There are several penises on display in queer, evergreen enfant terrible Bruce LaBruce’s amusing anarchist-feminist comedy “The Misandrists.” The first one seen belongs to Volker (Til Schindler), a wounded criminal who stops twice to urinate while on the lam.
Volker soon encounters two female students, Isolde (Kita Updike) and Helga (Lina Bembe), kissing in a field. The young women agree to take Volker back to their school and hide him in the basement since no men are allowed in their female-only safe space run by Big Mother (Susanne Sachsse). If the film sounds like a queer twist on “The Beguiled,” it is — and isn’t.
The school is really the headquarters of the FLA, the Female Liberation Army, a separatist stronghold that aims to use queer pornography to create aversion therapy. As such, two female students are watching gay male porn — cue more penises and some explicit sex acts (one involving a giant butt plug) — to get pointers on how to film lesbian sex that they will use to get the FLA’s message out to the world.
Before they can, however, there is much drama that ensues within the household. One stryline involves an undercover cop infiltrating the school. The other subplot features the discovery that one of the female students has — surprise! — a penis.
LaBruce toggles back and forth among these characters and narratives. He coaxes campy performances out of his cast and plays up the tropes of the female schoolgirl plot by giving the scantily-clad girls a sexy, slow-motion pillow fight. There is also some comical dialogue. The exchanges in the basement between Isolde and Volker are particularly droll. She insists on giving him a shot in his ass for pain and feminist theory books to read to keep from getting bored in the basement. He counters by begging Isolde to escape with him so they can run away and live together. That plan, unsurprisingly, hits a snag.
As tongue-in-cheek as some of the comic moments are, LaBruce also takes his politics seriously. Characters quote 1970s far left militant Ulrike Meinhof stating, “There is no point to explain the right thing to the wrong people,” and there’s a statement describing pornography as “an insurrection against dominant order… [that is] hostile to the regulations of society.” Big Mother urges the girls to fuck “for freedom and female people,” telling the comely young women they are “free to love whomever they want — as long as they have a vagina.” There is even a song with the refrain, “Down with the patriarchy.” Subtle, the film is not. But that’s what makes it such fun.
The heady proselytizing in “The Misandrists” is meant to both celebrate and satirize its female characters and their radical politics. For example, Big Mother refers to her “(wo)manifesto” and ends a prayer “a(wo)men.” LaBruce foists this feminist agenda on audiences in a way that goes down as smoothly as the schoolteacher’s lecture on parthenogenesis.
The film also explores transgender identity in debates that follow the discovery of the one girl’s penis. LaBruce includes an extremely graphic surgical sequence — hint: it involves a sex change — that may cause some viewers to choke on their popcorn.
“The Misandrists” is take-no-prisoners cinema, which makes it cheeky entertainment. The film’s early scenes suggest an entirely different film than the one LaBruce ultimately delivers. Whether audiences go along for that ride is the question. Even before the film culminates with a lesbian orgy, he plays with narrative conventions in ways that will tickle audiences who can laugh at his defiantly distinctive humor.
An unapologetic provocateur, LaBruce’s head and his heart are in the right place. But the plethora of penises on display may be at odds with his focus on women’s equality and lesbian radicalism. And his feminism is diluted by ironic humor about women waiting an eternity to take action.
Though the performances are uneven, on balance they enhance the film. Updike is quite charming as the bossy Isolde, while Sachsse exaggerates her Big Mother, wringing every word for humor in her thick Ger(wo)man accent. In support, Schindler does little more than get naked whenever he is on screen, which may be enough for many viewers.
“The Misandrists” is certainly clever — also scandalous at times. It will raise awareness and eyebrows in equal measure.
THE MISANDRISTS | Directed by Bruce LaBruce | English and German and Danish with English subtitles | Cartilage Films | Opens May 25 | Village East Cinema, 189 Second Ave. at E. 12th St. | citycinema
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