The LGBTQ experience is being contemplated through an intriguing filter – the social mores and homophobia that characterized the end of the 19th century – via a trio of independent films devoted to historical figures opening in a three-week span.
Two of those movies deal with literary titans: “Colette,” an engrossing biography starring Keira Knightley as the author and fashion firebrand, who, after her marriage, began openly living with a woman; and “The Happy Prince,” with Rupert Everett as the notorious Oscar Wilde, in a movie that the actor also wrote and directed.
A third, considerably bloodier film, “Lizzie,” focuses on Lizzie Borden, the woman accused of murdering her parents in 1892. Chloe Sevigny stars in the title role (in what’s been a longtime passion project for the actress) and Kristen Stewart (“Twilight”) plays the family maid, Bridget, with whom, in this telling, Lizzie has an affair before (allegedly) dispatching her cruel, abusive father and complicit stepmother.
The issue of Lizzie’s sexual awakening requires some extrapolation, but it has long been a subject of conjecture. The movie tackles it much more head-on – and explicitly – than other depictions of Borden’s life, including a recent Lifetime movie and series, “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles.”
Beyond her dawning sexuality, “Colette” – foremost a terrific showcase for Knightley – turns out to be a tale of misogyny, patriarchy and feminism, with the writer’s husband Henri Gauthier-Villars, known by the single name “Willy” (Dominic West), appropriating her work and convincing her to market it under his name.
“Women writers don’t sell,” she’s told, an assertion later proven wrong – as the closing credits note – by Colette’s emergence as one of the most popular writers in the history of French literature, having authored “Gigi” and “Cheri.”
Wilde’s life was characterized by scandal, with the movie zeroing in on his final days, after the author of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” was the toast of British society.
A recurring theme in all three films is the idea of illicit passion, portraying people who were forced to hide their sexuality due to the bigotry of the time. All three subjects have been sources of fascination through the years, but these films are free to address those issues less timidly than earlier depictions of the era.
As Stewart told the Los Angeles Times regarding “Lizzie’s” love story, “I think it’s really cool to go back and be like, ‘What does gay look like back then?’ and ‘Who would both of these women appear to be? How would they present in a time when they couldn’t be natural with it?’”
Homophobia obviously hasn’t gone away. In fact, two more contemporary movies – the upcoming “Boy Erased” and the recently released “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” – deal with gay conversion therapy, the latter set in the 1990s.
These collective forays into the Gilded Age and its aftermath, however, provide a different perspective, using the past as another window into the present. While the films individually have their merits, in terms of registering a larger point, there’s strength in numbers.
“Colette” opens in the U.S. on Sept. 21, and “The Happy Prince” on Oct. 10. “Lizzie” is currently in release. All three are rated R.