'The Misandrists' Review: Bruce LaBruce, Feminism, and Camp

The queer Canadian filmmaker offers a funny yet critical take on gender and sexuality.

Jürgen Brüning Filmproduktion

Last Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Bruce LaBruce was present for a screening of his latest film, The Misandrists, which premiered at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival. The Misandrists is a clever and unapologetically queer film that tells the story of the Female Liberation Army (FLA), a small radical group presided over by Big Mother (Susanne Sachβe, a LaBruce regular). One overcast day while Isolde (Kita Updike) and Hilde (Olivia Kundisch) spend a romantic afternoon in the field beside their home, they discover a wounded anticapitalist soldier, Volker (Til Schindler). Isolde makes the dangerous decision to keep him in the basement of the home and take care of his injuries – dangerous because the FLA has a strict no-men policy, and their mission is to ensure political, social, sexual, and personal liberation for all women.

Jude Dry at Indiewire writes that the film is “a wild romp with all the campy noir you might expect in a film by the father of queercore,” distinguishing LaBruce’s reputation as an outsider filmmaker and a legendary figure of queer cinema. Bruce LaBruce, the Canadian filmmaker, writer, artist, and activist, notably distinguishes his work from the New Queer Cinema of the 80s and 90s, instead favoring an underground punk outlaw sensibility. LaBruce’s films are defined by their references to old Hollywood films, teasing out the queer subtext in works by filmmakers such as Robert Altman and Billy Wilder. For example, LaBruce’s Hustler White (1996) draws heavily upon Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), from the opening image of a body floating face down in water to its narrative of artistic obsession, transported from the Paramount back lots to the gay porn industry. The Misandrists itself resembles Don Siegel’s 1971 The Beguiled, albeit bringing its feminist potentiality and violence to the surface. LaBruce also makes constant use of B-movie tropes such as graphic violence and sexuality, often featuring nightmarish creatures like zombies and vampires, and his actors always perform in a stilted manner, a style common to low-budget movies.

The Misandrists utilizes a camp aesthetic to sort through some feminist ideals – celebrating some while critiquing others. The film critiques aspects of second-wave feminism such as anti-pornography arguments and trans exclusion from a decidedly feminist perspective and the film explore a wide range of feminist issues, dismissing some (biological essentialism) and celebrating others (the fight against patriarchal violence). In Teo Bugbee’s review for the New York Times, she notes that the characters are confronted with the limitations of their particular ideology, noting that lesbian characters find subversive inspiration in gay pornography, and Volker, a straight man, is just one liaison (and surgery) away from being aligned with the FLA’s cause. The characters are challenged to develop a more fluid and inclusive belief system that acknowledges the limitations of gender binaries and sexual essentialism. When Isolde is outed as a trans woman by a member of the FLA who turns out to be a cop, Big Mother and the other girls react violently, as their feminism has no room for trans, non-binary, or gender-fluid folks. LaBruce offers a hopeful vision of growth and understanding, however, and in the end, all of the women share the realization that being a woman is a different experience for every person who identifies as such.

Jürgen Brüning Filmproduktion

Its sense of camp and humor come through in its highly stylized visuals and performances. The camera is always moving, capturing small details such as LaBruce himself dressed as a nun who keeps an eye on the FLA, and at one point performs a Charleston-esque dance for no particular reason. The lighting is frequently warm and colorful, and the frame rate slows down significantly during a pillow-fight sequence, offering a queered take on the “male gaze” that traditionally governs the framing of such scenes. Instead of a salacious focus on women’s bodies for male pleasure, the film makes it very clear that men are not welcome in this space. Big Mother constantly reiterates that one way to achieve female liberation is to engage in free love and sex with one another, and this pillow-fight is a joyful, affectionate moment of playfulness and eroticism between the women. LaBruce’s use of camp as a referential queer aesthetic that is at the same time reverent and parodic allows for a nuanced exploration of gender and sexuality.

While the film is committed to upholding feminist politics, at times, it feels as though there are so many ideas being introduced that there is not enough time to adequately explore them all. During the post-screening Q&A, one audience member pointed out that references to Indigenous mythology and Two Spirit figures were underdeveloped and conflated ideas stemming from different parts of the world. There are frequent references to the radical potential of pornography, yet there seems to be a lack of discussion about why it is, and what makes feminist porn, in particular, a freeing and powerful medium of expression. LaBruce notes that his goal was not to provide a deep exploration of these themes but to instead offer a narrative saturated with feminist notions. He acknowledges that his knowledge about Indigenous experience is incomplete, but argues that including a flawed account is better than completely ignoring this important configuration of queerness. Although this makes sense, it does not make up for the fact that the film is messy at times.

Jürgen Brüning Filmproduktion

Regardless, LaBruce has proven himself to be a unique figure of queer cinema, and continued critical evaluation of his work is important in expanding our notion of what cinema can do. Bugbee writes that “[w]ith ‘The Misandrists,’ Mr. LaBruce announces, here is queer cinema: confrontational, pansexual, gender-fluid, racially inclusive, angry and surprisingly romantic.” His time as a part of both gay male and lesbian separatist groups lay the activist groundwork for his films, and LaBruce has a keen understanding of art that is simultaneously grotesque, campy, intelligent, beautiful, and horrifying. He is perhaps most closely aligned with someone like John Waters, the king of all things queer, over-the-top, and in delightfully bad taste. Make no mistake, however: Bruce LaBruce is a singular artist, and his work deserves to be seen and discussed. To quote Big Mother: “We must tell the world to wake up and smell the estrogen.”

Actual film school graduate. Perpetually sleepy.