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Bruce LaBruce Does Women: Softcore Radical Lesbian Terrorism from the Queercore Icon

The pornographer and filmmaker said he could only have made "The Misandrists" as an independent film. "No one else would touch that kind of incendiary material."

Bruce LaBruce

Courtesy of Cartilage Films

Bruce La Bruce does not care if you’re offended. Probably the most respected filmmaker to also claim a robust oeuvre of pornography, his work often includes BDSM, sex work, fetishes ranging from gerontophilia to amputees, castrations, and vampire sex. It is also biting social satire with a queer punk sensibility and a deep love of cinema, made by the X-rated love-child of John Waters and Robert Altman. LaBruce’s newest film, “The Misandrists,” is true to form, but with one important difference: This time, it’s all about the women. And not just any women — it’s militant lesbian separatists trying to overthrow the patriarchy.

“It’s kind of an exploitation movie, or it certainly references a lot of exploitation genres,” LaBruce told IndieWire during a recent phone interview. “There’s nunsploitation in there, there’s ’70s softcore sexpolitation films, which quite often have lesbian undertones. And there’s the reform-schoolgirl genre, which often has lesbian content as well.”

The push to finally make a lesbian film came from LaBruce’s own lesbian friends, who took him to task for downplaying the lesbian roles in his 2004 film “The Raspberry Reich,” about a fictional queer cell of the Red Army Faction. “I’d never made a film that was female centric and always wanted to … so I thought it was high time that I address it,” he said.

While a few of his films have strong female characters, such as “No Skin Off My Ass” (1991) or “Gerontophilia” (2013), many deliberately feature no women, as in “Hustler White” (1996) and “L.A. Zombie” (2010). “The whole idea was creating this totally deluded masculine world, expressionistically, where women don’t even exist for these characters. We would actually like scare women out of the frame when we were shooting on the street,” said LaBruce.

In “The Misandrists,” LaBruce creates an inversely woman-centric world in which the covert presence of a young male dissident is an act of gravest betrayal. The film centers around the willful Isolde (Kita Updike), who finds the injured boy in the field behind the German country manor that houses the Female Libration Army. Inspired by his kindred spirit, she hides her fellow radical in the basement. When the terrifying and fabulous FLA leader, Big Mother (Susan Sachsse) discovers a man has been living under her roof, there is particularly bloody hell to pay.

“Exploitation movies tap into people’s anger or fear or repressed desires, LaBruce said. “It encourages a kind of cathartic identification. The idea of revenge on the man, turning the tables on the men, giving them a taste of their own medicine, that’s a very satisfying thing to do. It feels right. It feels like it’s about time.”

Big Mother keeps the girls in line with a severe lip and a firm hand, believing lesbian sex is the key to overthrowing the patriarchy and encouraging her followers accordingly. In true punk manner, LaBruce borrows liberally from his extensive knowledge of film history, fashioning influences into new work that both feels fresh and deeply referential. He cites Dr. Strangelove as inspiration for the character of Big Mother: “You can believe in a lot of what she’s saying, and she has a lot of smart critique. But at the same time she’s a total authoritarian; the girls kind of live in fear of her. And she’s anti-capitalist, but she’s trying to make money by exploiting the girls for porn, so there’s a lot of different moral ambiguities about her.”

For the Catholic-school setting, LaBruce looked to the 1966 Ida Lupino film “The Trouble With Angels,” starring Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell. The story of an injured soldier wreaking havoc in a house full of women references Don Siegel’s 1971 film “The Beguiled,” famously remade last year by Sofia Coppola. The visual style of the film is very distinct, with deeply saturated colors and golden natural light.

“I wanted a very consistent aesthetic that was very visually pleasing,” said LaBruce. “The softcore films I was talking about quite often are shot through filters. There’s a very flattering aesthetic on the one hand, but then I’m mashing genres together so I there in the kind of found footage, so suddenly you’re in a really harsh B-movie mode.”

While some actors are professionals, B-movie acting is another LaBruce signature. Unlike so many American films, the faces in a Bruce LaBruce movie are as varied as they are striking. “In the ’70s, my favorite Hollywood stars were not conventionally beautiful at all. They were like, Karen Black and Shelly DuVall and Sissy Spacek. Each one had a unique look, very distinct. Not classically beautiful, but beautiful all the same,” he said.

Sporting tattoos, piercings, creatively shaved heads, and distinctive moles, the women in “The Misandrists” exude a real-life attitude that cannot be costumed. The dialogue may sound stilted, but it works. In return, we get a queer film with authentic queer style: From the way they carry themselves, to the way they flirt, to the way they comfortably defy gender norms. It’s wildly refreshing to see authentic queer people in a queer movie. Thankfully, the father of queercore never tempered his vision to appeal to a wider audience, though he has been tempted.

He recalls tiptoeing around certain issues early on in his filmmaking, during the first big wave of political correctness in the 1980s. “I was kind of de-programmed by a couple of friends who said, ‘You can’t be making work that is based on ideas of political correctness.’ It was really kind of a lightbulb moment for me,” LaBruce recalled, before adding: “And then I probably overcompensated and started making neo-Nazi porn.”

“The Misandrists” is currently playing at the Village East Cinema in New York City. It opens at the Landmark Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles on June 1. 

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