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Elena Undone Elena Undone
Posted: Thu Feb 3 2011

Lipstick or lifelike, why are so many lesbian films such a let down?

Last year a lot of fuss was made of Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first female director to win an Oscar. Perhaps because of this, it's barely been mentioned that two of the ten films nominated for best picture this year were directed by women.

A good director's gender should be irrelevant, of course, as should the fact that one of these women - Lisa Cholodenko, who co-wrote and directed 'The Kids Are All Right' - is gay. More significant is that Cholodenko has put on the Oscar shortlist a film whose main characters are a lesbian couple.

Gay men pop up in mainstream films all the time, albeit often as the stereotypical gay best friend/camp dinner party guest/wedding planner etc, but there are very few incidental lesbian characters in the movies. Ordinary gay women don't often get to see their lives reflected on the big screen, let alone in such a well-crafted and superbly performed film as this.

But 'The Kids Are All Right' isn't about being gay. The quietly revolutionary thing about it is that the central couple's homosexuality is not the issue. A fantastic message for a popular film to spread, but there's still a need for films about being gay, and particularly about being a lesbian. There are still stories to tell, which is why it's so disappointing that of the few lesbian films that do surface, so many retread old ground.

Out on DVD this week is 'Elena Undone', the new film from Nicole Conn, writer-director of the so-bad-it's-good lesbian classic 'Claire of the Moon'. Conn's filmmaking craft hasn't improved over the years, nor has she learned how to cast decent actors, but the nadir of her crimes against cinema is the clunky, clichéd script. The main protagonist's obligatory straight-talking best friend sums it up best: 'This is the oldest and most tragic game in the book. Lonely housewife meets quite fascinating lesbo to take a wee stroll on the wild side. She's straight. And married. To a pastor!'

Yup, it's the tritest lesbian plotline on screen: dyke falls for straight chick whose latent lesbianism is miraculously awakened in time for some transformative shagging before her husband comes home. Julianne Moore played such a character in Atom Egoyan's 2010 thriller 'Chloe', as did Radha Mitchell in 'High Art' and countless other (straight) actresses in countless other faux lesbian roles. That's not to say that these turns aren't hugely entertaining to watch - Natalie Portman's steamy sex scene with Mila Kunis in 'Black Swan' was a particularly delicious recent treat - but really, we deserve more than this.

'The L Word' has a lot to answer for. These days it seems filmmakers think that as long as the screen is filled with beautifully coiffed women falling in and out of bed with each other, it doesn't matter if they have nothing to say. Last year's 'And Then Came Lola' was one such culprit, but has been a hit on the film festival circuit and shifted shedloads of DVDs.

Of course, if all you're after is the opportunity to watch hot girls making out, then sitting through reels of hackneyed preamble is worth the payoff. Most straight rom-coms flog the same tired clichés year in year out - for which Kate Hudson must thank her lucky stars. Cinema is about escapism and instant gratification, but it should also be about representation and authenticity. The success of 'The Kids Are All Right' is promising, but we need to see more lesbians - without husbands - in better films.

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