If we are used to Ang Lee’s straightforward portrayal of bodily exposure in Lust, Caution, then the gay-focused Brokeback Mountain could be described as an atypical Ang Lee-style queer film. The sexual images that receive the gaze in Lust, Caution are that refuse the gaze in Brokeback Mountain, which uses an anti-body narrative to take the film out of an exaggerated and graphic narrative and read the emotional entanglements in the homosexual subject matter in a purely sincere way.
Before Brokeback Mountain, queer films were often filled with pornography, violence, gore, and crime due to stereotypes. For example, Star Maps (1997) depicts a Latin American teenager in Los Angeles who is forced into prostitution by his depraved father; Sister My Sister (1994) tells the story of two maids who rebel against their brutal mistress; Hustler White (1996) presents a straightforward narrative style of passion and chaotic madness. “Queer criminals and killers are staples of contemporary queer independent cinema cinema” (Smelik, 2004), and these plots become the gimmick. Outside of the gay male film plot, homosexuals’ sexual practices and physical nudity become a special image that appeals to the viewer’s emotions. One popular queer film genre features male prostitutes as the protagonists, with the camera focusing on their bodies and sexual practices with a strong erotic undertone. The sexual performance is “explicit but occasionally warm and fuzzy” (Benshoff and Griffin, 2006). The strong body presence in these films is in fact a dramatic expression of gender identity by the queer community. The representation of queer romance typically necessitates the expression of straightforward and intense sexual practices, and as a result, in these films, queers’ lives are always inextricably linked to their sexual practices. In the film Querelle (1982), for example, Querelle’s love game with Nono – anal sex – is a pivotal point in the film’s emotional development. There is a link between the identity of the queer characters and their sexuality. In other words, their sexuality defines them; their sexual relationships set them always deliberately apart from others by filmmakers, and this way of being allows their lives and personalities to be treated differently in queer film history. Sexuality is frequently used as the camera language to express queer love because of its more graphic artistry and emotional richness. Naked sex or even pornographic crime become the particular grammar for expressing love in queer films. However, this stereotype confines queer people to a single direction, shaped and bound by sexuality.
Sex is also the primary expression of love for the gay couple, Ennis and Jack, in the novel Brokeback Mountain. “They never talked about the sex, let it happen” (Proulx, 1998). In the tent at night, in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, or at the evening in the glow of the fire, they express their love by “happening”; the scenery is merely an accompaniment to the sex. Sex is also an affectionate way for Ennis to remember Jack after his death. “He (Ennis) would wake sometimes in grief, sometimes with the old sense of joy and release; the pillow sometimes wet, sometimes the sheets” (Ibid.). Sex plays an important role in the novel’s expression, strongly and directly.
Ang Lee, however, is more subtle with his sexual narrative in the film, attempting to explore the spiritual dimension that exists beyond the body. On Brokeback Mountain, an image of Jack’s profile appears in the foreground of the shot, with Ennis stripping naked and bathing in the background, separated by the fire. Although the fire is a metaphor for the two’s eroticism in this composition, the camera avoids a more direct body narrative: Jack’s unchanged pose in the foreground, with his slightly drooping profile in focus, and Ennis’ bareback in the background. In another scene, Jack undresses to bathe by a stream, and the film then uses medium and long shots to gradually melt Jack’s body into the mountain stream, reflecting Ang Lee’s deliberate avoidance of the body, and no frontal shots of Ennis and Jack’s sex episodes in the tent or at the inn are included. Indeed, almost all of the sex scenes are dimly lit throughout the film; for example, scenes between Jack and his wife Lureen and Ennis and his wife Alma are not directly depicted, so sex is not visible. Ennis and Jack’s embrace in the tent and the hotel is the ultimate tender scene. This is the true meaning that Ang Lee conveys: only sex with true love is the most beautiful of all. As a result, in Brokeback Mountain, queer sex is no longer a graphic practice, but rather a natural expression of love. Lust is not expressed through intuitive sexuality, but is replaced by a mutual spiritual understanding and freedom from social bias. The queer story is placed within the narrative mode based on pure love, and gender identity is then concealed in the expression of identity, of the subject’s needs.
As a queer film, however, it is naturally tinged with homosexual sexual practices. As a result, Ang Lee replaces the body narrative connected with sexuality with more metaphorical images for Jack and Ennis’ characterisation and emotional expression. In Brokeback Mountain, the body narrative becomes a necessary element in the occurrence and continuation of the relationship, lurking beneath every image in subtle ways. For example, when they are separated for the first time, Ennis is alone in a corner, hiding and crying, his body curled up and his arms pounding against the wall to vent his pain, demonstrating the depth of their emotions. Characterization in previous queer films has a dichotomy, as though the protagonists’ traits must be classed as powerful or weak, robust or thin, even masculine or feminine. However, the design of the characters in Brokeback Mountain breaks the stereotype, all these narratives portray both men as strong personalities with the courage to show their love. Through scenes like powerful hugs, fierce fights and even plunging nude into the water, Ann Lee allows the audience to experience the kind of true love that happens between men.
(The catharsis of pain in Brokeback Mountain)
Admittedly, sex is unavoidable as a central theme in queer films. “It is through sex – in fact, an imaginary point determined by the deployment of sexuality – that each individual has to pass in order to have access to his own intelligibility, to the whole of his body, to his identity” (Foucault, 2013). The two concepts of sexuality and identity are inextricably linked. Different works, however, provide different answers to the question of how to write about sexuality. In many of the queer films we know, such as Carol (2015), Gia (1998), Weekend (2011), etc., sexuality is depicted in a direct and intense manner. Licking, tonguing, and fondling are all body narrative techniques used by directors to express love, namely by conveying strong signals of love through physical contact. Sex is still central to the body narrative in Brokeback Mountain. Ang Lee foregoes the intense images of sexual practices replete with flesh, sweat, and shouting in favour of a more metaphorical, euphemistic approach to homosexual love. Despite the lack of direct images, this body narrative resonates with the audience on a spiritual level. “There has been so much action in the past, especially sexual action, a wearying repetition over and over, without a corresponding thought, a corresponding realization. Now our business is to realize sex. Today the full conscious realization of sex is even more important than the act itself” (Ibid.).
Despite the extreme restraint of expression, love itself is highlighted. Ang Lee’s beautiful images and tender narrative replace the stereotypes that existed in queer films. In Brokeback Mountain, an atypical queer film, the marginalised group’s self-perception becomes the main narrative tone, and emotion becomes the core of the image. Perhaps through this kind of body narrative, Ang Lee breaks the stereotypes of queer films. Just like the stream on Brokeback Mountain, queer love is sincere, pure and always running.
Benshoff, H. and Griffin, S., 2006. Queer Images: a history of gay and lesbian film in America. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
Foucault, M., 2013. The history of sexuality. London: Penguin Classics.
Proulx, E., 1998. Brokeback mountain. London: Fourth Estate.
Smelik, A., 2004. Art Cinema and Murderous Lesbians. In: New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader, ed. Michele Aaron. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p.71.
Written for The Film Dispatch by Chang Li.