The Ache of Desire

The Ache of Desire

It’s a strange feeling: adoring cinema while at the same time always sensing that it’s not made for you. This is how I felt growing up, at least. I came of age watching movies, crushing on them so hard that they became the only true romance of my tender years. Yet so many of the ones that I watched seemed to have something in common: the implicit message that love and sex existed only between men and women. There were exceptions, peeking out from the corners in my young film education: The Color Purple, with its chaste yet undeniably amorous kiss between Whoopi Goldberg and Margaret Avery; Cabaret, in which Michael York admitted to cheating on Liza Minnelli with Helmut Griem; and Persona, which I’ll never forget watching for the first time, in my bedroom on a VHS rented from my local library, wondering just what was the nature of the attraction-repulsion between Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, mysterious, beautiful women whose bond certainly didn’t conform to any standards I had been conditioned to. But these were the disrupters, the odd ducks among the rows and rows of films that, no matter how much they might later be embraced by queer studies, were quietly reinforcing mainstream—i.e. “straight”—culture.

With its shakes and shudders, its unexpected cuts or longing, unbroken glances, cinema all but quivers with lust. The form itself cannot live, might have never lived, without human desire to give it shape and meaning. What was one of the first films ever shown to the public but Edison’s 1896 short The Kiss? The camera looks, we look, the actors look. The dream world of the movies functions on the assumption that we in some way crave, idealize, or fetishize the people we see on-screen, whose faces, bodies, and lives we can never touch. In a sense, then, cinema is a denial of our physical pleasure, a strictly imaginary evocation of what we want. The movies show us our dreams, but they’re behind a thick, unnavigable fog that keeps them forever just out of reach.

The sense that cinema is an unrepentant flirt, or for some a diabolical tease, is particularly heightened for the queer viewer. With more socially acceptable heterosexual desires already policed by restrictive codes, gay desire has long been especially obscured. The Motion Picture Production Code in the U.S., for instance—first prescribed in 1930, then seriously enforced in 1934—regulated gayness by labeling it as “sex perversion” and moved on, better to have inferred rather than actually writing that nasty word “homosexual.” This attitude was largely true in film industries across the globe for most of the last century (and unfortunately remains the standard in much of the world, despite incremental steps toward progress). As a result, the handful of movies from the first half of the twentieth century that dared to thrum and burn with queer desire have stood out like sparkling rubies in a vast, dark wasteland: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Michael (1924), Germaine Dulac’s Princess Mandane (1928), Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1930), Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform (1931), George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950)—all thrill from the margins, pointing toward an alternate, queer film history that has long existed in parallel to the given narrative of film history taught in colleges and textbooks. There was no such thing as “heterosexuality” until, in the late nineteenth century, “homosexuality” was coined to define its alleged opposite. To consider cinematic history without identifying the queerness that makes its “non-queerness” definable is irresponsible, or at least shortsighted.

“To locate queerness on film, one needs to be attuned to the erotic longing that courses through the medium.”


Whether an expression of identity, subject matter, or aesthetic, queerness in cinema is impossible to reduce. The usual rules of linear historical progression just don’t apply here. There are very few easily identifiable cause-and-effect ways to read a queer cinematic history—because of its marginalization but also because of the vast spectrum of coded behavior and erotic desire on which it exists. An actual historically bracketed moment like the New Queer Cinema, which exploded in the nineties, is the exception that proves the rule. It’s important to remember that disclosures of desire, so long sublimated, are only one part of queer film history; at the same time, to locate queerness on film, one needs to be attuned to the erotic longing that courses through the medium. The ache of queer desire has existed on-screen in one form or another for almost as long as the medium itself, and, for this gay man at least, it can be felt in the implicit expressions of such ostensibly non-queer filmmakers as Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch, and Barbra Streisand as well as in the more explicit works of outwardly queer filmmakers like Chantal Akerman, Tsai Ming-liang, and Alain Guiraudie.

It all comes back to that frisson I experienced when I first watched Persona. I couldn’t define it at the time, but I could feel something different, even disturbing, about the way the movie was challenging my preconceptions about gender and desire. In its unresolvable mysteries—which are more about the human condition than about narrative consequence—Bergman’s 1966 film seems to posit that we are all social or narrative constructs, no more than the masks we wear. And if we’re constantly playing roles, then what does that make sexuality other than a completely fluid concept?

Bergman’s career is besotted with troubled heterosexual relations, including some of the most harrowing depictions of marriage: movies that at once venerate and question the inherent plausibility of male-female romance. With its story of Elisabet and Alma, a stage actress who has suddenly gone mute and the gabby nurse hired to take care of her in her isolated island cottage, Persona is the Bergman film that most drives a stake through the heart of straightness.

As they spend more isolated time with one another, the women grow unbearably close, as though experiencing a kind of emotional transference. But their relationship is also clearly physical. The women are seen in various ambiguous embraces and, famously, one vampiric near-kiss, and in one unforgettable monologue, Alma seems overzealous in her willingness to shock Elisabet with tales of sexual transgression. Bergman is like Alma in this way, as his film functions as a frank intrusion into cinematic conventions—it even features a series of literal filmic disruptions, including a subliminally spliced frame of an erect penis, and a moment when the film itself seems to unspool from the projector, calling attention to its own construction and stopping the movie short. Alongside all of the groundbreaking, consciousness-raising films of the various global cinema renaissances and New Waves of the sixties, most of which fell back on highly traditional ideas of gender—see Godard, Fellini, Antonioni—Persona feels genuinely subversive in how it dramatizes the malleability and unreadability of sexual identity. 

Mulholland Dr.

Indebted to Bergman’s film yet more overt in how it depicts the love between its two female protagonists, David Lynch’s millennium-hearkening masterpiece Mulholland Dr. (2001) remains one of the few films I’d seen since Persona that had a similar emotional impact on me. Here, one doesn’t necessarily puzzle over the nature of the sexual feelings shared by Naomi Watts’s cheerful Betty Elms, a starry-eyed aspiring actress just beamed down to L.A. from Deep River, Ontario, and Laura Elena Harring’s amnesiac Rita, who’s crash-landed in the apartment Betty’s borrowing from her aunt. As their Nancy Drew–like efforts to discover Rita’s true identity progress, their attraction grows, until finally they experience a tender sexual moment in bed. “Have you ever done this before?” asks Betty. “I don’t know. Have you?” is the memory-impaired Rita’s hilariously honest response. 

Of course, it’s the stuff of pure fantasy: a perfectly requited declaration of love, followed by kisses and caresses, culminating in a shot of the two women’s hands clasped in bed. But watching the film, one must never forget Betty’s ecstatic response to being in the City of Angels near the film’s beginning: “I’m in this dream place.” All dreams must come to an end. Thus the desire shared by Betty and Rita, so beautiful, so uncomplicated, becomes something quite different, when, in Lynch’s final movement, Watts “becomes” rough-hewn has-been actress Diane Selwyn and Harring “becomes” ascendant Tinseltown star Camilla Rhodes. Lynch supposes that the women’s attraction might be as predicated on deranged obsession and jealousy as on sweet, sensual longing, the dark “reality”—if there is such a thing in a Lynch film—of the romantic Hollywood dream. 

Bergman’s and Lynch’s contributions to queer cinema, at least with these two films, are undeniable, despite the distance created by their offscreen identities as heterosexual men. With such openly queer auteurs as the late Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman and Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang, two of the greatest sculptors of time and space that the medium has ever known, there’s a pronounced ache of desire that informs every moment, every fiber, of their films. They are often discussed as heirs to the legacy of Antonioni for their patient studies of erotic longing, urban isolation, and social alienation. Yet while I always have had a difficult time fully connecting to Antonioni’s portrayals of bourgeois hetero diffidence, often localized in the inert beauty of camera subject Monica Vitti, I have long felt an immediate and profound connection to Akerman’s and Tsai’s work, which expresses the desperate need to find the adequate repositories for longing. This is exquisitely captured by Tsai, perhaps most gut-wrenchingly in Vive l’amour (1994) and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), both featuring his muse Lee Kang-sheng as a displaced, lovelorn man seeking spiritual and physical contact with another soul, who in the latter film is a Bangladeshi migrant worker in Kuala Lumpur. 

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone

Akerman, with her structuralist masterpieces Je tu il elle (1974) and Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), reminds us that fixed identity is as elusive as happiness itself. Matters of identity have always been especially crucial to an understanding of her cinema—not only her fluid sexuality but also her Jewishness, her Belgian nationality, and her status as a daughter. Yet her films reiterate that who we are can be also purposely equivocal and provocatively undefinable. Les rendez-vous d’Anna’s Aurore Clément is clearly playing a surrogate for Akerman, a filmmaker experiencing dislocation and loneliness while traveling the festival circuit, showing her films in quiet, out-of-the-way theaters in small cities across Europe. Anna seems to exist in life’s interstices, defying labels—as Akerman always did—but at the same time feeling neither here nor there. We have come to understand she has been in relationships with men and women, though there’s no talk of “preference” for one or the other, just a low-level desire for something other than what she has. Yet her strongest relationship is with her mother—which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has followed Akerman’s career, or who has seen her exquisite final film, No Home Movie (2015), recorded in her mother’s apartment during the older woman’s last months. There are few sequences in any film more powerful than the one in which Clément’s Anna lies in a hotel bed beside her mother, whom she has met up with during her travels, and drifts into a hushed monologue about her first lesbian experience; the scene concludes with the women embracing. The sexual and the familial become one in a moment irreducible to mere Electra complex-ity.


Akerman and Tsai’s films are all generously, unapologetically omni-desirous. The rare American movie to attempt this sort of free-floating longing, Barbra Streisand’s very unconventional, very Jewish passion project Yentl (1983) has long struck me as an erotically fluid film with an inherent, mindful bisexuality at its core. It positively aches with desire, and that desire comes out in all directions. In turn-of-the-century Eastern Europe, Streisand’s title character has cross-dressed as “Anshel,” in order to get out of the shtetl and attend Yeshiva in the wake of her father’s death. In the midst of her charade, she surprises herself by falling in love with Mandy Patinkin’s doe-eyed fellow student Avigdor, who in turn loves Amy Irving’s wealthy local girl Haddas. The triangle grows ever more complicated when Avigdor, rejected by Haddas’s family, asks his friend “Anshel” to marry Haddas in his place, which precipitates Haddas falling for Yentl, while an attraction beyond friendship also develops between Avigdor and “Anshel.” Rather than treat this as the setup for screwball high jinks, Streisand uses the musical form—and Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s astonishingly beautiful song score—to make this unusual scenario really sing. There’s a true thrill to watching this impossible situation unfold, and it’s reflected in the frenetic lyrics to Yentl’s show-stopping interior-monologue wedding-eve number “Tomorrow Night”:  “He loves her; she loves him. He likes me; I like her. And I’ve reasons to think she likes me. She keeps him; he keeps her. I keep things as they were. It’s a perfect arrangement for three.”

“The heart wants what it wants, but as Stranger by the Lake reminds us, so do the genitals. ”

Stranger by the Lake

As the intellectual and physical attraction develops between their characters, behold how Amy Irving looks deeply into Streisand’s eyes. It’s a graceful depiction of the forbidden. Yentl sends me swooning, but thankfully not every drama of queer desire is so polite. The heart wants what it wants, but as gay French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2013) reminds us, so do the genitals. It’s one of this decade’s most frighteningly frank depictions of the self-destructive impulse that can fuel lust. In a series of scrupulously composed sequences, Guiraudie delineates the contours of a beachside gay cruising spot: the rocky shore, the lapping waves, and the woody paths at the perimeters, where the men go for sex, which Guiraudie depicts in startlingly matter-of-fact close-up. While looking out at the placid lake, our freckled boy-next-door hero, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), falls for a strapping, mustachioed stud (Christophe Paou), and his crush continues—even after he witnesses his object of desire do something very, very bad. To many, Franck’s response to the events of the film will be unfathomable, but that’s how hidden desires work. 

Among the most memorable aspects of Stranger by the Lake for any viewer would undoubtedly be its explicitness, unusual for a mainstream narrative film, to say the least. The film is both shocking and low-key hilarious for how unflinchingly it depicts the mechanics of anonymous gay sex. There are certain images in the film that will be considered by some to be pornographic, especially one cutaway to a penis coming to climax. In this way, Guiraudie’s film would seem to point toward a natural endpoint for any survey of cinematic queer desire, its eroticism as bald and blatant as an erection—which, this time, unlike in Persona, doesn’t have to be made subliminal. Yet the trick of Stranger by the Lake is that it’s still all about concealment: standards of on-screen representation may have changed, but these men still are compelled to engage with each other sexually within secret places and circumscribed boundaries.

In this way, Guiraudie reminds us that queer desire, no matter how much we are now allowed to see, remains hidden, elusive. Like any form of love, you can’t explain it, you can’t define it, and God forbid someone should try to reduce it. The best queer films make you feel that desire, make you feel the ache right along with the characters. We are all as unpredictable as our desires are inchoate, so why should our cinema be any different?

The films discussed in this essay are featured in the series Queersighted: The Ache of Desire, programmed by Michael Koresky and available to stream in its entirety on the Criterion Channel through February 29, 2020.

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