Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020)

“Thou hast made the furies weep, Orpheus. This is unheard of.” So says Persephone in one of the best retellings of the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Special #1. “Thou hast made the furies cry, Orpheus. They will never forgive you for that.” The three leads of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (French: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) read and discuss this myth near the middle of the film and take from it different interpretations. It’s a well-known myth: Eurydice, beloved wife of the poet/musician Orpheus, is bitten by a viper and dies; Orpheus’s musical mourning so moves the spirits of the earth, the Furies, and even Hades himself that Eurydice is allowed to return with Orpheus to the world of the living, so long as he does not turn around until he has emerged from the Underworld. At the last moment, Orpheus turns and sees his beloved for but a moment before her spirit is pulled back into the world below.

Let’s circle back around to that. Portrait relates the story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter who has been hired to go to an isolated island off of the French coast in order to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). It’s the end of the eighteenth century, and Héloïse has returned to her home after spending some time in a convent; previously, the responsibility of marrying a wealthy man and ensuring her family’s continued financial status fell on Héloïse’s eldest sister, but with her death, that now falls to Héloïse herself. She has no interest in modeling for a portrait that is to be sent to a Milanese merchant to secure a proposal, and previously ran off the last painter by refusing to sit for him. As Héloïse’s countess mother (Valeria Golino) explains, Marianne is to keep the true purpose of her arrival secret and pose as a kind of lady-in-waiting/hired companion for Héloïse on her walks. She is assisted in this subterfuge by maidservant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who fills in the details about the history of the house and its inhabitants.

Héloïse and Marianne grow quite close, and we learn that Héloïse had loved the convent because there was music and books and art, and she wants nothing to do with the life of playing wife to a stranger and bearing him heirs. Marianne sympathizes, as she lives adjacent to the world of art and artists, with men as gatekeepers. Her father is likewise a painter, and although she will one day be able to live as a free agent by inheriting his business (and not be forced to marry for economic security), she is still forced to submit her paintings in his name in order for them to be displayed, and she is forbidden from painting male nudes. When asked why, she explains that the stated reason is for the sake or propriety, but that the truth is that the establishment wants to ensure that women are never able to break through into “real” art. This doesn’t stop Marianne, who paints the male form in secret. “It is tolerated,” she says — as long as no one knows. Eventually, when the Countess is away, Marianne and Héloïse help Sophie try to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy, and the three grow close as a result, with Héloïse and Marianne eventually admitting their love for each other and submitting to their growing passion.

Upon hearing the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Sophie proclaims it unfair to Eurydice, who was damned by the folly and insecurities of her husband and through no fault of her own. Another proffered interpretation is that Orpheus, ever the poet, found himself at a crossroads with the opportunity to live with and love his wife for the rest of their days or immortalize her and enshrine her in poetry forever, and chose the latter. Yet another interpretation is that Eurydice had all of the agency, and asked that her love turn to her one last time and resolved herself to the darkness of the Underworld voluntarily. It’s an effective demonstration of the power of story in general and mythology in particular: a single narrative, interpreted differently by three different women who are all bounded and informed by the horizons of their experience and expectation. Sophie, who has limited means of changing her social status and needs the assistance of others to get rid of her fetus lest the Countess turn her out, sees herself in Eurydice as the victim of circumstance. The artist in Marianne recognizes the artist in Orpheus and sympathizes with both his love and his potential for self destruction. Héloïse sees herself as Eurydice the defiant, who would rather live in a world of her choosing than follow a man, and as Eurydice the empowered, who would rather that the one she loves look upon her once and for all and see her as she is than live as a shadow of what she truly wishes to be.

This is a powerful film, haunting and beautiful. I wept openly at the film’s ending, and immediately told everyone I could that they must see it as soon as possible. When a friend first saw Call Me By Your Name, he messaged me to ask if I had seen it yet, and he said that it had left him “undone.” That descriptor stuck with me in the intervening years, and it finally applies to something for me in equal measure: I was undone by Portrait. It’s a story of a brief love, but one which inspects the brevity of love and the all-consuming power of obsession and delights in, rather than condemns, it. The genre of romance is one in which the “happy ending” of the story is one in which the happy couple overcome the odds against them and set off for a live together. In other words, romance as a genre is a lie. Falling in love is the easy part; people do it all the time, often with people who are no good for them. The reality of life is that getting together isn’t a finish line, it’s just a new starting position, and that the “race” entails work, compromise, understanding, and sacrifice. As much as Héloïse wishes that Marianne would ask her to do defy her destiny as a trophy bride for a foreign businessman, Marianne, with her greater knowledge of how the world works, knows that she can’t and won’t. For her, Héloïse is better enshrined, as she is in the title painting, even if she will never stop loving her. The world simply does not have room for them to live in it as themselves.

This is a sumptuous film, full of life and fire and pulsing waves. It is quiet, save for the murmur of voices and the omnipresent clack of boot against hollow wood floor, and the roaring of fires and music of the sea. Only three times do we hear music: when Marianne attempts to play Vivaldi’s Summer Presto for Héloïse, when a seaside group of women sing an acapella chorus, and at the end when Héloïse attends a symphonic performance of Vivaldi. Its music is purely of the soul and not the ear, but you can hear it in every moment.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #82 of The Swampflix Podcast: Sordid Lives (2000) & Gay Plays

Welcome to Episode #82 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our eighty-second episode, Brandon & Britnee revisit the quips & quibbles of cult-classic gay stage plays. They discuss the Del Shores comedy Sordid Lives (2000), its crowd-funded sequel A Very Sordid Wedding (2017) and, for balance, the William Friedkin-directed downer The Boys in the Band (1970). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Knife+Heart (2019)

Never before have I ever seen a movie that was made for me the way that Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife+Heart) was. Seventies-set giallo featuring a masked killer in black leather gloves? Check. Queer story that focuses on a troubled woman who drinks herself into unconsciousness on a nightly basis and is unable to let go of a lost love? Check. Vertigo/Body Double-esque plot points about obsession with apparent doppelgangers? Check. M83-as-Goblin soundtrack? Check. A plethora of shots of old school film editing equipment being put to good use? Check. A peek behind the curtain of the seventies gay porn scene? Check! Women in white wandering around a forest as gales of wind blow all about them? You betcha. A strangely centric fable about grackles? Is it my birthday?

It’s 1979, Paris. Anne (Vanessa Paradis) makes “blue movies,” better known as gay pornography, along with her best friend Archie (Nicolas Maury), cameraman François (Bertrand Mandico) and her lover of ten years, Loïs (Kate Moran), although that relationship has recently come to an end. Tragedy strikes when one of her actors, the insatiable “Karl” (Bastien Waultier), is stabbed to death by a man in a terrifying full face mask after a night out cruising. As a result, Anne is interviewed by Inspector Morcini (Yann Collette); back in the studio, she retitles their current production to Homocidal and recreates this interaction with Archie in her place and heroin addict Thierry (Félix Maritaud, of BPM and Sauvage) and José (Noé Hernández) in the roles of the police. Anne recruits a new actor, Nans (Khaled Alouach), who is noted for his twin-like resemblance (not his twink-like resemblance, although that could also apply) to a former star of hers named Fouad, which is fortunate; after Thierry is also murdered, most of the actors fear returning to set. In her personal life, Anne spends her days drinking straight from the bottle of whisky that she keeps on herself at all times and stalking Loïs around nightclubs when she isn’t too drunk to move. After a third murder, Anne traces the clues to a forest that, according to folklore, is used for faith healing via grackle—as with most gialli, it only makes marginally more sense in context—where she finds a small cemetery and the grave of Guy (Jonathan Genet), and the answer to the identity and motivations of the killer.

The only negative thing that I can say about Knife+Heart is that the fact that it now exists means that I may now never finish my own giallo script (titled Profundo Giallo, naturally, because I am a NERD), which features many of the same narrative beats, although for the sake of future copyrights I should note that Gonzalez and I were both drawing from the same well of archetypical giallo ideas. Still, it may end up being difficult to prove that we independently came to the idea of having a queer character (Loïs here, Oliver in PG) whose relationship with a primary protagonist ended poorly discover a vital clue while reviewing grainy footage. Really, we’re just both putting the same twist on the standard giallo trope that I call “Obscured Clues,” which was the most frequently recurring narrative element in Argento’s Canon; that is, a character witnesses something that they do not initially realize is a clue and then struggle to recall its importance.

