It’s difficult to make a documentary about yourself without coming across as a narcissistic bore. Every now and then, there’s an Agnès Varda level genius who can turn their personal travel journals into god-tier masterpieces like The Gleaners and I or a celebrity with long-buried familial skeletons in the closet to unearth for cathartic entertainment, as in Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. For the most part, though, it’s difficult for an audience to match a filmmaker’s fascination with their own everyday lives & relationships. The recent documentary/essay Madame somehow clears that hurdle with ease even without a flashy editing style or a grandly traumatic familial mystery to unearth. It’s a quiet, intimate documentary about a gay filmmaker’s loving but distanced relationship with his own grandmother, nothing more. And yet it has a lot of genuinely fascinating things to say that reach far beyond the expected navel-gazing of that subject.
Stéphane Riethauser structures Madame as a posthumous conversation with his deceased grandmother, mostly filling her in on all the things he didn’t get to say or convey in the years when they were most estranged. Those were the years when Riethauser was a closeted homosexual (at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s & 90s, no less), afraid to come out to even his most loving family members in fear that they would reject him for being himself. He starts by promising a frank discussion about gender, love, and sexuality from his own perspective, but the more he attempts to meet his grandmother on equal footing, he realizes that she was an iconoclast in her own time in a near-identical way. Ostracized by her Catholic family for divorcing young and making her own way as a businesswoman decades before Riethauser was born, his grandmother was no stranger to the alienation of being Different in a world that values conservatism & conformity. By recounting their respective, rigidly gendered upbringings, Madame sketches out a wide range of microscopic ways sexism & homophobia are reinforced in modern social structures, and how that can obstruct meaningful human connections – including the one between a loving grandmother & grandson with a shared defiant spirit.
Even beyond its prodding at larger social & philosophical ills, Madame is also just a wonderful looking film. Riethauser sequences tons of beautiful archival footage from his childhood into a gloomy diary-in-motion, with constant narration pointing out what’s rotting just under the surface of a seemingly happy family life. That molded photo album aesthetic wouldn’t be enough to fully engage an audience outside his immediate family circle, though. What really makes the film special is its exploration of homophobia as the “offspring” of sexism. It directly links the ways he & his grandmother were suppressed by their conservative, religious upbringings, and how rigid gender expectations created entirely unnecessary boundaries between them even after they broke free of those social shackles. It’s a long stare in the mirror in the way a lot of tedious, navel-gazing self-portraits can be, but it’s one of the few examples that transcends the expected limitations of that choice by making the personal universal. We all suffer under social expectations of traditional gender performance, and we’re all worse off for it.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the vintage, oddly melancholic French porno Equation to an Unknown (1980), which is cited as partial inspiration for the recent giallo throwback Knife+Heart (2019).
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– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond
It would be easy to dismiss Rapture in Blue outright for the blunt cheapness of its production values. Directed by an 18-year-old film nerd who just discovered David Lynch, it looks & feels like countless other D.I.Y. shorts that help pad out film fest schedules (and film festival rejection piles). However, to ignore the film’s merits based on its amateur quality alone calls into question who, exactly, is permitted to make movies in the first place. If Ryder Houston was the teenage progeny of an established millionaire filmmaker—like, say, Sofia Coppola, Oz Perkins, Brandon Cronenberg, or Jennifer Lynch—he might have the means to create something of “professional quality.” Instead, Rapture in Blue was partially funded through ad revenue from Houston’s own YouTube Channel and filmed on borrowed equipment. It’s incredibly cool that a teenager in Texas was able to complete a professionally distributed movie (recently picked up by the provocative queer media label Altered Innocence) outside the usual Industry channels of funding & production. To dismiss it outright based on its production values alone would only reinforce the financial gatekeeping that ensures this outsider-filmmaking miracle doesn’t happen more often.
In a way, Rapture in Blue‘s budgetary restrictions almost make its Lynch-on-the-cheap indulgences more bizarrely surreal – the very same quality that made last year’s Knives and Skin such a memorable oddity. This is a medium-length supernatural horror about the anxieties & pressures of being closeted. A straight-passing teenager becomes increasingly frayed as his girlfriend pressures him into having sex for the first time. Meanwhile, he finds himself hopelessly drawn to the bedside of a mysterious stranger who’s moved into his childhood home. Like in the unlikely queer cult classic Freddy’s Revenge, every near-sexual encounter he has with his girlfriend is punctuated by the emergence of a grotesque demon, a physical manifestation of his anxieties about being closeted. Likewise, his genuine attraction to the teenage enigma who occupies his childhood bedroom inevitably comes to its own violent crescendo, one of his own cowardly making. There’s a nightmarish menace to the story that’s constantly on the verge of breaking away from reality to fully commit to a supernatural phantasmagoria. Whether because of budgetary restrictions or first-film timidity, that full-bonkers payoff never really arrives, but the film’s off-kilter mood lingers despite that disappointment.
The most obvious signifiers that this was directed by a teenager is the film’s nostalgia for cultural touchstones Ryder was not even alive for: classic Lynch, 80s goth soundtrack cues, early 2000s flip phones, Polaroid cameras, a strategically placed Watcher in the Woods poster, etc. The overall effect is a 90s film festival mood presented in 2010s digi, which works in its favor in terms of its old-school genre payoffs and maybe works against it in its commitment to a traditional straight vs. gay binary in its exploration of closeted sexuality. The movie can feel a little rough around the edges and frustratingly inert, but there’s also something really exciting about its D.I.Y. arthouse horror tone. If this were a professionally crewed Hollywood production starring Andrew Garfield & Caleb Landry Jones as its sexually conflicted leads, people would be creaming their jeans over The New Face of Horror. Since that’s not the case, let’s at least hope that it does its job as a calling card for Ryder’s developing talents, leading to better funded and more fully bonkers queer horror oddities in the near future.
Welcome to Episode #87 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our eighty-seventh episode, we discuss provocative cinema set in the seedy underworld of the porno industry. Brandon makes James watch the queer giallo throwback Knife+Heart (2019) for the first time, then they discuss two more fictional films about the production of pornography: Hardcore (1979) & The Misandrists (2018). Enjoy, ya buncha pervs!
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-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn