June is here! To kick off Pride month, we turn our attention to the realm of French cinema and explore a captivating selection of the best LGBTQ-themed films. From enchanting love stories to thought-provoking narratives, these movies beautifully depict the myriad of experiences within the queer community.
By Sophia Millman
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019)
Céline Sciamma’s exploration of friendship, love, and art is an absolute masterpiece. Portrait of a Lady on Fire won the Queer Palm at Cannes and was praised for its historical accuracy, fantastic screenplay, and breathtaking cinematography. And let’s not forget the music: if you haven’t watched the movie yet, prepare to get chills during the bonfire chanting scene. Set in the 18th century, the movie’s about a young female artist (Noémie Merlant) who is commissioned to paint a portrait on a remote island. Slowly, she gets to know the aloof subject of her portrait (Adèle Haenel) and eventually begins to tutoyer her (as in, address her with the informal pronoun “tu” – see if you notice this critical moment while watching!). Le regard féminin–the female gaze–has rarely been so powerfully captured on screen.
Stream on Hulu
Directed by Robin Campillo, who also made Les Revenants (2004)–the film that inspired the series of the same name–this contemporary classic stars Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois. They play two members of Act-Up, an advocacy group formed at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s. Act-Up France protested against the French government’s inadequate response to the growing HIV/AIDS crisis, and the film portrays the heartbreaking plight of the group’s members as they navigate life, love and activism under a plague. Adèle Haenel (who features in three of the films on our list!) gives a wonderful performance as usual.
BEING 17 (2016)
Post-New Wave French director André Téchiné teamed up with Céline Sciamma (who directed three films on this list) to write the screenplay for Being 17. The movie’s French title, Quand on a 17 ans comes from Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “Roman,” which begins, “On n’est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans.” (“One is not serious when one is 17.”) This lyrical film is about the sexual awakening of two high school classmates (Corentin Fila and Kacey Mottet Klein), who start out as enemies, but, when forced to live under the same roof, realize that they have feelings for each other. Both young actors shine in this film, as does Sandrine Kiberlain, who plays the mother of one of the two boys.
Stream on Prime Video
Set in France during the 1970s, this romantic drama directed by Catherine Corsini is a vibrant portrait of Second-wave feminism. After watching Blue is the Warmest Color (see below) while writing the screenplay for Summertime, Corsini decided to make changes to the film so that it would be a love story, but not a sexually explicit one. Ranked by French viewers and critics as the best romantic film of 2015, Summertime was a success in France and abroad. The movie stars Cécile de France, who plays a Parisian women’s rights activist, and Izia Higelin, whose character comes to Paris to seek liberation.
Stream on Kanopy
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2013)
Based on Julie Maroh’s popular graphic novel Le bleu est une couleur chaude, this film divided critics upon its release. The movie’s stars, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, accused director Abdellatif Kechiche of treating them insensitively, and Seydoux claimed that she felt exploited while filming sex scenes. (You can read more about the controversy surrounding the sex scenes in this New Yorker piece.) But Exarchopoulos and Seydoux have also defended the film as a work of art, and we think it’s definitely worth watching. Exarchopoulos’s portrayal of Adèle is incredibly moving and we particularly love all the food scenes (when have you ever seen characters eat spaghetti and oysters with so much enthusiasm?!).
Stream on Prime Video
ME, MYSELF AND MUM (2013)
This film is an adaptation of French comedian Guillaume Gallienne’s successful 2008 stand-up show. In it, he analyzes his close relationship with his mother, and how it contributed to his understanding of femininity. Gallienne explains how, growing up in a conservative bourgeois family, he felt that he was a “girl in a boy’s body.” Throughout his adolescence he was mocked and bullied, but he ultimately learned how to express his own identity, rather than merely imitating his mother’s personality. What makes the film particularly funny is that Gallienne plays himself and his mother. Wearing a preppy outfit and a wig while chain smoking, he says hilarious things like, “Just because your brother tried to drown you doesn’t mean that you should get so worked up.”
