Who knows if it's the repression, the fetish costumes that include corsets and hosiery, or simply the chance to tell a story of early forbidden love, but Hollywood and plenty of independent producers love to set stories about queer women in the past. While queer women in bodices have proliferated of late in Ammonite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and The Favourite, some period pieces about women in love are set in the not-so-distant past of the 1970s or 1950s. Some viewers long for more contemporary stories of queer lives while others love a good love story that holds its cards close to the vest. It's safe to say, though, that for viewers who prefer to time travel with a good love story about queer women, there are plenty of options. Here are 31 stories of desire between women, all set in the past.
Based on Dorothy Bussy’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, director Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia is set in a young women’s finishing school that is also a hotbed of desire. The film was still shockingly ahead of its time when it was restored and released in theaters in late 2019. While Olivia was originally released in 1951, it was set in the 19th century in a world nearly devoid of men and brimming with desire and jealousies among its young characters — particularly Olivia’s infatuation with her superior, Mademoiselle Cara.
The inimitable Vanessa Redgrave was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians, a suffragette who becomes romantically entangled with Verena (Madeleine Potter), a rising star and speaker in the turn-of-the-century feminist movement. Based on the novel by Henry James and directed by James Ivory, the film begins in 1886. A triangle is at the center of the love story as Christopher Reeves’s charming Basil also vies for Verena’s attention. Jessica Tandy, Nancy Marchand, and Linda Hunt costar.
One of the most beloved and acclaimed films about queer women of all time, Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts was ahead of its time even if it was set in the late ’50s. Helen Shaver stars as Vivian, an English professor from New York City who gets a whole new education while waiting to obtain a “quickie” divorce in Reno, Nev. There she meets the wild child Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), whose affair with Vivian is not her first time at the rodeo. The women are soon deep in a relationship in a movie that had the audacity in 1985 to offer up a hopeful ending — something many films about queer women wouldn’t do for decades to come.
Based on Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, set in the early 20th century, tells the story of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) whose life is upended when she’s torn from her home and forced to marry Albert (Danny Glover), a man she doesn’t love and who’s abusive. Much of the film, directed by Steven Spielberg (the fact that this was perhaps not his story to tell is another matter altogether), that touches on issues affecting Black people in the post-Civil War South, focuses on letters Celie finds from her long-lost sister Nettie who became a missionary in Africa. Much more prevalent in the novel and alluded to in the film is the decades-long love affair between Celie and the singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery).
This film tells the story of one of the most famous lesbian literary couples of all time. Linda Hunt stars as Alice B. Toklas, and Linda Bassett plays Gertrude Stein in Waiting for the Moon, from acclaimed director Jill Godmilow. In the film, set in the ’30s, Stein and Toklas rub elbows in their salon with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Guillaume Apollinaire.
While the queerness wasn’t overt in Jon Avnet’s adaptation of Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, those who knew it knew that Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth (Mary Louise Parker) were life partners and romantically involved. Told in flashback by Jessica Tandy’s Ninny to Kathy Bates's frustrated housewife Evelyn, Fried Green Tomatoes is set in the early 20th century, and its central plot revolves around the decades-long love that forms between the “bee charmer” Idgie and Ruth, who leaves her abusive husband to be with her one true love. Of course, they build a café together, raise Ruth’s son together, and make killer fried green tomatoes together before tragedy strikes.
There’s a lot of plot in Tom Robbins’s novel about a stunning young woman with indescribably enormous thumbs who’s born to, well, hitchhike (among other things) But Gus Van Sant’s adaptation of the novel about model and wanderer Sissy Hankshaw (Uma Thurman) boils much of that plot down to a neat queer love story between the protagonist and Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix), a cowgirl she meets on a spa ranch for women. The uneven but wildly enjoyable adaptation, especially for queer women, is set in the freewheeling ’70s. Lorraine Bracco, Pat Morita, Angie Dickinson, Keanu Reeves, John Hurt, Ed Begley Jr., Carol Kane, Victoria Williams, Sean Young, Crispin Glover, Roseanne Barr, Buck Henry, Grace Zabriskie, and a very young Heather Graham costar. The film gets extra queer points for its soundtrack, which includes original songs by k.d. lang.
Jean Genet’s play The Maids, about murderous, incestuous maids, got the celluloid treatment in this adaptation that stars Joely Richardson (Hollow Reed, Nip/Tuck) as Christine Papin and Jodhi May (Tipping the Velvet) as her sister Lea Papin. In the film, set in 1930s France and loosely based on the gruesome true story of a pair of maids who murdered their employer, Sister My Sister’s protagonists begin to unravel under the thumb of their controlling employer Madame Danzard (Julie Walters) and her entitled daughter Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield). While living in a tiny room in the attic of the home and cleaning it by day, the sisters soon become everything to one another emotionally and sexually.
The film that introduced Kate Winslet and costarred Melanie Lynskey (But I’m a Cheerleader), Heavenly Creatures is based on the true events of two girls who committed matricide in New Zealand in the early 1950s. In Peter Jackson’s first feature, Lynskey plays Pauline (Paul), who’s from a working-class family, while Winslet’s Juliet (Hulme, who would go on to be an author) was a member of an upper-crust family. The girls, having met at school and bonded over their love of the opera singer Mario Lanza and their hatred of Orson Welles, form an obsessive relationship that includes a rich fantasy life of world-building.
A devastating love story, Aimée and Jaguar is based on Erica Fischer’s book about real women Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim. Maria Schrader plays Felice, a Jewish journalist who assumes a false identity in order to survive in Nazi Germany, while Juliane Köhler plays Lilly, a mother who’s married to a high-powered Nazi. The film is told in flashbacks that begin in the late 1990s, but the meat of the story occurs in the 1940s at the height of World War II. The women fall in love with some moments of pure ardor, but the story is ultimately tragic, as befits the setting.
This adaptation of Sarah Waters’s beloved lesbian novel Tipping the Velvet was actually a BBC miniseries, but since it’s not a full TV series and its influences and reach were so impactful at the time, we’ve made an exception for it and for the BBC’s Fingersmith (also based on a Waters novel). “Born a Whitstable oyster girl” circa the mid-19th century, Nan Astley (Rachael Stirling) was bound for bigger things. Hence, her move to London, where she enters the world of the stage and of male drag. She is entranced by the drag king of the moment, Kitty Butler (Keeley Hawes), and the women eventually fall madly in love until Kitty breaks Nan’s heart for a more conventional life. Don’t fret, though; Nan goes on to live a full queer life that includes sex parties, dildos, and eventually a long-term relationship with the lovely Florence Banner (Jodhi May).
The second BBC miniseries to be included, Fingersmith, based on Sarah Waters’s twisty mystery of a novel set in the 1860s, stars Sally Hawkins as Sue Trinder, an accomplished “fingersmith” or pickpocket, who’s enlisted by acquaintance Richard Rivers (Rupert Evans) to run a scam on Maud Lilly (Elaine Cassidy), the heir to a massive fortune. With the intention of marrying her and later having her committed to an asylum, Rivers engages Sue to help gaslight Maud. The hitch? The women fall in love. Fingersmith keeps the viewer guessing as to Sue’s true intentions until the final act.
The World Unseen is one of two films Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth made together, the other being the comedy I Can’t Think Straight; both were directed by Shamim Sarif. The World Unseen is set in South Africa in the 1950s at the beginning of apartheid. As the country becomes more politicized, Sheth’s Amina is a rabble-rouser who stands up to authority while running a café. Meanwhile, Ray’s Miriam is bound to her husband in claustrophobic ways. It’s a slow burn of a love story, but the women eventually form a deep romantic bond in the film that explores not only sexuality but cultural mores.
Those familiar with HBO’s Gentleman Jack will recognize the story of The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. The British film about Anne Lister, the 19th-century land-owner in Yorkshire who kept copious diaries and didn’t hide her affinity for women, starred Maxine Peake as the now-famous diarist. While Gentleman Jack focuses primarily on Lister’s relationship with Ann Walker (played here by Christine Bottomley), the made-for-TV movie delves more deeply into Lister’s affair with Mariana Belcombe (Anna Madeley).
The love affair between poet Elizabeth Bishop and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares got the big-screen treatment in Bruno Barreto’s film based on the book Flores Raras e Banalíssimas by Carmen Lucia de Oliveira.
Mirando Otto (The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) plays Bishop, who builds a life with her lover (Glória Pires) in Petrópolis in Brazil. Their epic love story spans the 1950s and ’60s.
Another period piece set circa WWII and teeming with queer desire that stems from mutual literary appreciation, Violette explores the relationship between writers Violette Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos) and Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain). Simone introduces Violette to men of letters including Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Jean Genet. Eventually, Violette’s autobiographical La Bâtarde becomes a hit in the 1960s.
Director Dee Rees’s follow-up to Pariah, Bessie follows the life of bisexual blues legend Bessie Smith. Set primarily during the great depression, although some of the film spans Bessie's youth, it features Queen Latifah as the titular character during her rise to fame that includes becoming a mentee to the great Ma Rainey (Mo'Nique) and an eventual recording contract. The film also boldly depicts Bessie’s love affairs with men and women, primarily her relationship with Lucille (Tika Sumpter).
Queen Christina of Sweden’s story was one of Hollywood’s earlier queer stories when Greta Garbo played her in 1933’s Queen Christina. While that film was coded, the 2015 film about the child monarch who rose to power in 1632 is decidedly more overtly queer. Malin Buska plays the queen who flouts gender and sexuality as she appoints her lady-in-waiting Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gaddon) to be her literal bed warmer.
More than half a century after Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking 1952 novel The Price of Salt/Carol was released, Todd Haynes’s big-screen adaptation Carol became revolutionary in its own way. The film, starring Cate Blanchett as the titular Carol, a soon-to-be-divorced New Jersey socialite and mother who falls for Rooney Mara’s Therese, the shopgirl who is, as Carol notes, “flung out of space,” earned six Oscar nominations, even if it was snubbed in the Best Picture category. Still, it was the first Oscar-worthy love story about a female couple in which a man does not steal focus and that doesn’t end in disaster or death for the women. In fact, the novel and the film’s hopeful ending offers a possible happily-ever-after for Carol and Therese.
Beyond that, its artistry is undeniable, with a team that includes New Queer Cinema darling Haynes at the helm, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy (who is a lesbian and who was friends with Highsmith), costumer Sandy Powell (who also costumed The Favourite), composer Carter Burwell, and cinematographer Ed Lachmann (Far From Heaven). If that weren't enough, out Emmy winner Sarah Paulson plays Carol's best friend and former lover, Abby.
Since it was released, Carol, which begins during the days before Christmas and includes Carol and Therese consummating their desire during a road trip on New Year’s Eve, has become a bit of a holiday tradition, especially among queer women.
Acclaimed gay director Terrence Davies took on Emily Dickinson’s story in A Quiet Passion with Cynthia Nixon in the role of the famed New England-based poet. Emily has since gotten two comedic takes on her life with the very funny Wild Nights With Emily (starring Molly Shannon) and in Apple TV’s po-mo version of her life that stars Hailee Steinfeld as the poet of the Pioneer Valley. But Nixon’s simmering passion in Davies’s studied film is a standout. Jodhi May (in her third queer period piece on the list) plays Dickinson’s sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, with whom Emily shared ardent letters and great love.
A stylistic tour de force, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is not your mother’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’s lesbian-themed novel Fingersmith (no offense to the excellent BBC adaptation above). It turns out that Waters's novel about a love story between women circa 1862 was the perfect material for the director of cult faves Oldboy and Snowpiercer, who moved the setting from England to Japanese-occupied Korea, where a plot to defraud an heiress of her inheritance unfolds and then folds back in on itself with delicious twists and turns. Wrapped in the psychological thriller is a love affair between Lady/Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) that culminates with ultimate devotion in which the women in the film outsmart the men who seek to dominate them.
Beyond trouncing proud male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the legendary 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match, Billie Jean King was a proponent for equal pay early in the game. The film from Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the directing team behind Little Miss Sunshine, recounts the story of how that famous battle came to pass at the same time it tracks King’s love affair with hairstylist Marilyn Barnett. Both Emma Stone, who stars as King, and Steve Carell, who plays Riggs, received Golden Globe nominations for their performances. Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, and Natalie Morales costar.
Part revenge tale and part redemption song, Lizzie took years for indie darling Chloë Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry, Big Love, Love and Friendship) and out writer Bryce Kass to shepherd to the screen. Although there were several iterations along the way, the final version of the film about the ax killer from the tiny town of Fall River, Mass., couldn’t have come at a timelier moment. A film that shares a lineage with the queer true crime-based films of the ’90s like Heavenly Creatures and Sister My Sister, Lizzie is a fresh take on the “murderous lesbians'” trope. The movie also fits right in with the #MeToo era, with Lizzie and her maid/love interest/co-conspirator Bridget (Kristen Stewart) literally bashing toxic masculinity in the face.
“I had a lot of empathy toward her. She had a rich inner life and she didn’t have a lot of outlets,” Sevigny told The Advocate about Lizzie, who’s depicted as being an avid reader and a patron of the arts.
“I felt like a lot of the world outside of Fall River was changing, but in that Calvinist community, she was really smart. She had a lot to say and no one to say it to,” Sevigny said. “That’s where we wanted to build the relationship with Bridget for her — that Bridget was finally an outlet. It felt like she deserved that love and an escape from her horrid existence.”
“We wanted to give that to them [a sex scene and a release]. The movie is so restrained and so buttoned-up. And you see them in passing, these moments of almost touching and those kinds of period romance clichés. But they also work and they are also titillating to me,” Sevigny said. “I think the way that we did the sex scene — we’re not naked. We’re still confined by these garments. We need each other.”
Colette, about the trailblazing writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who engaged in relationships with men, women, and trans-masculine-identifying people circa the Belle Époque, is queer to its core. In the film directed by Wash Westmoreland, who is gay, Keira Knightley embodies the pansexual bohemian feminist who stepped out of her husband’s shadow to become the most famous female French author in the world.
The film chronicles Colette’s rise to fame as she leaves behind her country upbringing to become the toast of Paris along with her husband, Willy (Dominic West), who spurs her to chronicle her life for his literary factory where only his moniker appears on everything that’s published.
Bracing in its frank depiction of sexual freedom, the film shows Colette and Willy beginning an open relationship in which they end up bedding the same American socialite before Colette falls for the trans-masculine Missy (Denise Gough). If Colette’s unapologetic queerness weren’t enough, transgender actors Rebecca Root and Jake Graf play a cisgender couple who flirt with her in a parlor scene.
The latest — and most accessible — film from Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is a wild, queer romp through the 18th-century court of the sickly, often childlike Queen Anne of England. And it landed several Golden Globe nominations as well as critics' prizes, and it was the first film about queer female love that got some attention in the Oscars' Best Picture category (Carol was snubbed in that category in 2015). The Favourite lost the Best Picture prize, but Olivia Colman took home the Best Actress Oscar.
The film reunites Lanthimos's Lobster stars Colman (Broadchurch, The Crown) and Rachel Weisz (Disobedience) as Queen Anne and her confidante or “favourite,” Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough. Anne and Sarah happily engage in wicked role-playing that borders on sadomasochism until Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) — a lady who's fallen from grace and will stop at nothing to regain her position — arrives at court. Soon the rivalry between Sarah and Abigail is in full bloom and the women play at politics, sexual and otherwise, to garner the queen’s attention in what has gone down as one of the queerest films about women of its year, 2018.
The Favourite is ultimately a love story between Anne and Sarah. But even the men — in their wigs and ruffled sleeves, with their powdered faces adorned with moles as they stomp around in chunky heels arguing over issues of state while the women barely notice them — lend an overall air of camp to the delicious satire that often employs a fish-eye type of lens to signal the audience that despite the costumes (by Carol’s Sandy Powell). The Favourite is no Masterpiece Theater type of period piece.
Tell It to the Bees stars out actress Anna Paquin as Jean — a doctor in 1950s Britain who returns to her small hometown to take over her father’s medical practice and ends up falling for Lydia (Holliday Grainger), the mother of one of her patients.
A beekeeper on the side, Jean invites Lydia’s son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), who's been bullied at school, to visit the hives in her garden to share his secrets with the bees. Unable to deny their attraction, Jean and Lydia enter into a forbidden love affair and soon enough have secrets of their own to tell the bees.
Directed by Annabel Jankel, the film is based on the 2009 novel by Fiona Shaw (not the Killing Eve star).
From director Chanya Button, Vita and Virginia stars Elizabeth Debicki (Widows, The Night Manager) as the great modernist, feminist writer Virginia Woolf and Gemma Arterton (who executive-produced the film) as poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West.
Replete with feminist treatises, alternately furtive and long-held looks, lingering touches, and the click-clack of the typewriter, Vita & Virginia has all of the trappings of catnip for literary-minded queer women.
“I have the appetite to know you better,” Vita says at one point, later bemoaning having loved someone for years who couldn’t fully commit.
Based on the love letters Vita and Virginia penned to one another for years, the story also focuses on how Vita became the muse for Virginia’s epic novel Orlando, about a truly gender-fluid aristocrat over centuries.
“Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” the betrothed Heloise whispers to Marianne, the young woman hired by her mother to surreptitiously paint her portrait as a promise of her marriage to a Milanese nobleman in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Marianne (Noemie Merlant) drinks in details of her soon-to-be-lover Heloise (who rejects her marriage and refuses to pose) in order to reconstruct the betrothed's visage on the canvas. Before long, Heloise (out actress Adèle Haenel) returns the gaze full-stop. The result is a palpable depiction of out director Céline Sciamma’s (Water Lilies, Tomboy, Girlhood) idea of the “eroticism of consent,” in which she defines the cinematic language of the long-debated female gaze while simultaneously re-mystifying the dizzying experience of falling in love. And Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a work of cinematic art as fine as the art, poetry, and orchestral music to which the film pays homage, is destined to be revered, adored, and deconstructed for decades to come. But for all there is to be gleaned from the film’s theoretical acumen, it’s also deeply romantic and sexy.
In this love story set during WWII, Vita & Virginia’s Gemma Arterton stars as Alice, a single writer content exploring pagan theories of floating islands and Summerland, a counterpart to heaven. That is, until she’s tasked with caring for Frank (Lucas Bond), a young evacuee from London separated from his mother for his safety while his father is off flying planes in the war. Meanwhile, Alice is, at turns, consumed with the memory of her long-ago love Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the lush film that subverts the negative tropes that have generally defined stories about queer women on the big screen since before the era in which the film is set.
Ammonite stars Kate Winslet as British paleontologist Mary Anning and Saoirse Ronan as her lover circa the early 19th century, is out December 4, and the imagery is stunning.
The director of the acclaimed gay-themed film God’s Own Country, Francis Lee, helmed Ammonite, which stars Winslet as a woman obsessed with her work, who combs the English seaside for fossils that she uncovers. All the while, she's undervalued for her contributions to the science. Meanwhile, Ronan's Charlotte is an unhappily married woman from the upper class whose husband abandons her at the seaside with Mary while he sets off on an adventure. As Charlotte becomes a mentee to Mary, the women strike up a mutual admiration and a romance.
Ammonite costars out actress and Killing Eve favorite Fiona Shaw (who was in Colette and Lizzie)
There’s a slow and persistent burn in Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come. The gorgeously spare period piece stars Katherine Waterston (Alien: Covenant) as Abigail and Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) as Tallie, two women battling the harsh elements in 19th-century New York State who find solace and a whole lot more in one another.
Caught in the drab day-to-day with her husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck), a farmer, Abigail mourns a loss while her new neighbor, the free-spirited Tallie, bucks against being hemmed in by her volatile husband, Finney (Christopher Abbott).
The women, experiencing stirrings of feminist thought without a vocabulary to express them as well as a desire for each other, find intellectual and emotional support on afternoons when their husbands are away.
“It’s more than a kind of first love. It’s a first everything: first friendship, first real companion, intellectual companion. There’s a trust from the first moment they look at each other, that this person understands me. And in a way that they’ve never had before,” Waterston tells The Advocate.
“It makes for something electric and those scenes that follow because there’s extraordinary relief and pleasure to finally have someone there who can understand you,” she says.