralph Ziman, a South African who has used his own art to critique the corruption, greed, and socio-economic and political influence of foreign world superpowers on the African arms trade.
Some critics were swift to write Kite and its young star, India Eisley, the darkly doe-eyed little sister from The Secret Life of the American Teenager, off as pseudo-feminist male masturbatory fantasy and, sure, it'll appeal to boys and fans of graphic novel turned pulp film fare like Sin City or even Kill Bill (which itself made a nod to Kite in the character of Gog Yubari, O-Ren's ruthless 17-year-old ruthless schoolgirl bodyguard).
Sawa is a young woman in a post-apocalyptic, financially collapsed future run by a corrupt security force that profits on trafficking women, while unrelated multigender gangs terrorize the streets. And the thing is, from a modern post-feminist perspective, there's beauty in watching Sawa go from someone who is guided by a man and controlled by her memory (or lack of, thanks to a designer drug) to someone who knows and controls who and what she is and what she wants.
Sawa begins a ruthless pursuit of the man who killed her mother and police officer father, along with the almost fatherly help of her father's ex-partner, Karl (played by Samuel L. Jackson). As the teenage assassin takes out anyone related to the flesh cartels, often passing as a sex worker herself, she goes from someone with nothing to lose to someone who takes action for the losses she, and all women in this culture, have been forced to endure. After finally learning the truth, she regaining her own strength by killing the men (or man) responsible and exacting revenge in a world where women are assaulted with frightening regularity.
Is it bleak, and a bit cheesy at times? Yes, but it's good too, if you can read subtext well.
Iranian-American filmmaker Desiree Akhavan just received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for first screenplay, Appropriate Behavior (in theaters and on demand January 16) -- and with due cause. In it, Akhavan plays Shirin, a bisexual woman who hasn't told her traditional Persian family she's queer, while her ex-girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), can't understand why she doesn't tell them. Recognizing life isn't fulfilling, the quasi-hip Brooklynite rebels when her brother announces his parent-pleasing engagement to an Iranian woman, and goes on a series of sexual escapades, all the while doing the long march of relationship death that some girl-girl breakups feel like. Akhavan -- who co-created and starred in the award-winning lesbian web series The Slope and is on the current season of HBO's Girls -- offers a certain magnetic presence on screen, both self-deprecating and sexy. And as writer/director/star, Akhavan is clearly one to watch in 2015.
Another bleak look at the intersections of violence and power and the cinematic cliche of a "cure" for mental illness, The Scribbler (now on DVD) follows Suki (played by Katie Cassidy, Laurel from Arrow), a young woman who battles multiple personalities with an experimental machine slash technique called "The Siamese Burn." Each time she uses the machine, she's attempting to kill off the unwanted personalities, but while doing so she begins to question which personality will really be her at the end of the experiment.
The film is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Dan Schaffer, and the combo of the dark material with a superheroine/supervillain subtheme (she may be either or both) is entertaining even if Suki dabbles in het sex with Garrett Dillahunt and the lesbian energy is all subtextual.
Suki lives at Juniper Towers, an apartment building slash halfway house full of odd characters where murders are occurring; bit parts from Michelle Tractenberg and Gina Gershon as her noir-ish neighbors, Billy Campbell as Suki's doctor round out the tale. As Suki battles her personalities, she begins to wonder if one of her personalities -- the awesome Scribbler -- could be to blame for the murders.
Freudian examples of lesbianism abound, too: Gershon spends the whole film with a snake around her neck reminding us she carries her own phallus; the Siamese Burn machine that jolts Suki with a blast of energy seems to grow more and more phallic cords as time goes on, eventually being of no use to Suki.
Read subtextually the film reminds us of how difficult it is for women to be authentic with their needs and desires, showing their real unvarnished (un-Photoshopped) selves to the world, and how women trying to co-opt male power are often thwarted.
The Foxy Merkins
Writer-director Madeleine Olnek (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) and that film's lead actress, playwright and comedian Lisa Haas, reunite for this hilariously absurd lesbian comedy. The Foxy Merkins debut at Sundance (Vanity Fair called it of the top 5 "Sundanciest" Sundance films) and is still playing festivals (next up is the Desperado LGBT Film Festival, Jan. 24 in Phoenix). The Foxy Merkins (yes, named for the pubic wigs made famous on The L Word) follows Haas as Margaret, a chunky, disheveled bespectacled lesbian hooker-in-training who gets help learning the trade from Jo (the wonderful Jackie Monahan), a supposedly straight girl who is an expert at lesbian sex work. The two join up and hit the streets ala Midnight Cowboy, as Margaret beds (or at least gets hit up) by a bevy of suburban housewives and conservative dykes. It's part buddy movie, part absurdist comedy, all as a satire of male hustler movies. A bonus: a gag about Talbots gift cards will make you laugh out loud.
She's Beautiful When She's Angry
This amazing documentary, now in theaters -- the first theatrical documentary about the early days of women's lib -- resurrects the buried history of the outrageous, often brilliant women who founded the modern women's movement from 1966 to 1971. Especially exciting are the coverage of the more radical factions and women like bisexual intellectual Kate Millett as well as other queer women and women of color. Producer/director Mary Dore entertains us throughout with this fascinating and irreverent look at history that is absolutely riveting.
Free the Nipple
Did you know it's illegal to be topless in 37 states, in some even if you're just exposing your nipple to breastfeed? In New York City, in 1992 it became legal for women to be topless in public, but the police continued to arrest women, so activist filmmakers took to the streets with cameras and a cast of women, but by the end of the production, Free The Nipple, says director Lina Esco, "had morphed into a real life revolution that transcended the bounds of mere entertainment. Famous graffiti artists, mobs of dedicated women, and celebrities from Miley Cyrus to Liv Tyler and Lena Dunham jumped on board and ignited a national media blitz that has transformed into a powerful movement to Free The Nipple in America."
So this satirical film, based on a true story (now in theaters and on demand) centers on New York City activists Liv and With, who take their crusade for gender equality from the streets to the courts and it's all the sweeter that they've inspired real women to take back their bodies.