Stream on Apple TV
STRANGER BY THE LAKE (2012)
The will-he-or-won’t-he-turn-him-in tension in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake has earned it comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense films like Shadow of a Doubt. Pierre Deladonchamps plays Franck, a solitary man who spends his summer vacation cruising for hookups at a secluded gay beach at Lac de Sainte-Croix in Provence. Charmed by Michel, a new member of the lake’s community who sports an excellent moustache, he decides to pursue an affair with him. The problem is that Franck’s the only person who witnessed Michel drown another man in the lake. A fascinating meditation on desire and vulnerability, Stranger by the Lake might very well be the best gay murder mystery out there.
Stream on Kanopy
LAURENCE ANYWAYS (2012)
Laurence Anyways tells the story of a transgender woman over the course of ten years, beginning with her decision to announce her transition to her girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clément). Clément and Melvil Poupaud, who plays Laurence, are both perfect in the film. Director Xavier Dolan chooses to explore their relationship as well as Laurence’s evolving relationship with her mother, rather than simply focusing on the transphobia Laurence faces. If you’d like to learn more about how the film was received in France, or how it compares to other films about gender non-conforming characters like La Cage aux folles and Chouchou, you can start by reading this French article.
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FAREWELL, MY QUEEN (2012)
An adaptation of Chantal Thomas’s novel of the same, which won the Prix Femina, this historical film tells the story of Marie-Antoinette’s last three days at Versailles through the eyes of her maid and reader, Sidonie Laborde. Director Benoît Jacquot had to wait ten years to film the movie after reading the book because the film required an enormous budget. The wait was worth it: it’s incredibly fun to watch Diane Kruger and Léa Seydoux waltz about the grounds of Versailles. If you’d like to read more in French about whether or not Marie-Antoinette was attracted to women, check out this article.
The second Céline Sciamma film on our list, Tomboy stars Zoé Héran as Laure, a ten-year-old girl whose family moves to the suburbs during summer vacation. When a group of kids in her neighborhood mistake her for a boy, Laure decides to create an alter ego named “Mikael.” Lisa (Jeanne Disson), the ringleader of the group of kids, becomes smitten with Mikael, putting Laure’s two identities into question. We highly recommend this poignant film that proved controversial upon its release: a petition circulated in France in 2013 that aimed at stopping schools from showing the movie to students.
Stream on Prime Video
LOVE SONGS (2007)
Love Songs is a musical about a ménage à trois with a 1960s Nouvelle Vague feel. If that already sounds appealing to you, you’ll be even more excited to know that it stars Louis Garrell (the hot professor in Little Women). For cinephiles, the movie’s also a fun watch since it’s filled with tons of fun references to films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Bed and Board. Set principally in Paris’s 10th arrondissement, the story is about a girl-girl-guy relationship that becomes more complicated when another person enters it. We also recommend watching director Christophe Honore’s more recent film Sorry Angel.
Rent it on Prime Video
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (1978)
Based on a play by Jean Poiret and remade as The Birdcage (starring Robin Williams) this camp film inspired classic drag comedies such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The movie’s farcical premise centers on Renato, a nightclub owner, and Albin/Zaza, a flamboyant drag queen, who have to host Renato’s son, his fiancée and her conservative parents. Soon after its release, the movie became the most popular foreign-language film of all time at the American box office. Director Édouard Molinaro, the screenplay, and the costumes were all Oscar-nominated. Michel Serrault’s dramatic character Zaza made this film an instant queer French cult classic.
Stream it on Tubi
Other classic LGBTQ+ movies we recommend:
- Heartbeats (2010)
- Waterlilies (2007)
- Ma vie en rose (1997)
- This BFI list of older French gay films is also a great resource!
Bonus: Call Me By Your Name
You may be wondering why Call Me By Your Name isn’t on our list when the first line of the movie is, after all, in French. (And yes, you have the right to swoon just thinking of Timothée Chalamet saying, “L’usurpateur.”) Well, we love the movie, and it is a co-production of France, Italy, the United States and Brazil, but the director is Italian so it doesn’t technically count as a French film. If you still feel like watching it and want to practice your French by honing in on the scenes en français, we suggest watching this supercut!