If Jill Soloway’s declaration of “topple the patriarchy” at the 2016 Emmy Awards represented the mainstreaming of radical feminism, here’s the film to make it scary again. “The Misandrists” is the latest film from Canadian provocateur Bruce LaBruce, a low-budget, high-fantasy tale of radical lesbian separatists living a cult-like existence. It’s a wild romp with all the campy noir you might expect in a film by the father of queercore.
For the uninitiated, LaBruce is a queer filmmaker, actor, critic, and self-described reluctant pornographer. He came up as filmmakers like Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, and Cheryl Dunye established the New Queer Cinema, but LaBruce embraced a strictly anti-establishment queer aesthetic aligned with the underground punk scene. His aesthetic weds sexually explicit images, stilted B-movie acting, and cult film tropes like zombies and vampires, along with more traditional narrative filmmaking techniques. Kurt Cobain famously called LaBruce’s 1991 debut, “No Skin Off My Ass,” his favorite film.
Courtesy of Berlinale
Unapologetically gay, LaBruce does his queer sisters a favor in “The Misandrists,” using his dirty eye to give life to the fantasy of a lesbian separatist commune. That LaBruce makes room for a nuanced critique of gender essentialism even as he celebrates this male-free utopia is what elevates “The Misandrists” beyond a merely (admittedly very) satisfying rendering of a salacious premise.
Set in 1999, “Somewhere in Ger(wo)many,” the film opens with two schoolgirls frolicking in a picturesque meadow when they discover a wounded revolutionary. Much to the chagrin of her lover Hilde (Olivia Kunisch), Isolde (the stunning Kita Updike) secrets the young infidel away in the basement, even though men are not allowed in the house (an ambiguous countryside villa). When Volker (Til Schindler) asks Isolde why she is helping him, the self-proclaimed “separatist among separatists” replies: “I will always support a fellow dissident.”
Hilde is right to be afraid of Big Mother (Susanne Sachsse), who runs a lesbian terrorist cell she hopes will liberate women, overthrow the patriarchy, and establish a new world order. Big Mother encourages her young charges to make love frequently and freely, believing that lesbian sex is the secret to female domination. In order to survive, they must engage in at least one capitalistic enterprise: Pornography. This gives LaBruce an excuse to include his signature rimming shots, which the two queerest-looking girls watch in the name of “research.”
When a cop comes knocking for the fugitive, Big Mother dons her absurdly ornate nun’s habit as she asserts, “Nobody fucks with a nun.” Other teachers prefer to adorn their habits with plump cleavage. LaBruce treats metaphors as paints on a palette, and the film is a veritable parade of classic erotic imagery: Schoolgirls, covens, convents, and sex cults all mingle in a dizzying array of sapphic delights.
Courtesy of Berlinale
In LaBruce’s capable hands, what could have been a muddled mess is distilled into a neat little package. The film’s louder elements are grounded with a simple but potent plot and LaBruce’s singular aesthetic. From costumes to cinematography, LaBruce shows affinity for color: Too-short olive skirts are paired elegantly with burgundy cardigans, and Big Mother’s cherry red lips pop beneath her baroque but crisp white habit. The house epitomizes German countryside chic, with its red terracotta roof and turquoise shutters. The obligatory pillow fight is shot in sexy slow-motion red, as feathers gently fall over an array of queer schoolgirls.
The casting, too, prioritizes visuals above all else. (For LaBruce, B-movie acting is crucial.) Each face is striking in its own way, whether by thick lips, excessive beauty marks, face piercings, or queer haircuts. A few faces sport dramatic makeup; others, like Isolde’s, need few enhancements. When Isolde is finally caught harboring the male infiltrator, another secret is revealed that calls into question the very definition of womanhood.
LaBruce has a facility for contemporary gender politics, turning his feminist utopia into a critique of essentialist views even as it pays tribute to such lofty feminist ideals. Cinema’s doyenne of unapologetic gay sex wraps this twisted fantasy in such a pretty package, anyone who ever dreamed of joining a dissident lesbian cult has no choice but to accept “The Misandrists” as LaBruce’s personal gift.
“The Misandrists” premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2017.