Today is the stateside release of the highly anticipated Blue is the Warmest Color. It won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last May is making waves with its NC-17 rating and explicit sex scenes. A coming-of-age film, Blue follows the life of one young French woman who becomes enamored of an older woman, who sports a mop of messy blue hair and a sophisticated worldview. The controversy surrounding the film sparks from a 12-minute graphic erotic scene and the ongoing feud between the director and his two lead actresses.
While Blue promises to embark upon uncharted raw emotional territory, this is hardly the first lesbian love story to shake the cultural zeitgeist. There’s a long history of Sapphic love stories that have brought the multi-faceted, complex world of lesbianism to the silver screen and argued for the dire need of expanding their representation.
Maedchen in Uniform (1931)
Before the issuing of the Hays Production Code in the mid-’30s, which banned the depiction of homosexuality among other “lewd” acts in films, a few instances of lesbianism made it onto the screen. Among them was Maedchen in Uniform, a lesbian boarding school romance between a student and her teacher, which is considered to be one of the earliest lesbian films. The film depicted a kiss between the leads, prompting it to be heavily edited or banned in the United States. It was groundbreaking because it was directed and starred a cast comprised of only women. The film remains a cult classic and the first example of a pro-lesbian theme in the movies.
The Killing of Sister George (1968)
The Killing of Sister George was the first film to be given an “X” rating in the United States, due to its graphic lesbian love scene. It’s plot followed a popular soap opera actress and her lesbian relationship with a younger woman, Childie. Her girlfriend is eventually stolen away by her boss (who also fires her, oof). The film stands out in that it dealt with the career struggles of an alcoholic woman and her lesbian romances, giving the tragedy more complexity than a simple raunchy scene.
Personal Best (1982)
This film was a landmark in that there wasn’t anything deviant about the film’s two main characters. They were straight-laced athletes who were falling in love and exploring that through sexuality—steering away from the troubled gay character trope of mentally unstable drunks that Hollywood had put out for decades. It was the first big-budget lesbian film, and it was only rated R. Plus, it has a phenomenal performance from the stunning Mariel Hemingway.
Desert Hearts (1985)
Written and directed by Donna Deitch, the film is notable for being the first lesbian-themed movie with a happy ending. Unlike many lesbian films that had the main actress go back to a man by the end of the film (which sort of negates the whole lesbian thing), the couple of Desert Hearts try to stick together. The sex scenes were so authentic and well done that the cast of the television show The L Word were made to watch it for inspiration prior to filming.
A cult film, Bound is considered to be the lesbian-themed film with the best love scenes of all time. It’s a neo-noir crime thriller about an ex-con falling in love with straight-woman-turned-lesbian. Through their wiles, the couple get rich by the end of the film and drive off, holding hands despite numerous attempts at seduction by men. The film is a landmark for its sexy erotic scenes and the fact that the main characters are lesbians isn’t integral to the plot. Also, thanks to this and Showgirls Gina Gershon is one of few actresses who became an icon to both lesbians and gay men.
Show Me Love (1998)
Show Me Love (originally released as Fucking Amal) was praised for its realistic depiction of high school first love between a lesbian and a curious classmate. The film is notable for its happy ending and honest storytelling. Also, when it was originally released in Sweden, this feature topped Titanic at the box office that year. Who’s king of the world now, Leo?
High Art (1998)
This film is a milestone because it’s the first to ever depict a realistic, slightly awkward “first time” sex scene between two women. Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy (yes, the one from The Breakfast Club) don’t exploit the moment, they make it their own and genuine.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
An honest depiction of a middle-aged lesbian couple who have successfully parented two bright children, The Kids Are All Right was critically lauded and nominated for several Oscars. The couple survive an extramarital affair, reinforcing the legitimacy of a gay family. Due to its nuanced characterizations, acting, and treatment of challenging topics like sperm donors and why lesbians love gay male porn, it truly broke the mold.
A critically acclaimed film set in Brooklyn, Pariah centers around the coming-of-age of a black lesbian. The film’s star, Adepero Oduye, garnered praise for her emotionally raw portrayal of a young woman struggling to come out and it paved the way for future coming-out films to embrace a more diverse scope.