Movie List

17 Best Lesbian Movies of All Time

August 3, 2018
14 min read

Coming to terms with one’s own sexual identity can be an emotionally draining experience but the feeling of liberation it intoxicates you with must be truly beyond words. Love takes different forms but what really matters is how genuine and truthful we remain to ourselves and not merely conforming to societal expectations. We’ve already covered an article on LGBT movies but this article exclusively focuses on the portrayal of lesbian relationships in cinema. So, here’s a look at the list of top movies about lesbian relationships ever made.

17. Persona (1966)

This may seem like a bold pick, but Ingmar Bergman‘s masterpiece is, in my opinion, one of the most nuanced, complex explorations of lesbianism and sexuality. Lesbianism may just be one of the many themes that the film explores, but when you think of ‘Persona’, the first image (the one above) that comes to your mind involving Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann evokes sensuality. The film tells the story of Elisabeth, a theatre actress who has suddenly lost the ability to speak. She then goes to a secluded beach house along with her nurse, Alma, and the two develop a strong, inexplicable bond with each other. As Alma shares stories about her sexual encounters with Elisabeth, their relationship reaches a different level of intimacy and soon, the two struggle to separate their personalities from each other.

It is difficult to interpret the meaning behind the entire film. Like all great works of art, there isn’t an explanation for Elisabeth suddenly not speaking, or the strangely powerful relationship she shares with Alma. Bergman perhaps understood better than anyone else that certain emotions can never be defined and that, to me, is the hallmark of a truly great artist. Although the film doesn’t have any explicit sexual scenes, it has a strong sensuous tone using which Bergman captures the beautifully complex psyche of the two women. Many acclaimed filmmakers, including David Lynch, have been inspired by the film, and its influence can be seen on several great modern cinematic works. It is, unquestionably, one of the greatest movies of all time.

16. Show Me Love (1998)

Lucas Moodysson’s 1998 romantic classic is one of those films that perfectly captures the aura of the 90s. I saw this film much later in my life, when I was in my early 20s, but for some strange reason, I was reminded of my childhood while watching it. I guess it’s innocence of the characters, the overall tone and the soundtrack of the film that transport you back to one of the most romanticized periods in history. ‘Show Me Love’ tells the story of two teenage girls with contrasting personalities. Elin is highly attractive and charming but is not satisfied with her life, while Agnes is an introvert who’s secretly in love with Elin but struggles to express her feelings. The movie brilliantly captures the intricacies of adolescence, the confusion one has during teenage regarding their own sexuality and the ecstasy of love.

The move might seem a little simplistic on the surface, but that’s one of the reasons why it works wonderfully. It doesn’t venture out to darker areas; it maintains a warm tone throughout, which makes for an endearing cinematic experience. It is, you could say, a less refined version of ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’. The ending where Elin and Agnes reunite and have milk, while Robyn’s ‘Show Me Love’ plays in the background is a moment that will definitely stay with you for a long, long time.

15. Monster (2003)

‘Monster’ is a truly heartbreaking film that depicts the relationship between a mentally troubled prostitute and a younger, introverted woman. The film is based on the real life serial killer Aileen Wuornos who killed six men in the late 80s and early 90s and was executed in Florida in 2002. Charlize Theron is stunning in the lead role and completely loses her own self, portraying Wuornos with astonishing control and nuance. She brings much more to the character than on paper as she humanises the character in a way that makes you empathise with her despite seeing how violent and emotionally troubled she is. ‘Monster’ is a flawed flick but it portrays a tragically beautiful relationship that lingers in your mind long after the film is over. Watch it for the performances and the raw emotional intensity of the film.

14. XXY (2007)

‘XXY’ is an Argentine-Spanish-French film which follows the story of Alex Kraken, a 15-year-old intersex person. Born with both male and female sexual organs, Alex lives as a girl, relying on medication to hide her masculinity all her life. After stopping the medication, and moving to Uruguay from Argentina with parents, Alex meets a boy called Álvaro, who turns about to be gay, as Alex starts to have feelings for him. Meanwhile Alex has to make a choice about which gender to pick, as her parents expect her to undergo surgery. This amazing story of how difficult life can be for an intersex person, puts forward one important question : is there a need to choose?

