Film Review: The MisandristsBruce LaBruce explores the feminine with the high camp-meets-highbrow tale of a group of lesbian anarchists who plot to overthrow the patriarchy.
Even when Bruce LaBruce’s film titles point out exactly where he’s headed, it’s impossible to predict just how far he’ll go—whether all signs are pointing to L.A. Zombie or Gerontophilia. So, it’s to be expected that in his latest The Misandrists are, as advertised, a group of lesbian feminist separatists who detest men and are determined to liberate womankind.
The question posed from the start is: How far will LaBruce, and the ladies of his Feminist Liberation Army, take this cinematic exploration of radical feminist revolution? From an audiovisual perspective, the filmmaker takes it pretty far, deploying imagery as provocative, erotic and, in the case of one graphic surgical procedure, as flat-out gross as his fans (or detractors) might anticipate.
The story takes the premise of female separatism close to the edge, but the world of Big Mother (Susanne Sachsse) and her FLA sisterhood isn’t a rigorously constructed fantasy. There are no indications that the women, occupying a remote estate in the German countryside, are running a completely self-sufficient homestead, or whether they’re managing through trade, plunder, family wealth or other means. But there is a slow-motion pillow fight, and an enlightening lesson on parthenogenesis taught by the forthright Sister Kembra (Kembra Pfahler).
Big Mother masquerades to the locals as a nun running a halfway house for wayward girls with her fellow nuns. It’s a ripe joke, among several, reimagining an order of nuns as a front for lesbian anarchists. Eventually, Big Mother does get around to mentioning that it takes money to house and feed the dozen or so members of the FLA and fund their future overthrow of the system. Preaching that pornography is inherently transgressive, she decides that producing porn will generate the funds necessary for FLA to take their next steps.
Most of the sisters and novitiates—many of them survivors of rape, abuse, addiction and/or delinquency—are all-in with Big Mother’s plan. But two of the girls share a potentially calamitous secret: Isolde (Kita Updike) and Hilde (Olivia Kundisch) rescue and then harbor an injured male fugitive (Til Schindler) they find in the nearby forest. Hidden in a room of this estate where men are forbidden, his mere presence promises to upset the balance if he’s discovered.
Big Mother insists the women of the FLA should be an army of lovers with no attachments to men. And Isolde harbors another secret that introduces to the story the added dimension of her being a transgender woman who happens to be a feminist, bisexual anarchist.
The film has fun puncturing and subverting labels while addressing how language and gender intersect, and generally the script works well to sneak in incisive social and philosophical commentary between leering shots of pristinely white schoolgirl knee socks. LaBruce’s palette is broad here, as the film finds space for a posterized print of anarchist Emma Goldman’s mug shot and flashes of hardcore man-on-man porno, viewed by some ladies of the FLA as aversion therapy and by others as a turn-on.
Tastefully composed and art-directed, the film reflects enough of LaBruce’s arch style, camp approach to performance and penchants for porn and violence to land squarely on the will-not-see list of many filmgoers. Yet, there’s beauty in cinematographer James Carman’s crisp, color-blocked shots of all the well-groomed overacting or, in some cases, just bad acting, although the camp performances and dialogue do yield laughs. It’s hard to tell on occasion how intentional those laughs might be, with the FLA singing verses like “Down, down, down/with the patriarchy.”
Not every one of these actors has the crack timing to sell a line like “I don’t need to watch gay porn to be disgusted by men.” In a complicated role, trans actress Updike does okay with a fairly flat rendering of the story’s romantic heroine, Isolde. Revealing other fascinating facets of the feminist struggle, Kundisch and Victoire Laly both carry much of the story’s light dramatic heft as exes Hilde and Ute.
Sachsse, portraying a role that bears some similarities to the cult leader she played in LaBruce’s 2004 feature The Raspberry Reich, wildly overacts, but still cogently argues Big Mother’s point of view. “Equal rights? Equal to who?” she asks. It’s a valid question.
The FLA would tear down the world to present their answer. LaBruce apparently posits that the revolution should begin and, in this film’s case, end with an all-woman orgy. However, he’s generous and canny enough to bury the orgy deep in the final act, after developing a 90-minute panoply of women’s stories, lore, philosophy, secrets and experience. And of course adding a tree-sniffing faux nun, a violent beating with a bag of apples, and a fourth-wall-breaking invasion of a theatre showing the FLA’s film Pornutopia: World Without Men. It’s all there in the title.
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