January 20, 2011 at 3:14 pm EST | by David J. Hoffman
Documenting desire

‘The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister’

7 and 9:15 p.m. tonight

Reel Affirmations’ “One in Ten”

D.C. Jewish Community Center

1529 16th St. N.W.

tickets are $12, available at

the door or at reelaffirmations.org


Starts today for one week

Landmark E Street Cinema

555 11th St. N.W.

All shows discounted before 6 p.m. Monday through Friday

and first show on weekends

Tickets at box office or


A scene from the gay-themed Spanish movie 'Undertow,' playing this week at Landmark E Street Cinema. (Photo by Hector Alvarez; courtesy of the Film Collaborative)

Editor’s note: The date for “Undertow” was changed to Jan. 28 after the Blade went to press.

It’s a good time for film. The Globes were last weekend, the Oscar nominations are coming Tuesday and two worthy gay-themed pictures are being screened today in Washington.

Look for a tight lead actress race for the Academy Awards between Natalie Portman for “Black Swan” and Annette Bening for “The Kids Are All Right,” each in a role with a lesbian or bisexual identity in studio films aimed at multiplex audiences of all romantic persuasions.

“Kids” was reviewed in the Blade when it opened last year but “Black Swan” is also worth noting. Portman plays a dancer, sheltered and repressed, who is haunted by her fears and obsessions in her quest for ballerina perfection to be chosen to play the coveted dual roles in “Swan Lake” as the innocent white swan and the sensual black swan.

Black or white, there are no shades of gray in this juicy, backstage melodrama steeped with sensuality and theatricality, a thematic mash-up of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1968) and Herbert Ross’s “The Turning Point” (1977) with a dose of Joseph Mankiewiczs’s “All Abut Eve” (1950) by director Darren Aronofsy (who helmed last year’s sleeper hit film “The Wrestler”).

“Black Swan” is dark and twisted, deceptive at every turn, depicting a psycho-sexual descent into madness — and laced with much-ballyhooed lesbian sex between Portman and her co-star, and screen rival for the role of the black swan, Mila Kunis. Love it as guilty pleasure or hate it as over-the-top preposterous, this is a thriller so utterly seductive it must to seen to be believed.

Beginning today there are also two indie films that deserve to be seen based on sheer visual quality, informed by LGBT sensibility and each a lyrical and luminous love story — “The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister” (originally produced for BBC television) and “Undertow” (Peru’s entry in this year’s Oscar choice for best foreign film). The first is at the D.C. Jewish Community Center tonight only, the second begins a one-week run today at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

A much different but still stylish cinematic look at lesbian love — also boasting some scenes of steamy coupling — “Lister” bears the stamp of the BBC in a costume drama set in early 19th century England about the life and times of a real woman, the defiantly unwed Miss Anne Lister, the woman dubbed the first modern lesbian by scholars of sexuality and known with a snicker as “Gentleman Jack” by her scandalized Yorkshire neighbors. It will be shown at 7 and 9:15 p.m. tonight only, as the Reel Affirmations’ monthly film at the D.C. JCC.

From the opening scene, we know we are in England as a distant figure — it runs out to be the eponymous Miss Anne Lister — as she strides over the brow of a moorland hill, the sky slightly overcast as if to prefigure the moodiness to follow.

“I want you with me, at my side, always, to be my wife,” Anne tells her intended, Marianna Lawton, with whom she maintained a relationship, on again and off again, for 16 years. But Marianna already has a spouse, her faintly ridiculous and vastly unattractive, overweight and unbathed husband — who does offer, however, one undeniable attribute, an income of six thousand pounds a year, in those days a sizable sum.

Always desperate to find a way that they can live together, and wearing black in mourning because they cannot, Anne tells Marianna at one point, that by marrying a man — and not living together as two women in love — that she has succumbed to “legal prostitution” instead of following her heart.

“You broke my heart,” sobs Anne, when it appears they can never be together.

British actress Maxine Peake plays Anne Lister as proud and determined to live life only to love women, not men. In this she follows the sensibility of Lister, whose copious diaries are the basis, scripted by Jane English, for this film.

Directed by James Kent and filmed on location in Yorkshire, the film evokes the period well, the sense of chill in the air, the rustle of the wind in the gorse on the moors, the repression of sexual feeling. But a much different setting — one marked by aqua-blue seas and sweeping sunlit beaches — comes in the second film, “Undertow,” a film suffused in a seductive and sensual spell and shown first locally last year in an earlier One in Ten event. It opens today at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

The “undertow” of the title (in Spanish called “Contracorriente” and shown in Spanish with English subtitles) is the pull the protagonist, Miguel, a fisherman living in Cabo Blanco on Peru’s Northern coast, feels tugging at him as he tries to resolve the competing claims he feels — from the wife he loves both emotionally and physically, and his clandestine love affair with the handsome gay artist, Santiago, who visits the small fishing village to paint and remains there to seek a life together.

But Miguel, who is clearly bisexual himself, cannot express his feelings for Santiago in the open. Instead, they must pretend not to know one another and can meet only in isolated coves where they frolic unclothed in the waves with erotic gusto not seen since Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr did the same (albeit clothed) in “From Here to Eternity.”

Miguel hopes to live a double life, his secret passion remaining undisclosed, until Santiago vanishes in the surf, caught by his own undertow, and then reappears as a ghost, courtesy of the Latin American tropes of magical realism. For he is a ghost that only Miguel can see.

Thus, the irony is underscored that now they can be together openly, because one of them is no longer visible to others. In the claustrophobic village culture of “machismo” and homophobia, it is a genuine joy to watch the expression on Miguel’s face to be able to walk hand in hand with Santiago, unafraid for the first time of what others might think.

But that’s not the happy ending it may appear. Miguel would love things to remain as they are, his double life now protected from prying eyes. But Santiago wants to “move on” as a spirit, but cannot do so, it is understood, unless and until he is first buried at sea according to local custom blessed by church and community.

So to free his dead lover’s spirit from eternal torment, Miguel struggles with how to let his wife and the villagers know what must be done, and first they must find Santiago’s body, lost at sea. To do so, he must decide to “come out,” especially after paintings of him, naked and recognizable as him, have been discovered in Santiago’s abandoned beachfront shack.

The film’s director, Peruvian former physician Javier Fuentes-Leon, who is gay, has said that he made this film — his first that is feature length — “born out of a personal quest to define what it is to be a true man and how manhood relates to sexual identity.” “Undertow” is a fable that confronts this task with honesty, never cutting corners, and always recognizing that in the triangle his wife Mariela is also equally compelling and sympathetic.

This film, winner of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival audience award for best drama, will challenge viewers both gay or straight, or like Miguel in between, with lessons about love and loss, honesty and integrity, family and community.

The three leads — Bolivian actor and musician Cristian Mercado as Miguel; leading Peruvian actress Tatiana Astengo as Mariela; and as the smoldering Santiago, blockbuster Latin American film star Manolo Cardona, named by “People en Espanol” as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in 2005 — vividly convey their intensity and pain.

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