”It’s not about lesbians—it’s about family!” one straight critic and friend corrected me during a brief discussion of Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, one of the year’s most critically lauded films, placing #21 in this year’s Village Voice Film Poll. Her remark, meant as high praise of the film’s universal (read: non-lavender) appeal, bugged this tetchy dyke—until I realized what out director/co-screenwriter Cholodenko herself had made invisible, or at least joyless: lesbian sex.
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), the long-married couple of Kids, try to stave off bed death by popping in a DVD of ’70s-era gay-male porn; Nic watches impassively while Jules, buried under the duvet, goes to work, vibrator faintly whirring and her head bobbing ever so slightly. A snafu with the remote makes it cunnilingus interruptus, though on their TV, two dudes have just begun some sweaty ass-pounding. The writhing of the porn actors, however, is no match for the gymnastic rutting Jules will later enjoy with Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the sperm donor for Nic and Jules’s two teenage children.
“Human sexuality is complicated, and sometimes desire can be counterintuitive,” Jules explains to her 15-year-old son, who, after discovering his moms’ secret stash of blue movies, wants to know why they like to watch two guys get it on. This didactic explanation—played for laughs but also a main premise of the film—could also apply to Jules’s affair with Paul; she may have a penis in her vagina, but she still unequivocally identifies as gay.
Yes, Cholodenko’s well-written, exceptionally performed film is smart and bold enough to address some uncomfortable truths about the fluidity of sexuality using graphic representation of . . . man-on-man and man-on-woman couplings. But why must a crossover film by a lesbian director about a complex lesbian couple be devoid of lesbian lust?
In 2010, as in years past, onscreen sapphic sex appeared in the form of softcore girl-on-girl action served up as queasy titillation in stories about straights. The “steamy” same-sex sex Moore wasn’t enjoying with Bening in Kids she does have with Amanda Seyfried in Atom Egoyan’s ridiculous marital thriller Chloe. But shortly after Seyfried diddles Moore in a hotel room, she will reveal herself to be what several cinematic lavender leaners have been in pre-Stonewall decades past: mentally ill. I’m not sure which DSM-IV code best applies to Natalie Portman in Black Swan: Did the howling orgasm Mila Kunis’s tongue provided really happen? Or was Portman’s cracked dancer, Nina, actually going down on herself? (Note to the American Psychiatric Association: Reconsider the markers for narcissistic personality disorder!)
In light of Cholodenko’s frustrating hedging, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s I Love You Phillip Morris seems even more radical in its depiction of homo desire. Based on the true story of a newly out con man Steven Russell (played, in a career-defining performance, by Jim Carrey), ILYPM is also, in a way, a story about a family. Before charging out of the closet, Russell is a devoted dad and husband, even if nightly congress with his besotted wife, Debbie, is done with a chore-like sense of obligation. But even after fully embracing his faggotry—no longer buck wilding with a mustached bottom in secret—Steven remains close with Debbie and a dutiful parent (though some may question the appropriateness of sending wads of unmarked bills as a Christmas present). In its own outrageous way, ILYPM makes its charming horndog sociopath the most multifaceted queer character of the year: one who treasures his family as much as he loves doing it with his boyfriend.
For the 2010 film poll results, go to villagevoice.com/filmpoll