Bruce LaBruce's reputation as a bad-taste provocateur gleefully continues with this campy exercise in sex, sleaze, and political satire.
A transgressive artist’s main job should be to make people uncomfortable, and director Bruce LaBruce does his job very well. For over thirty years, LaBruce has been mixing art house and pornographic techniques to create films that confront conservative anxieties. Much like his 2004 film The Raspberry Reich, The Misandrists deals with communism and queerness. However, while The Raspberry Reich deals with conservatives’ anxiety over the decline of traditional masculinity due to male homosexuality, The Misandrists deals with their fear that lesbianism and feminism will make masculinity irrelevant.
The Misandrists takes place in Germany in 1999, and follows the FLA (Female Liberation Army), a group of radical female separatists, led by Big Mother (Susanne Schasse). Posing as a Catholic School for troubled girls, Big Mother takes in dissident young women and trains them to fight the patriarchy with sapphic free love and communist rhetoric. However, radicalism doesn’t pay the bills, so to make money, Big Mother plans on creating a feminist porno movie.
A wrench is thrown into the plan when members Hilde (Olivia Kundisch) and Isolde (Kita Updike) discover a cishet male communist named Volkar (Til Schindler), who is injured and on the run from the law after vandalising the building that houses the German stock exchange. While Hilde wants to let him die, Isolde convinces her to help hide Volkar so he can heal. As the months pass, Isolde begins to develop feelings for Volkar, and secrets within the group threaten to destroy the FLA.
On the surface, The Misandrists could be mistaken for an anti-feminist film. The FLA and its members are pitch-perfect straw feminists who follow a goddess-based pagan religion, espouse leftist platitudes, and feminize words to comedic effect (her-story, wo-manual, womansplain, and my favorite, Ger-womany). Beyond the comedic feminism cliches, some of the attitudes of the group are quite problematic: virgin shaming, enforced polyamory, and violence against outsiders make the group less than savory. However, LaBruce never tries to get the audience to sympathize with anti-feminist sentiments- in fact he really doesn’t show much anti-feminist rhetoric at all. Even the love triangle between Volkar and Isolde subverts expectations- while in a mainstream film Volkar would convince Isolde to leave the FLA and “cure” her of her radical queerness, this doesn’t happen (though I won’t give away how is resolved, the ending is unexpected). In fact, Volkar really isn’t much of a romantic lead; he’s pushy and borderline chauvinistic, and is the type of Marxist who doesn’t care about intersectionality because sexism and homophobia (and presumably racism, though that doesn’t come up) don’t affect him. Overall, while LaBruce definitely mocks some of the more extreme versions of feminism, the film feels more like a satire of the absurd things anti-feminists believe about feminism.
Plot wise, the movie is the storyline version of “skinny fat” – the story itself is lean, but a few scenes are mostly padding, which makes the ninety minute runtime feel flabby. Scenes like an extended pillow fight, or a classroom lecture about asexual reproduction, feel superfluous when there is barely any screen time devoted to Isolde and Volkar’s relationship. As stated above, Volkar isn’t much of a match for Isolde, so her falling in love with him makes this feel like the cliche “woman falling for a man just because he’s a man” trope (though, to be fair, that could just be part of the satire).
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some great things about the script. Asides from the humor (of which there is a lot), LaBruce is great at subtly hinting and setting up reveals that will come up later. I don’t want spoil them, but the first time I watched the movie, I didn’t notice the set up until the climax of the film, making the twists both unexpected, but also kept them logical and consistent with the story. That’s more than you can say about a lot of mainstream films.
The film also excels from a visual standpoint, its cinematography managing to be artistic without pretense. Most of the film is shot in static, beautifully composed medium shots that often frame the women within some sort of “box” (trees, windows, doorways, showers). The blocking and composition gives a feeling of order and rigidity- perhaps a nod to the rigid dogma that separatism demands. Even without people present, the cinematography communicates the austerity of a radical’s life, with the opening credits being a montage of establishing shots of the FLA’s compound. With the creepy music and detached nature of the cinematography, the opening credits give you a sense of unease towards the film, preparing you to be a little critical of the group.
In contrast with the restrained visuals of the group’s day to day life, the erotic scenes are dreamlike. LaBruce utilizes slow motion, crossfades, colored lighting, and soft focus to give the sexy scenes a sense of liberation and sensuality without feeling exploitative.
The chemistry between the girls also keeps the sex scenes from feeling sleazy. When they give affection, it feels real and joyous. Unfortunately, that naturalism doesn’t always come into play in every scene. As the dramatic acting can be hit or miss. The leads are engaging, with Schasse giving Big Mother an intensity that starts out as quirky, but soon turns truly menacing when she feels like her group is being threatened, and Updike plays Isolde as aloof, but likeable and somewhat vulnerable, but some of the supporting roles aren’t as strong. In the scene where Hilde confesses to her ex, Ute (Victoire Laly), about Isolde hiding Volkar, Laly’s acting feels more like annoyance than anger and betrayal. Again, this may be part of the joke (people making a porn have porn level acting), but since it’s not consistent, it’s not clear.
The Misandrists isn’t a film for everybody, and it isn’t trying to be. It’s a film for leftists who want to poke fun of both how right wingers think the left acts, as well as how the left actually acts. Of course, as with any satire, there’s a danger that people won’t get the joke, and anti-feminists would most likely take this at face value. However, unless InfoWars posts an article that insinuates this film is based on true events, conservatives are unlikely to see this movie. That said, if a leftist group convinced Alex Jones to watch a Bruce LaBruce film and set up a monetized Livestream of it, that would make way more money than any feminist porn.
The Misandrists opens at Facets Cinematheque in Chicago on July 6th.