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Bruce LaBruce's sexy 'Mädchen' remix

by Erin Blackwell

Kita Updike and Olivia Kundisch in a scene from director Bruce LaBruce's "The Misandrists." Photo: Courtesy Cartilage Films
Kita Updike and Olivia Kundisch in a scene from director Bruce LaBruce's "The Misandrists." Photo: Courtesy Cartilage Films  

"It's time to reconcile your revolutionary beliefs with your sexual politics." I feel like I've just been dragged by the hair backwards through my radical feminist past and seduced into enjoying the ride. Watching Bruce LaBruce's new movie induced flashbacks of woman-only space in all its glory and terror. To see the gamut of lesbian separatist tropes reiterated as camp delighted me because they're old friends who have been shoved aside by waves of watered-down feminism. Feel like reliving the wombyn-centric agitprop of the 1980s as a porn-friendly fantasia? Go see "The Misandrists," starting Friday at Opera Plaza.

The story by LaBruce was inspired, he says, by "The Beguiled" (1971), wherein wounded Yankee soldier Clint Eastwood is literally and figuratively taken in by headmistress Geraldine Page's Southern girls school during the Civil War. "The Misandrists" are a cult of young female "victims of male sexual exploitation," as their "Big Mother" tells the officer who comes to their secluded villa searching for a wounded soldier. The soldier has in fact been hidden in the cellar by a new student who holds herself aloof from the curriculum's compulsory lesbian liaisons. This secret cell will ultimately shatter Big Mother's essentialist stronghold.

Other cinematic influences or references abound in this eclectic pastiche filmed two hours outside Berlin in English and German: "Mädchen in Uniform" for its romantic purity, followed closely by "St. Trinian's" for its temperamental rule-breaking. Smoking is verboten, but the girls spend their class breaks puffing away. Ulrike Ottinger's "Madame X" for the glamorous narcissistic sadism of Big Mother; Diderot's "Nun" for the nun's habits cloaking lesbian passion; and Lizzie Borden's "Born in Flames" for the revolutionary paramilitarism in the name of liberation. A pinch of "Donovan's Brain," too, with lashings of de Sade, and more than a sprinkling of Molière's "Précieuses Ridicules."

All these great films are modern; "The Misandrists" is post-modern, and post-revolutionary. Even as the characters repeat slogans minted in the 80s, their meaning is undermined by laughably extreme rituals. This is camp, after all, a self-consuming piece of cake, and ultimately a parody of the extremism it seems to celebrate. How could it not be? LaBruce came from Canada, but Berlin is his stomping ground, and his film drips with German historical consciousness of the failure of radical politics. His most subversive move is to place biological males at the heart of a lesbian separatist cult.

Films-within-the-85-minute-film are interspliced with impunity. The first is gay male porn clips presented as aversion therapy for two students who complain they already hate men plenty. The second is an excerpt from LaBruce's "Ulrike's Brain," which Big Mother starred in. This reference to Ulrike Meinhof, the ultimate poster girl for radical political action, feminist icon and martyr, locates a deep wound in the radical feminine psyche. Here it's played for laughs, and for the shock value of laughing at Meinhof, tragic heroine.

There's another film-within-the-film when we're shown the audience who's watching the film we're watching. Are we that audience? Do we identify with them and join in their orgy? Or do they merely serve to further distance us from the misandrist cult? Is lesbian separatism a laughable social mutation, now obsolete? Is the new utopia transgender? Are two-spirit people the ultimate radical paradigm? Could this strange film inspire queers to claim queer space? Can films effect social change? Does watching movies make us better revolutionaries?

These are questions to be mulled over in bed with the love object of your choice. One thing is clear: anti-porn radical feminists lost the battle. The historical rift in the happy wombyn-only cosmos is brilliantly embodied by that wounded male soldier in the cellar with his accomplice. Men will always clamor to be included, and women will always be forced to let them in. That is the way of the world. LaBruce has put more thought than most into the tragi-comedy of the battle of the sexes as it plays out in queer culture. "Misandrists" is equal parts homage to and refutation of women's right to self-define and self-govern.

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