Bisexuality – death, despair and desertion

BCN cover imageLantana (dir. Ray Lawrence) Australia 2001.
On release now. (Lantana on amazon)

There’s a way of reading films with bi people in them which says that if a bisexual character ends a film badly, the odds are s/he’s being punished for their bisexuality. Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger? Shrivels away to dust. Stephen Rea in The Crying Game? In jail. Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct? Well, what worse punishment could there be than shacking up with Michael Douglas? And indeed, there’s an entire book called ‘Bisexual Characters in Film’ devoted to this school of thought.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes that we can only be satisfied by watching happy bisexuals, when maybe we want to go and cry at films where it all ends badly for the bi. It also assumes that straight people do any better in the films – and it’s hardly the case in any of those three films that straight people come out on top. In its favour though, there is a statistical trend: bisexual death, desertion, and despair. Hard not to want some happy endings when  most bi film characters end their lives dead (or terminally ill – think Peter’s Friends), abandoned by their sensible lovers,  or just plain sad.  This often leaves bisexuals sniffing at films with disdain wondering why we don’t get a better deal. Is it fair to say the same about Lantanna, the new Australian film about infidelity, isolation, misunderstanding and murder?  Among the various storylines which it juggles so deftly, there’s one of bisexuality – and it doesn’t end well.  But, the scores are mixed: of the eleven main characters it’s happy endings for four  married heterosexuals, loneliness and failure for another four, and a bunch of bitter compromises for the gay guy and the bi guy. Given that there are no bouquets for the queers you can see why we might read the film as putting the boot into bisexuals. But equally, given that half of the straight characters end the film in varying states of misery, betrayal, and disappointment, it’s hard to claim that the film isn’t even handed.

Personally, I’m happy to overlook the ‘punishment theory’ here since the film is such a consistently sharp dissection of heterosexual monogamy (and the general lack thereof). It weaves together the lives of its characters in unexpected and delightfully tricky ways, and they all turn in  fine performances – Anthony LaPaglia, whose face seems slowly to be turning into Robert DeNiro, is a married cop  uncomfortably investigating a case where his mistress is a key witness; Barbara Hershey, a bestselling psychiatrist whose sessions perversely bring up more issues about her life than she can deal with; Geoffrey Rush both mournful and slightly creepy as he tries to come to terms with a relationship held together only by shared loss. And the lesser known faces all keep pace splendidly with the ‘names’. Best of all, there’s an elegantly restrained soundtrack and  hardly any young beautiful faces, both real rarities in contemporary cinema. It’s also got my all-time favourite joke about middle-class condescension – but I won’t give it away here. Just savour it when it comes.

I do still want, though, to finish with a good piece of bisexual sniffing. If the treatment of the bisexual storyline leaves a sour taste in the mouth, it’s because in the end, bisexuality appears only as a problem for straight people, not a topic in its own right – rather like the tacked-on bisexual element in The Daytrippers. You may remember  that there the husband (Stanley Tucci) was suddenly found in the last few minutes to be having an affair with a man – but really, he might as well have been discovered to be a drug baron, rogue FBI agent, or moonie. Bisexuality: just another of those flies in the ointment for normal people. So the film manages to be both a scabrous trawl through the failings of straight people’s attempts to have decent one-to-one relationships, and yet oddly tender and sentimental towards those failings. It seems to say: ‘Heterosexual monogamy , eh – can’t live with it can’t live without it’. And maybe ultimately that’s why the bisexual subplot ends up so terminally strangled. Because of course, some of us can live without it, but if you sideline the bisexuals then maybe nobody will ever start to wonder.

Jo Eadie