Bruce LaBruce has long been a provocateur, making the sort of movies that seem designed to push buttons and get people talking. Often they’re so busy pressing thosee buttons that there seems little point to the film other than to get people out of their comfort zone – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He’s mixed explicit gay sex and Nazi skinheads in Skin Gang, gay porn and zombies in Otto, and even when he went comparatively ‘mainstream’ with Gerontophilia (and I use the word mainstream advisedly, as it’s merely mainstream for LaBruce), it’s about a relationship between a teen and an octogenarian.
With The Misandrists LaBruce keeps pressing buttons but focuses on something that hasn’t played a huge part in his career so far – women. The film is set in a dystopian world where the FLA – the Female Liberation Army – has holed itself up isolated in the woods as it plots its revolutionary take on a world without men. Unsurprisingly no men are allowed inside the building, but when new recruit Isolde spots an injured young man who she knows is also being persecuted by the authorities like they are, she decides to hide him in the FLA’s stronghold.
While the ‘Big Mother’ of the FLA educates the women in her charge about the need to get rid of men and why lesbian free love is better, the young man is slowly being nursed back to health in the basement. There are also two women who’ve been instructed to learn how to make the female-focused porn that will (apparently) be vital to the revolution. However, there are secrets lurking in the FLA convent/school that mean some of the girls may need their thinking (and more) realigned.
I should say right now that some of The Misandrists may have completely gone over my head. It’s the sort of the film that seems like it’s got a lot to say and is presenting some sort of thesis on gender, sexuality and feminism, but ultimately I couldn’t work out whether there was some overarching statement or just a lot of ideas designed to poke the audience’s sensitivities and get them thinking. Or indeed whether it’s a kind of parody of the self-serious world of some social justice warriors who need their egos pricking by being shown the extreme ends of certain ways of thinking. The film uses the tropes of the exploitation movie, while sometimes deliberately pushing things so far that it could only be putting its tongue in its cheek.
It’s the sort of film that could be taken a lot of ways. Some will see it as feminist, others as misogynistic, some will find the whole thing a rather sloppily acted mess, some as an affirmation of modern gender theory and others as a very deliberate assault on the idea of gender being fluid and/or malleable. Running through it though is that wherever you stand on such issues, The Misandrists itself doesn’t think men and women are all that different, other than in the power dynamic. For example, Big Mother talks about how she’s saved many of the girls from sexual exploitation by men, but then attempts to sexually exploit and coerce those in her charge for her own ends. She may not be a man, but when she’s the one wielding the power the same manipulative and/or abusive urges emerge.
Likewise, by the end you could easily decide the film thinks the possession or lack of a penis is something truly fundamental and that it’s a film trying to undermine the idea that gender is malleable after birth. Or, you could think this is one of the most radical, almost revolutionary attacks on traditional gender concepts you could imagine. It entirely depends on how you react to its provocations.
I really couldn’t decide if this film was one thing or the other, or indeed just an exploitation flick trading in some of the modern world’s hot button issues. Ultimately I decided it was a bit of both – and that perhaps what LaBruce really wanted was a film that will have moments that will challenge and/or anger viewers of all stripes, forcing them to think about their own personal orthodoxy, even if their orthodoxy isn’t a mainstream one.
In a rather meta way he even seems to be baiting the audience to consider his role as the driving force behind the film, asking the viewer to consider whether the fact he’s a man changes things, and does being a gay man change things again. For example, at one point the girls engage in a pillow fight, which is a deliberate nod to old school misogynist exploitation movies, as well as the idea of female sexuality being for the male gaze, but here it’s done knowingly and somewhat subversively, while questioning what the difference is between the male and female gaze in a world where women desire one another (and the director desires men).
Similarly it’s noticeable that the most explicit, hardcore sex we see is between men (projected on a screen), while the lesbian sex is more toned down. That in itself manages to be both a seeming ‘screw you’ to women and a ‘screw you’ to heterosexual men, while placed within a movie that otherwise seems so unlikely to appeal to the typical gay male viewer. These sorts of things ensure that what is a deliberately low-rent exploitation flick keeps prodding its audience and making you realise that whether it has an overarching thesis or not, you’re being subjected to the work of a true cinematic provocateur.
Overall Verdict: Certainly not a film for everyone, The Misandrists is an old-school exploitation flick shot through with unexpected takes on modern gender, sexuality and feminist theory that seem designed to provoke viewers of all stripes.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac