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Why 2013 Has Been a Pretty Harsh Year For Cinematic Same-Sex Couples

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | /Bent December 11, 2013 at 10:54AM

From France’s “Blue is The Warmest Color” and “Stranger By The Lake” to Canada’s “Tom at the Farm” and “Vic and Flo Saw a Bear” to America’s own “Kill Your Darlings,” “Concussion” and “Behind The Candelabra” the film festival circuit (not so much the multiplexes – though that’s hardly surprising and besides this particular point) was ablaze with captivating cinematic gays. But there were certainly no same-sex weddings up on those screens. Quite the opposite, actually.
"Kill Your Darlings"
"Kill Your Darlings"

Over in America -- land of the cinematic happy ending -- lesbians and gays were having just as rough a go at their onscreen love lives. Two major biopics – Steven Soderbergh’s "Behind The Candelabra" and John Krokidas’s "Kill Your Darlings" – gave us depictions of famed gays Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) during very crucial relationships in their lives: Liberace’s with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), and Ginsberg’s with Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).

Things start out promising in both regards, more or less. In "Candelabra," Liberace meets Thorson -- 35 years his junior -- when his agent brings the young man backstage at one his shows. Liberace is immediately smitten and soon enough Thorson is hired on as Liberace's "secretary." The two quickly begin a serious romantic relationship that for a time seems to be at least partially built on whatever love either is capable of offering. But then things get weird. Liberace starts going off the rails, cheating on Thorson and requesting him to have plastic surgery to look more like Liberace himself. This drives Thorson into considerable (and well-reasoned, frankly) drug addiction and their relationship spirals into disaster. In the end, Thorson sues Liberace and they cease communication, only to reconcile (platonically) when Liberace begins to succumb to AIDS (the film actually works as a bizarro world companion piece to "Blue Is The Warmest Color" -- think "Gold Is The Warmest Color").

In "Kill Your Darlings," Ginsberg and Carr meet when are both are attending Columbia University in the 1940s. The young, inexperienced Ginsberg is immediately drawn to Carr's almost inhuman allure and charm. The two become inseparable, with Carr helping Ginsberg come out of his shell and Ginsberg providing Carr with a muse to manipulate. The nature of their relationship exceedingly flirts with romance, culminating in a kiss as the two lay in the grass. "This is just the beginning," Carr whispers to Ginsberg before Ginsberg kisses him. But in all actuality, it is the beginning of the end. To no surprise, the kiss pushes away Carr, who has made it clear all along he's only good at beginnings. And he's also still dealing with the extended ending of an extremely dysfunctional relationship with David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a much older man who has been obsessed with Carr for years. Carr only comes crawling back to Ginsberg when he's murdered Kammerer and needs Ginsberg to write his deposition for him. Suffice to say, Carr goes to jail and the two never speak again, though Ginsberg does dedicate his famous "Howl" to him (which Carr immediately requested to be removed future editions).

"Behind The Candelabra"
"Behind The Candelabra"

Finally, another notable American entry to the queer film canon this year was Stacie Passon’s “Concussion,” the one and only example here that features a contemporary same-sex couple that’s actually married. Abby (Robin Weigert) is a forty-something lesbian who lives with her wife and two kids in New Jersey suburbia. But she’s clearly not satisfied, and after getting hit in the head by her kid's baseball begins acting out by spending her days working as -- you guessed it -- a high-end lesbian prostitute. This extreme mid-life crisis proves both thrilling and lucrative, though Abby ultimately ends up coming back to her and wife and their life when she begins to fear she’ll lose both. But Abby doesn’t seem particularly happy with this conclusion, and "Concussion" ends by perhaps suggesting that married, suburban gays are as destined for mundanity as their straight counterparts.

The interesting thing about these seven films collectively is that while they each offer examples of doomed romances, none of them are particularly focused on a "forbidden love" derived from the fact that the characters are gay or lesbian (a significant tradition in film depicting queer folks). There's certainly moments of sexual identity crises in the films, and in respect to historical biopics like "Kill Your Darlings" and "Behind The Candelabra," the characters reasonably are at least semi-closeted due to the social constraints of the times. But these films are not at their core about being gay or lesbian. They are all studies of human relationships, and of human existence and its many dualities. One of which is that love -- no matter how it begins -- is often not meant for the altar.