There’s an odd sense of deja vu to Bruce LaBruce’s latest provocation, recalling not just some of his own prior joints (notably 2004’s “The Raspberry Reich”) but tongue-in-cheek fantasies of much earlier films featuring the overthrow of patriarchy — the nearly half-century-old likes of John Waters’ “Desperate Living” and the Warhol-Morrissey “Women in Revolt,” in particular. The absurdist tale of “The Misandrists,” about a lesbian separatist army cell threatened by the arrival of a lone male strains “The Beguiled” through a funnel of camp comedy, variably explicit sex and Godardian radical-politic sloganeering.
Like every LaBruce film before it, this German-produced, English-language enterprise doesn’t boast a plot so much as a concept, one whose steam runs out well before the (laboriously prolonged) end titles. Still, that happens later than usual this time, and “The Misandrists” further benefits from technical and design contributions more polished than are its auteur’s wont. Accordingly, the film is getting a somewhat wider U.S. release, which should draw in a few patrons unprepared for the veteran Canadian bad-boy auteur’s repertoire of outrages against convention. Established fans will be delighted; those of us in the middle will judge this latest work as amusing if typically uneven.
An ersatz nun-run halfway house for troubled girls in the German countryside is in fact a front for the Female Liberation Army, which seeks to end the traditional domination of men over humankind by any means necessary. (“The closest way to a man’s heart is through his chest” is among their credos — as well as one of the pic’s better lines.) Its four teachers and eight “students,” mostly refugees from one kind of abusive situation or another, are guided with an iron fist by Big Mother (Susanne Sachsse, playing a variation on her “Reich” character). All train for an eventual revolution whose groundwork they will fund by making (radical, of course) pornography.
This rigorous, rigid lesbian-feminist utopia — which Big Mother insists must comprise an “army of lovers,” not just platonic comrades — is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of a dude. Two residents chance upon gravely wounded “anticapitalist warrior” Volker (Til Schindler) on the run from police as he stumbles out of the nearby forest. “He’s a criminal like us” says Isolde (Kita Updike), persuading the much more reluctant Hilde (Olivia Kundisch) to help him. They stash the near-dead but attractive youth in the basement of the “school,” for a while successfully keeping his existence secret from the other FLA members. But it’s only a matter of time before he’s discovered, the offense of his gender rendered worse by Isolde succumbing to forbidden heterosexual urges.
As usual, LaBruce’s script is more a series of stand-alone episodes than a story arc. If he hasn’t developed an interest in providing plot or character development after a quarter-century of feature filmmaking, it’s unlikely he ever will. Nor has he gotten much better at building momentum or sustaining a gag within a scene.
However, “The Misandrists” does have its share of funny ideas: The scene in which protagonists watch gay porn as “aversion therapy”; bright throwaway likes like “Don’t quote Schopenhauer to me!”; cinematic in-jokes such as an homage to the slow-mo pillow fight in “Zero for Conduct,” to name a few. The various clashing tonal and thematic incongruities keep things bouncing along amiably enough to a point, abetted by the game if inexpert performances of a multinational cast that encompasses performance and visual artists, including a couple of trans persons.
At its best, the film offers entertainment value much akin to last year’s “The Little Hours,” dependent on the impudent shock value of religious (or in this case political) acolytes saying and occasionally doing the rudest things (although until very late, a gay XXX clip is the only truly pornographic thing here). Guy DeBord got more anarchic comic milage from his dubbing Marxist dialogue into preexisting exploitation pics than LeBruce manages with his own brand of Situationist prank. Yet until the movie reaches its logical, er, climax — capped by the willfully viewer-repellant deployment of graphic med school surgery footage (then keeps trundling on too long afterward) — “Misandrists” is a diverting bad-taste frolic for the sufficiently jaded.
A great help in boosting the proceedings above the LaBruce median is the surprisingly graceful packaging in several key departments: Longtime collaborator James Carman’s widescreen lensing makes elegant use of handsome settings; a score credited to BunnyCat Prods. adds usefully ironic piano-driven earnestness. Editor Judy Landkammer also contributes an improved sense of pacing, even if occasional performance rhythms (and the entire last act) flatline nonetheless.