By the statistics, Americans don’t seem to like foreign films. In the 1960s, foreign imports comprised 10% of the US box office; today, they’re only .075%, 133 times smaller. In 2006, acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s film “Volver” earned $13 million in US ticket sales; in 2013, his film “I’m So Excited” earned just over $1 million. In the last seven years alone, the US box office for the top five foreign-language films has declined by 61%.
There are a variety of reasons for this precipitous decline, which is commonly but likely somewhat erroneously attributed to Americans’ distaste for reading subtitles, including: major distribution companies that once championed foreign films have shrunk, refocused or disappeared; the shift in viewership towards streaming reinforces foreign films’ audience weakness, given foreign-language cinema performs best in theaters; and a lack of advertising for foreign films.
Foreign films have a lot to offer viewers, however. According to Brazilian screenwriter Vera Blasi, “Foreign films teach you a new language…the language of cinema.” When watching foreign films, viewers share with the characters “their deepest thoughts and feelings. It creates a sense of intimacy with humanity, with the rest of the world…We realize in that moment that there’s only one of ‘us’ here. We are them, they are us.”
Viewers consciously and subconsciously learn about the superficial and fundamental differences between cultures and how they shape the worldview and behaviors of the people in those cultures. A well-done foreign film can be just as enjoyable, illuminating, and emotionally powerful as a domestic movie, if not more so because of the unique lens to offers through which to show viewers the world.
When it comes to lesbian cinema, most coverage of lesbian-themed movies carries an immense Anglo bias: for almost all lists of top ten, twenty, and one hundred movies, the movies are in English and come from the US or the UK. Only a few foreign language movies have achieved widespread recognition in the US lesbian community, most notably “Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013, France).
Foreign films are a massively undervalued genre in the US lesbian community. In fact, most viewers would be astounded to discover just how many foreign films have lesbian storylines. Given how relatively few English language lesbian movies there are, broadening out into foreign language films is one way to see more representation on screen. Without comprehensively covering the entirety of the foreign film landscape (in fact, this isn’t even a scratch on the surface), we recommend to viewers interested in exploring non-English, foreign films the following titles that can be viewed on demand right now:
“The Secrets/Ha-Sodot” (Israel, 2007, streaming on Amazon Prime): “The Secrets” is an absolute gem of Israeli cinema: a coming of age story that manages to explore and challenge expectations for women in an ultra-orthodox society, the relationship between women and religious texts, the coexistence of modern Israel and longstanding Jewish practices, and even the morality of helping others outside the bounds of religion, all while presenting a sweet love story between two girls. A film that seamlessly weaves together ideas of religion, gender, and sexuality, “The Secrets” is nothing like your average Hollywood lesbian movie. Viewers interested in character-driven films with a female lead pursuing a same-sex relationship will also like the Israeli films “Blush/Barash” (2015, streaming on Netflix) and “Montana” (2017, not available on streaming).
“Liz in September/Liz en Septiembre” (Venezuela, 2014, streaming on Netflix): “Liz in September” is an unexpected surprise given that it comes from a country whose descent into failed statehood looks a bit like a zombie apocalypse. Although probably not very representative of Venezuelan culture and attitudes towards homosexuality—the screenplay is an adaptation of the American play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove by Jane Chambers and the setting is an island lesbian utopia—it nevertheless brings compassion and warmth to the issue of death and dying. Even if the movie feels like a half-imagined dream, it brings hope to the idea that no matter our circumstances in life, we can find love and fulfillment.
A somewhat similar movie, focusing on how we find comfort in others in times of grief after death, can be found in “The Firefly/La Luciérnaga” (Colombia, 2013, streaming on Netflix).
“Kiss Me/With Every Heartbeat/Kiss Myg” (Sweden, 2011): “Kiss Myg” is, simply put, a sweet love story about falling in love at the worst time and then overcoming to obstacles to be together. One might say it’s Sweden’s answer to “Imagine Me & You.” Another interesting approach to sexual awakening comes from Poland’s “Nina” (2018, not on streaming), which also gives a unique insight into lesbian culture in Poland.
Below is an incomplete list of just some of the foreign language movies that we’ve found tagged as having a major lesbian storyline. Readers are encouraged to add to the list in the comments, with other movies they’ve seen.
Germany: “Ich will dich” (2014), “Woman’s Lake/Frauensee” (2012), “My Friend from Faro/Mein Freund aus Faro” (2008), “The Edge of Heaven/Auf der anderen Seite” (2007), “4 Minutes/Vier Minuten” (2006), “Unveiled/Fremde Haut” (2005), “Aimée & Jaguar” (1999), “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant/ Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant” (1972), “Girls in Uniform/Mädchen in Uniform) (1931/1958)”
France: “Summertime/La Belle Saison” (2015), “Violette” (2013), “You Will be Mine/Je te Mangerais” (2009), “Water Lilies/Naissance des Pieuvres” (2007), “The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters/Les Filles du Botanist” (2006), “A Woman’s Love/Un Amour de Femme” (2001), “Girls Can’t Swim/Les Filles ne Savent pas Nager” (2000), The Stolen Diary/La Cahier Volé) (1992)”
Italy: “Me, Myself & Her/Io e Lei” (2015), “Love Is Not Perfect/L’Amore è Imperfetto” (2012), “Viola Di Mare/The Purple Sea” (2009), “Immacolata and Concetta: The Other Jealousy/Immacolata e Concetta, l’Altra Gelosia” (1980)
China: “Bad Romance/Hua wei mei” (2011), “Love Actually…Sucks!/Ai Hen Lan” (2011), “All About Love/Duk haan chau faan” (2010), “Butterfly/Hu die” (2004)
South Korea: “The Handmaiden/Ah-ga-ssi” (2016), “Two Weddings and a Funeral/ Du Bunui Gyulhonsikgwa Han Bunui Jangryesik” (2012), “Memento Mori” (1999)
Argentina: “The Fish Child/El Niño Pez” (2009)
Austria: “Seventeen/Siebzhen” (2017)
Hungary: “Another Way/Egymásra Nézve” (1982)
Norway: “Thelma” (2017)
Mexico: “Tierra Madre” (2010)
Taiwan: “Drifting Flowers/ Piao lang qing chun” (2008), “Spider Lilies/Ci qing” (2007)
Sweden: “Sea Without Shore” (2015), “Show me Love/Fucking Åmål” (1998)
Brazil: “So Hard To Forget/Como Esquecer” (2010)
Dominican Republic: “Sand Dollars/Dólares de Area” (2014)
Finland: “Producing Adults/Lapsia ja aikuisia-Kuinka niitä tehdään” (2004)
Japan: “Love my Life” (2006)
Thailand: “Yes or No/Let’s Love as We Wish/Yes or No: Yaak Rak Gaw Rak Loey” (2010)
Spain: “Room in Rome/Habitación en Roma” (2010), “My Mother Likes Women/A Mi Madre Le Gustan Las Mujeres” (2002)
India: “The Journey/Sancharram” (2004)
Iran: “Circumstance” (2011)
Vietnam: “Love” (2015)
The Netherlands: “A Woman Like Eve/Een vrouw als Eva” (1979)
Philippines: “Rome and Juliet” (2006)
Kenya: “Rafiki” (2018)
South Africa: “While You Weren’t Looking” (2015)
Nepal: “Soongava: Dance of the Orchids” (2012)
Israel: “Joe + Belle” (2011)