cw: mentions violence
Genesis Cinema, in London’s Whitechapel, is an independent cinema on the site of a pub-turned-music hall that first opened in 1848, and which housed a number of theatres before turning to the silver screen. As part of its Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest, it screened German film The Misandrists by Bruce LaBruce. Complemented by a moderated discussion about the film, it raised a range of questions on the importance of author intent, the role of sex and violence in film, and the issue of when satire becomes mockery.
The film is set in one large building that appears to be in the middle of a forest in Ger(wo)many, where a convent school is the cover for the Female Liberation Army (FLA) under the leadership of Big Mother. What you wonder when watching, is whether the purpose of these radical lesbian separatists is simply to exist outside of the patriarchal world, or if they ever planned to, you know, actually leave the building.
I wasn’t familiar with the work of Canadian filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, and I wanted to enter the screening with as little information as possible. However, I wasn’t able to go into the screening without any expectations after the introduction to the film stated that everyone would be offended by something by the end of the film, urging us to critique the fact that it was written and directed by a white man, albeit a gay man. It was hard to view the film without this information influencing the experience. We were also told that LaBruce decided to make this film after facing criticism from lesbian peers about the lack of woman in his films. With that in mind, I couldn’t help but question whether it was celebratory or scathing. Historically, there has been tension within the LBGT+ community between lesbian women and gay men, so this critique is not something to be ignored.
I found some of the sex scenes unnecessary and cliché, and the violent imagery so graphic, I couldn’t bear to look. However, during the post-show discussion, one audience member, who was familiar with LaBruce’s work, said they actually wanted more sex and violence. So each to their own. What I took from this point is that if we are looking at a kind of microcosm of a matriarchal society, it would not only be unrealistic, but would make for a pretty boring film, if it represented some idealistic notion of such as society. Are violence and sexual-obsession inherent within male dominance, or is it the case with any form of power structure?
Despite finding the film problematic on many levels, there were some points that could be picked out as being praiseworthy. Although the characters appear flat (and this is more apparent when any German language is phased out of the film), there are moments depicted of genuine character relationships, such as the awkwardness of Big Mother’s lover being told to take care of her injured leg. There is a certain humour in the cinematography in its use of extremes, sometimes reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film. There is also promise when we are told of the backstories of each of the characters, as they are narrated by one character, and the audience is introduced to each of them posing. However, all the characters are either damaged and vulnerable, or else non-existent, for example, with one character we are simply told they have a “black history” and nothing more.
The short skirts worn by many as part of their “school uniform” came across as ridiculous, pandering to a heterosexual male fantasy that would hardly beguile its target LGBT+ audiences
Set in the 1990s, the film has a retro aesthetic, and its play with extremes is integral to its satire. The short skirts worn by many as part of their “school uniform” came across as ridiculous, pandering to a heterosexual male fantasy that would hardly beguile its target LGBT+ audiences. The film seems to encapsulate the idea of such a society as unimaginable, with this cliché of women-only spaces reaching its pinnacle at the slow-motion pillow fight scene, the absurdity of which you can’t help but laugh at. Perhaps where these ideas stop being a joke, is in the stereotypical climax of all clichés of feminism, in the surgical removal of the male intruder’s penis.
Another issue with the film is the equation of sex and gender, which leads to an exploration of the trans experience. This was highlighted during the post-show discussion, and although there were some positive aspects of the exploration of the trans woman’s character, the acceptance of her was based on the other characters’ disbelief, and intangible plot lines including the revelation of another character as an undercover police officer as a distraction. When questioning how many women, including those with experience of being transgender, were involved in the production, it was disclosed that the initial intent was for the whole production to be women. However, this was not the case by the end of the film’s production – causing me to question why so many women dropped out.
Perhaps we need more of that awkwardness for women to be the ones to tell their own stories.
In the group I saw the show with, there was a mixed reception, most not quite knowing what to think by the end. Did the intent of Bruce LaBruce matter, or could you take the film at face value? Satire can be very difficult to gauge, and my verdict is that it does make a difference. The film was shown as part of the fringe because of its controversy, having been left out of many other fringe festivals. There was an awkwardness created when one of the panel revealed that their film was rejected. Perhaps we need more of that awkwardness for women to be the ones to tell their own stories.
Featured images © Bruce LaBruce / Jürgen Brüning Filmproduktion 2017. All Rights Reserved
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