Ira Sachs picks his queer cinema favourites

The Love is Strange director zeroes in on the most ‘honest’ LGBT films that aren’t just defined by sexuality

Ira Sachs is a director that doesn’t skirt around the question of queerness in his films. But neither does he make an issue of it. With his two most recent films, Keep The Lights On (2012) and Love is Strange (2014), he examines how characters are many things, including their sexuality. In Keep The Lights On, a semi-autobiographical story of a young gay couple spanning ten years, Sachs explored not only the theme of addiction, but also acceptance.

His new movie, Love is Strange, follows older couple Ben and George (played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) who, taking advantage of the state’s new equal marriage laws, marry in lower Manhattan. Soon after, George loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school due to his new hubby and the couple find themselves without a home. The film’s soft approach to this serious issue is accepted and, almost, incidental to the story of two men struggling with cosmopolitan life as well as examining love’s enduring power, ideas of loss and temporality.

Like those before him, Sachs’s work follows a rich lineage of films that tackle and embrace queer themes, but are not defined by the sexuality portrayed, some of which he has discussed for us. "I think all of these films are important to me because they're honest,” he explained. “And somehow they seem to reveal, intimately, something about the person who made them, the characters in them and me as someone watching them.”

L'HOMME BLESSÉ (1983)

Patrice Chéreau was a French film maker who died about two years ago. He was also an Opera director, and he made this film. It was very influential, as was the next film, on Keep The Lights On, because it's a film, really, about compulsion and drive. It's very sexual in a potent way. When I watched the film, I was struggling with issues of compulsivity and questions of addiction being a pathological term, but also of repetition and lack of control. So it spoke to me very directly.”

BEFORE I FORGET (2007)

“This is the English title of a French film called Avant que j'oublie by a filmmaker called Jacques Nolot. When I saw it, I thought I was going to make a film about my life; instantly I knew I was going to make Keep The Lights On. It's a film about an older gay intellectual filmmaker in Paris, played by the director, and his world, including the men he meets for sex, his friends. It's so specifically accurate regarding his life and culture. I hadn't really seen a film like that about my life and culture, and that seemed strange. The films about 'gay life', per se, were not ones that looked like the world I lived in. And I was also so inspired by the first scene, which is just him silent and naked, and how it could be revealing in that nature. It's very relieving to reveal oneself. It's like you then don't have to worry in some ways.”

THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (1972)

“It's a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film. I saw it in college, I saw it after college, I saw it a few years ago. Every time I see it, it means something different to me. It's a film about a lesbian fashion designer and her obsessive love for a beautiful young model, played by Hanna Schygulla. It's a triangular film; there are only three characters. It's impeccably constructed. It's all set in the interior of one house – basically one bedroom – and it's like many of his films, over the top and completely authentic. I can remember the screening I went to with a lesbian friend of mine; I had just broken up with my college boyfriend and she had just broken up with her long-time girlfriend, and after the screening she disappeared to the bathroom and came back about 20 minutes later and her eyes were wet with tears, because it can really hit you; it's a passionate film.”

TONGUES UNTIED (1989)

“This film is by Marlon Riggs, who was an African-American gay filmmaker who died in the early 90s who made a very amazing, experimental poem documentary about himself and his friends. It's a film that was part of the queer cinema of the early 90s, and was singular as being from the perspective of black gay men as opposed to a film like Paris Is Burning, which was a similar community but from a different place. I run a film series once a month, and we run a film that an artist pick. It isn't always specifically queer, but what I get from it is the permission to be oppositional, and to be reminded that it's valuable instead of stupid. As we try to assimilate it's always important to try and recognise that there's power in being different. And you do have to remind yourself about that, you know?"

PORTRAIT OF JASON (1967)

“(Portrait of Jason is) a perfect film made one night at the Chelsea Hotel in 1962 about a black gay, self-proclaimed hustler named Jason, that only becomes more moving, and more brilliant with time. Holds up as well today as the morning after it was shot.”

JE, TU, IL, ELLE (1976)

“This is Chantal Akerman, who plays herself in the film, and it's about young love. It's, conceptually, genius and also very open and clear in terms of its ideas. I love the film.”

PINK NARCISSUS (1971)

“This is James Bidgood's film. He's alive and well, and he's actually in Keep The Lights On – he's the guy they interview. He made this amazing film that he constructed in his bedroom and loft in Manhattan over a six year period in the early 70s. He built every set. Have you ever seen Pierre et Gilles? They're photographers and they're sort of modelled after Pink Narcissus. Pink Narcissus is a kind of homo-fantasy with lots of guilt and glitter, muscle and theatricality. It's silent, funny and really beautiful.”

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (2001)

"I just saw Hedwig again, and I was struck by how much the movie moves me, more than the play. I think there's something about it, and how good John Cameron Mitchell is as a filmmaker; it's touching in a way that I feel like he's not fearful of sentiment, and I get a lot from that. He's working on Hedwig 2, which I saw a reading of and it was very personal, very honest and about growing older and death – I mean tough and interesting. I admire him a lot.”

WORD IS OUT (1977)

“If you've not seen this you should rent it instantly. It's a documentary that came out in the early 70s, which by the time I was out I thought it was already too passé to see a movie called Word Is Out, so I actually missed it for about 20 years. It's one of the best documentaries that I've ever seen – I love the film. A collective in San Francisco made it, and it's a document of eight or nine different gay lives at that time. It's beautiful to look at, shot on 16 – it's just stunning. Every shot is a photojournalist's dream. And it's also fascinating to realise that times have changed and times have not changed, and also that there were people living openly as gay people before we knew it.”

ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974)

“Another Fassbinder film, which is one I think about often, particularly the title, and to be reminded that fear does eat the soul. This is a film about an old German woman who falls in love with a young, handsome Arab man and their communities forbid their relationship. But it's actually the most romantic of Fassbinder films, and it's a film about the possibility of love.”

Love is Strange is out in cinemas on 13 February