The Misandrists

For some filmmakers—Bernardo Bertolucci, Lina Wertmüller, Dušan Makavejev—sex and politics are inextricably linked. The ways their characters engage with each other sexually mirrors how they engage in the body politic, with individual sexual liberation representing the first step in larger social change. Canadian writer-director Bruce LaBruce (No Skin Off My Ass, The Raspberry Reich) is one such filmmaker. For three decades he’s made movies that combine explicit sex with radical political rhetoric, arguing that opposition to repressive social structures goes hand in hand with breaking sexual taboos. This argument is central to LaBruce’s 2017 feature The Misandrists, screening this week at Facets Cinematheque; in fact several characters state it outright. The film’s didacticism can be heavy-handed, but as usual LaBruce leavens it with humor and eroticism.

Set “somewhere in Ger(wo)many” in 1999, The Misandrists follows a collective of radical feminists who call themselves the Female Liberation Army. They desire nothing less than the overthrow of patriarchal society, though LaBruce never reveals how they intend to achieve this. Instead he focuses on their daily activities in the former boarding school they’ve appropriated for their revolutionary cell. Governed by the forbidding Big Mother (Susanne Sachsße), the group consists of four middle-aged leaders and eight young recruits, the older women training the younger ones in subjects that range from physical fitness to history to astrology. When the women aren’t in class, they pass the time gossiping and having sex—in fact Big Mother encourages free love because it subverts the patriarchal norm of monogamy. The leader also wants the young recruits to start shooting lesbian pornography so she can sell it and use the profits to finance the group’s revolutionary activities.

The academic classes, which stress revolutionary consciousness in all areas of life, may remind you of the training sessions in Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967), about a group of young Maoists preparing for revolutionary activity in Paris. Like Godard, LaBruce depicts the lessons as a form of theater enacted by flamboyant instructors; unlike Godard, he infuses the rhetoric with so much humor that you may wonder whether to take any of it seriously. This is especially true when the characters discuss pornography. The notion that objectified sex could fuel a revolution is inherently silly, and LaBruce seems to recognize this—the group’s conversations about their porn project are filled with hilarious non sequiturs. Unfortunately this humor dilutes his more serious observations of patriarchal culture and makes the women’s mission to overthrow it seem almost a joke.

The Female Liberation Army doesn’t appear to be a particularly strong unit. From the opening scenes onward LaBruce shows how the cell is vulnerable to infighting and infiltration. Two of the young recruits, Hilde and Isolde, find a wounded revolutionary, Volker, in the woods. Volker is on the run from the police for having defaced the Berlin Stock Exchange, and despite Big Mother’s rule against associating with men, Isolde decides it’s her duty to hide him. (“Vandalism is a crime against private property and thus a crime of low consequence,” he says before passing out.) Isolde keeps Volker in the boarding-house basement and tends to him in secret, but she arouses the suspicion of other recruits when she starts slipping away from the group during meals.

Later on, some of the women suspect there’s an undercover cop in their ranks, and many of them succumb to paranoia. LaBruce also reveals that Isolde, despite identifying as a woman, has a penis but hasn’t told her comrades. (According to the FLA’s rules, a penis is grounds for expulsion.) These developments keep the plot moving in spite of the frequent rhetorical breaks; one wants to know whether the group will overcome the secrets and suspicions that threaten their unity. However compelling this may be, LaBruce maintains such a campy tone that the narrative turns never assume much emotional weight. That’s too bad, because LaBruce has some serious ideas along with his comic conceits. In the film’s most poignant moment, one recruit recounts the backgrounds of the other major characters, several of whom have been sexually abused by men. The scene serves as a reminder of how genuinely awful patriarchal culture can be and engenders sympathy for anyone who wants to undermine it.  v