13. Saving Face (2004)

‘Saving Face’ might not be as deep and profound as some of the other films on the list but it possesses a rare charm and endearing quality that makes it a distinctively exhilarating experience unlike anything else. It depicts the personal struggles of a Chinese-American surgeon named Wilhelmina who is a lesbian but cannot open up about her sexuality to her highly conservative parents. Though the ending may come off as a bit of a disappointment, the overall warmth and charm of the film are endearing enough for you to consider it as a delectable experience.

12. High Art (1998)

This indie gem is a devastating tale of love, desires and the dark sides of human ambitions. Starring Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell in the lead roles, the film offers a thoroughly bold, thought-provoking, introspective take on ambitions, desires, lust, obsession and addiction, devoid of any kind of genre cliches. The performances clearly speak for the film’s wildly ambitious themes and elevate the film by bringing in a rare maturity to the rule that helps break genre barricades. ‘High Art’ is a stunning film that looks beyond the relationships of its characters, deep into the dark, hopeless pits of the human condition.

11. Desert Hearts (1985)

‘The Desert Hearts’ wasn’t instantly well received among critics but over the years has gone on to be regarded as a cult classic in the lesbian genre and one of the most important LGBT films ever made. The film tells the story of a New York professor who divorces her husband and finds her herself infatuated with an attractive, open lesbian whom she meets at a guest house ranch when she goes to finalise her divorce proceedings. What’s brilliant about the film is that it does not treat its characters any special like they would in most LGBT films but rather presents them as two people who are madly in love with each other. It’s funny, passionate and so full of vigour.

10. Bound (1996)

So we have a dark, gritty neo-noir thriller to mix this list up with a bit more variety. The Wachowskis are mostly known for their iconic Matrix trilogy but long before revolutionising the sci-fin genre in Hollywood, they made a startlingly bold thriller in their directorial debut which not many people now seem to know of. ‘Bound’ tells the story of two lovers , with one being the mistress of a gangster, who concoct a plan to rob $2 million of mafia money. The lesbian themes are dealt with in a pretty bold manner here and it gives a deadly seductive quality to the film which essentially is a thriller that only uses its characters’ relationship to tell a wider story.

9. My Summer of Love (2004)

This British drama explores the romantic relationship between two women who belong to different classes and backgrounds. Tamsin and Mona find comfort and solace in each other’s arms from their troubled family family lives. Their romance is inherently poignant and tragic but painfully relatable and profoundly human. The film creates an aura of melancholy and sadness that so beautifully mirrors the tragically inevitable fate awaiting the characters’ relationship. It’s beautifully acted by Natalie Press and Emily Blunt as they carry the weight of the story and craft compelling characters that turn this film into a memorable fair.

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8. Aimee & Jaguar (1999)

‘Aimee & Jaguar’ is based on real life events about two women who fall in love with each other during World War II. The brutal politics and inhumanity of the war play out in the backdrop of an already tragic relationship. Lily Wust is married to a Nazi officer and has four children while Felice Schragenheim is a Jewess who belongs to an underground organisation. A deeply passionate love story evolves as Felice hopes to survive the war and build a life with Lily. ‘Aimee & Jaguar’ is probably among the more underrated Holocaust films and explores a profoundly human relationship set against a tragedy that is way too brutal and powerful to even talk about. A riveting and emotionally satisfying love story that takes the form of a survival drama.

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7. Pariah (2011)

‘Pariah’ is probably among the most important movies ever made in recent times. ‘Pariah’ follows the story of Alike, a 17-year-old African American girl, in the process of accepting her sexuality as a butch lesbian. Alike’s friend Laura is a lesbian who has come to terms with her sexuality. As Alike discovers herself and her sexuality, she has to deal with the fact that her mother doesn’t approve of her choices, and forces her to be more feminine, while asking her to stay away from Laura, and be friends with Bina, a girl from church, instead. Alike’s father uneasily supports her, causing more tension in the household. The story of a girl trying to find herself while swimming in a sea of trouble, ‘Pariah’ has been said to be one of the best films to touch the subject of confused sexuality, ever. While the film does not break new grounds on the subject, it certainly offers a more refreshing treatment on sexuality, identity and adulthood. It’s a relevant film that speaks about a subject that deserves more light in today’s time and is highly recommended for its honest and utmost serious approach to tackling the subject.

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6. Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Based on the infamous murder Parker-Hulme murder case in New Zealand, Peter Jackson‘s darkly tragic romantic psychological drama depicts the relationship between two young girls, one of who would go on to kill the other girl’s mother. The film is basically a fantasy that reflects the hallucinatory mindset of its characters and paints a seductively dark tone in an exquisite blend of romance, fantasy and crime. The performances are truly stunning and both Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey throw themselves on to their roles, giving us two utterly believable characters with whom we empathise and feel for regardless of their actions and choices.

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5. Appropriate Behaviour (2014)

‘Appropriate Behaviour’ follows the story of a Persian girl named Shirin. Shirin is bisexual, and has to struggle with accepting her sexual identity to her conservative family. Adding to this, is the fact that her girlfriend Maxine, fails to understand why Shirin cannot admit her sexuality to her family, and breaks up with her. A jobless and homeless Shirin then decides to get her life back on track, and what happens after that is a beautiful journey of acceptance and self-discovery. Co-written and directed by Desiree Akhavan, who also stars as Shirin, this is one of the lesser known films following the theme of confused sexuality, but is still among our top picks!

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4. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

‘Boys Don’t Cry’ stars noted actress Hilary Swank as a young transsexual man, named Brandon Teena. After Brandon’s sexuality is revealed, and life becomes hard for him, he finds a way out by moving to Falls City, Nebraska. He befriends a bunch of people there, and ends up striking up a relationship with one of them, a single mother, who doesn’t know about Brandon’s biological sex, or his history. The film follows their story as they get closer, and things unfold. Hillary Swank’s portrayal of Brandon is one of the best roles of her career, and won her the Oscar for Best Actress that year.

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3. Mulholland Drive (2001)

‘Mulholland Drive’ is easily the greatest film on the list. But the reason why it’s ranked lower is because it is not a film “about lesbian relationships”. It is a film about desires, love, passion, fears, dreams, ambitions and everything that encompasses the human subconscious. A young aspiring actress meets an enigmatic woman who has survived a car crash and does not remember her past. Betty decides to help her and the two set out to solve the mystery. We are never explicitly told of the emotional depths of their relationship but there’s a whole lot of sexual tension simmering underneath their seemingly platonic relationship that finally culminates in a night of passionate lovemaking.

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2. Carol (2015)

‘Carol’ is the kind of film that reminds you that simplicity is the essence of a great drama. It has very simple story. A young aspiring photographer and an older woman fall in love with each other. It is this simplicity that drives the film emotionally and manages to strike a resounding chord that truly turns this film into one of the greats of our times. So much of the film is about the emotion of falling in love and what it really feels like to be liberated in the arms of the person you love. ‘Carol’ is as beautifully emotional and heartwarmingly simple as romance can get.

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1. Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

This French film, originally titled ‘La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2’, follows the life of a teenage girl Adèle whose life changes when she sees a girl with blue hair, and instantly finds herself attracted to her. After struggling with her sexual confusion for a while, she ultimately ends up in a passionate relationship with the girl. The story shows their journey through love, with constant self discovery, and then the harsh realities of life. The beautifully made movie has been loved by critics and easily is one of the best movies ever to broach this subject.

‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ is quite simply one of the greatest romantic films ever made. Sure, it might seem a bit too early to anoint the film with a classic status but I strongly believe that this is the kind of film that would live on for ages. The film depicts the relationship between an introverted teenage girl who and an older art student. Adele is confused about her own sexuality and often feels lonely even in the company of her classmates and the comfort of her boyfriend. Her relationship with the gorgeous, blue-haired Emma liberates her emotionally as she begins to truly discover herself. Kechiche’s direction is beyond brilliant and he captures the wild energy and passion of love in a way that sweeps you over with its vigour and madness.

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