Film

Bruce LaBruce Misfires with an Awkward Marriage of Punk and Camp

The provocative auteur’s latest, The Misandrists, attempts a tongue-in-cheek critique of radical feminism.

Susanne Sachsse stars as Big Mother Bruce LaBruce’s <em>The Misandrists</em> (all images courtesy Cartilage Films)
Susanne Sachsse stars as Big Mother in Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists (all images courtesy Cartilage Films)

“Sisters, we must tell the world to wake up and smell the estrogen!” So says Big Mother (Susanne Sachsse) in an Isabella Rossellini drawl to her dutiful Female Liberation Army acolytes, a ragtag platoon of punks, preps, and pig-tailed femmes training in the Bavarian outback in Bruce LaBruce’s latest film, The Misandrists. Though the movie is (somewhat incongruously) set in 1999, the credo feels very timely. At first glance, the film resembles a rompish battle cry against the crimes of patriarchy, a B-movie bacchanal for the lesbian separatist, and a shameless parody whose excesses are intrinsic to its charm.

The problem? Though LaBruce fancies himself a feminist, his vision of radical separatism often feels equal parts Born in Flames and Girls Gone Wild. Calling his latest feature “a critique of any extremist kind of movement — both on the left and right,” the director feigns a take-no-prisoners mindset while kowtowing to cis-gender male visions of non-stop sapphic snogging (his cinematographer, tellingly, is also male). However it critiques ideological extremes, the film’s half-hearted embrace of opposing aesthetic and affective poles convolutes more than it calls to arms.

Left-to-right: Barb Ara, Sam Dye, Serenity Rosa, Olivia Kundisch, Lo-Fi Cherry, Victoire Laly, and Lina Bembe in a scene from Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists
Left-to-right: Barb Ara, Sam Dye, Serenity Rosa, Olivia Kundisch, Lo-Fi Cherry, Victoire Laly, and Lina Bembe in a scene from Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists

The movie launches promisingly enough, its Pepto-Bismol font curling across the credits in the spirit of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (a film to which LaBruce’s bears striking plot similarities, if you swap the white-gowned maidens for surly lesbians in matching knee-high socks). Accompanying a piano refrain uncannily reminiscent of Jewel’s “Foolish Games”, the cursive opening titles set against the sight of a secluded country estate suggest a tongue planted firmly in cheek (though it is planted upon a great range of orifices over the course of the film). For its first 20 minutes, the film seems a risible — if predictable — send-up of essentialist feminism; the FLA gals close their dinner prayer with “A-(wo)men” and shun all things male with stilted disgust. But as contempt for the patriarchy fills every utterance, the spoof gets as platitudinous as the rhetoric it intends to mock — maybe even more so, as there’s something about the intensity of Shulamith Firestone and Valerie Solanas that is pretty darn enjoyable.

Left-to-right: Kembra Pfahler, Caprice Crawford, Viva Ruiz, and Caprice Crawford in Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists
Left-to-right: Kembra Pfahler, Caprice Crawford, Viva Ruiz, and Caprice Crawford in Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists

“Equal rights. Equal to whom? To the patrimonial male ruling class who has relegated us to the dustbin of history?” As Big Mother drones on at the dinner table, her subjects (including performance artist Kembra Pfahler) seem just as listless as we are. “Are we satisfied now with an equal distribution of injustices? To be granted equality only by agreeing to be equally as exploitative, extraordinate, and corrupt? Equal participation in an iniquitous society is incommensurate with womancipation.” If LaBruce’s point is how monotonous radical feminism can be, I can’t help but wonder if we — in 2018 — really need a 90-minute film to show us that? Tedium can be a productive means of cinematic deviance, but after a soft-lit, slow-motion pillow fight goes on for three full minutes, do we really need a similarly filtered orgy in a later scene? It’s not that none of this is entertaining at first; it’s that it’s only entertaining at first.

Left’ to right: Kita Updike, Olivia Kundisch, Victoire Laly (top), and Lina Bembe (bottom) in Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists
Left to right: Kita Updike, Olivia Kundisch, Victoire Laly (top), and Lina Bembe (bottom) in Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists

The Misandrists misfires not because it lampoons grave subject matter, but in how lazily and unevenly it does so. We first learn that the girls of the FLA are “victims of sexual abuse” during a humorous speech from Big Mother (costumed as a nun, no less) to a police officer inquiring about the missing male renegade (Til Schindler) hidden in their cellar. But when hornball Helga (Lina Bembe) presses comrade Isolde (Kita Updike) for dirt about one of their schoolmates, her deadpan explanation of each girl’s history of exploitation is hardly played for laughs. Rather, a close-up of each stares blankly at the camera as we learn of their rapes, assaults, traumatic pregnancies, and sex work. Is this camp or a PSA? Perhaps LaBruce can’t tell the difference.

Left-to-right: Til Schindler and Kita Updike in a scene from Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists
Left-to-right: Til Schindler and Kita Updike in a scene from Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists

Filmed outside Berlin and funded largely by a Kickstarter campaign, The Misandrists may turn out to be another low-budget cult classic, with LaBruce following the tradition of John Waters, Todd Solondz, and Gregg Araki before him. But in 2018, this supposedly punk-rock take on New Queer Cinema just doesn’t feel that punk, or that new. Where others have deftly mixed their cocktail of camp, cruelty, and crass humor, LaBruce’s tonic feels flat and undershaken. Where art thou, Dawn Wiener, the transcendent Divine, or arguably any character with a pulse?

Left-to-right: Victoire Laly and Serenity Rosa in a scene from Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists
Left-to-right: Victoire Laly and Serenity Rosa in a scene from Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists

The New York Times’s Teo Bugbee said of the film, “[H]ere is queer cinema: confrontational, pansexual, gender-fluid, racially inclusive, angry and surprisingly romantic.” Granted, its racial (and trans) inclusivity is laudable. But with its nubile, shaven, itty-bitty-tittied female cast, the movie’s portrayal of lesbian desire looms perilously close to hetero-centric schoolgirl porn. Moreover, the movie’s rancor and romance never seem sincere enough to leave a mark. When at last its end credits appear onscreen — black-and-white photos chronicling a history of all-female protest movements, from turn-of-the century suffragettes to Black UCLA alumnae in the 1960s  — the leap in tone feels the cinematic equivalent of trying to spoon after an interminable hand job. For all its money shots and graphic violence, the only thing truly shocking about The Misandrists is how ultimately boring it becomes.

The Misandrists is currently playing at the Village East Cinema (181-189 Second Avenue, East Village, Manhattan) in New York City and opens on June 1 at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre (11272 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, California).

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