Protests against gay marriage were vocal on Paris streets in May when the Cannes film festival awarded two French movies that went all-out with explicit same-sex scenes - Blue is the Warmest Colour, which got the top Palme d'Or, and Stranger by the Lake, which won a Best Director award for Alain Giraudie. It's been a year in which gay romances have crossed onto mainstream screens with frank, raw physicality, and an insistence on emotional universality - that love is love, which we can all identify with. Here's what talents behind the year's best had to say.
INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR
In 1980, William Friedkin's Cruising came out. A murder-thriller set in the NYC gay leather-scene, it starred Al Pacino as an undercover cop, and had 40 minutes of graphic club footage cut from it so it could achieve an R-rating. Out in the UK this week, Interior. Leather Bar is a savvily insightful directing collaboration between James Franco and Travis Mathews (known for his ongoing In Your Room project, which documents guys in different cities speaking about their sex lives). It questions hang-ups surrounding gay sex on screen as it charts the duo's endeavour to reproduce the lost segment of Cruising. Franco enlisted Val Lauren to play Pacino, and as the actor nervously stews on his discomfort over the role, it's playfully never clear how much is scripted.
Travis told us: "It's an exploration of personal, sexual and creative boundaries, with a steady drum beat that questions why and where these boundaries lie. I think it's also pretty damn funny, which helps lighten what might threaten to collapse from the weight of the more experimental pieces. The thing that's great about James is that he's not into policing projects in any tightly controlled way. He was with me in taking things to the edge as long as there was some kind of smart justification for it."
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR
Abdellatif Kechiche's drama is a gut-wrenchingly realistic portrayal of the confusion and conflicting emotions of love. We follow Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) over several years as she wrestles with her sexual identity at school and enters into a romance with Emma (Lea Seydoux), a painter with blue-dyed hair who is more certain in her own skin. The film gives full recognition to the key role of physical desire in relationships, and to their at times insurmountable complexity, refusing happy-ever-after platitudes.
The sex scenes between its two leads Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux are explosively raw, and their searingly honest performances the backbone of the film. Blue became mired in controversy, as Kechiche's demanding working methods came under fire from a French film technicians union, and the actresses themselves intimated in interviews that their experience had been far from a walk in the park. With the fact it was shot through the lens of a male director making many suspicious of his potential to objectify, the question of how much directorial pressure is warranted to achieve no-holds-barred performances became hot debate. The media lost no time in amping up a scandal.
Exarchopolous told us: "With Abdel's passion and complexity, genius and bad moments, we were all suffering sometimes and laughing sometimes. He goes for the moment when you're exhausted, to see what's inside when your mask comes off, so we did many, many, many takes. It's not a conventional way of shooting. There are no hair, make-up or clothes stylists - just you, your character and the mix. He wants to see your soul like no-one wants to, not even me.” Read an interview with Adele here
STRANGER BY THE LAKE
For all its steaminess and emotional punch, switch Seydoux for a guy and Blue would constitute a fairly conventional relationship narrative. Alain Guiraudie's naturalistic thriller is much more radical and challenging in its exploration of power and risk. It turns on the pastime of cruising, demystifying it in a sunny lakeside setting and recognising that sexuality does not always emulate an ideal of settling-down monogamy.
While gay characters have traditionally often been vilified on screen as murderers, Giraudie interrogates the mould by presenting a killer through the eyes of the affably likeable cruising-spot regular who has been hooking up with him - and who continues to amid great emotional conflict after witnessing that fatal side of him. It's an incredibly fascinating and nuanced exploration of desire, of which Guiraudie told us:
"I wanted to make a film about anguish, and put my character between his desire and big moral questions of what he's willing to do to realise his desire. I only saw Cruising after I'd written the script. William Friedkin's gaze is very outside the story; too sociological for me. I think San Francisco was really like this in the '70s and early '80s before AIDS, but his point of view's too spectacular; a Hollywood point of view. I think it's because he's not homosexual. Like Friedkin's film, Kechiche's is on the side of show business and spectacle, and like voyeurism. I was very impressed by it but more impressed than moved. I couldn't help wondering what it means for a heterosexual man to direct two women making love. A lot of porn films for men use those kind of scenes."
Warsaw filmmaker Tomasz Wasilewski's festival hit Floating Skyscrapers - which won the East of the West award at prestigious Karlovy Vary - is groundbreaking for the cinema of traditionally Catholic Poland in its depiction of an intense gay romance. The elegantly shot, intense pressure-cooker drama sees Kuba (Mateusz Banasiuk), who represses occasional cruising hook-ups with men, reach crisis-point with his taboo inclinations after he meets Michal (Bartosz Gelner) at an art opening. It's soon impossible for his girlfriend to ignore what deep down she already knows. The film's as much about the poison of living an enforced lie as it is about budding love. Hard-hitting and confrontational, the film doesn't flinch from the realities of embracing identity amid homophobia.
Wasileski told us: "I'm living in the biggest and most tolerant city of Poland and am in the artistic world, so it's totally different for me than for people outside Warsaw. I almost cut the scene of violence out of the script, but then I saw the statistics, on just how prevalent it is for Poles of homosexual orientation to suffer physical and emotional abuse. But I didn't want to make a social movie, so much as a story about humans - it doesn't matter if it's a guy and a girl, or two guys - and to show their love and affections are true."