Knife+Heart is a neon saturated fever dream, and yet it holds together in a way that is truly astonishing and thoughtful, considering that multiple people get stabbed to death by a knife hidden inside of a makeshift phallus. It’s surely no coincidence that the film is set in 1979, on the eve of what we would come to know as the AIDS epidemic; the establishment of the era, represented by the police department and their dismissive treatment of the killings of Anne’s actors, is largely unconcerned with a series of tragedies that befall society’s “undesirables.” This is made more manifest by the way that the pretty young things are killed: in cruising bars and by-the-hour hotels, in alleys with needles in their arms, etc. I could honestly live the rest of my life in happiness without ever seeing another AIDS allegory film, but this one manages to weave subtlety into this tapestry, which makes for a better narrative overall. That this can happen in a movie that also features an actor campily full-on humping a typewriter in one of Homocidal’s scenes speaks to a strong directorial vision.

Anne is no doubt destined to be a divisive character; in his review for MovieJawn, Anthony Glassman writes that Paradis’s character “metamorphoses from a drunken psychopath into a driven and caring mother figure,” and although I was fully within Anne’s headspace, horrible person though she is at times, I can’t really disagree. Repeatedly, we see that she is incapable of accepting that her relationship with Loïs has come to an end, and we realize that this love is far from healthy, given both Anne’s obsession and Loïs’s inconsistency as she verbally spurns Anne over and over again while also leading her on and admitting that she still loves her. That this leads Anne to stalk Loïs around a nightclub saturated with over-the-top radiant lighting and finally confront (and assault) her makes Anne despicable but no less sympathetic. The film almost dares you to try and hate Anne, but if you’ve a queer person who has ever had your heart broken to the point that you drink yourself into a stupor on a nightly basis and wake up in strange places, then you understand every drive that Anne has, even if her actions are occasionally unforgivable.

This is best epitomized in one of the most underrated scenes in the film (I’ve seen no mention of it in any other reviews that I have read), in which Anne attends an art performance at a lesbian bar where the two participants are a woman in lingerie and another woman in a bear suit. The human character begs for the bear’s love, and the bear attempts to refuse, claiming that to love the woman is to destroy her, but the woman doesn’t care. To love is to be devoured; to love is to devour. As the bear demonstrates its love for the woman, its claws leaving theatrical trails of stage blood all over her body, the woman begs for this destruction, demands to be completely destroyed, and the bear can do nothing but oblige, its love is so all-consuming that neither of them can stop. It’s so fucking powerful and real. To love is to die; love is to kill. Love is to consume and be consumed until there is nothing left but char and ash and fragments that say to every passerby: “A fire was here, and it destroyed all that it touched, but in those moments of destruction, each thing touched was brighter than the sun.”

I could go on and on about this movie for about 10,000 more words, but not without spoiling anything (the Golden Mouth is a delight!). This is a delightfully and unabashedly queer movie, and the world has never seen anything like it. I can’t wait to see it again and again.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Misandrists (2018)

Queer punk prankster Bruce LaBruce’s latest work is a little too cheeky & misshapen to stand out as my favorite movie of the year but it is the most John Watersiest film I’ve seen all year, which, close enough. Although he has been making films long enough to have been lumped in with the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 90s (a descriptor he rejects in favor of association with the “queercore” punk scene), LaBruce still traffics in transgressive, microbudget outsider art that recalls John Waters’s trashy protopunk beginnings in the early 1970s. The Misandrists has clear thematic & aesthetic vision and a distinct political voice, but its commanding ethos is still aggressively amateur & D.I.Y. Its burn-it-all-down gender & sexual politics are sincerely revolutionary but are also filtered through a thick layer of over-the-top-camp. You might be justified in assuming The Misandrists was a film school debut from a young, angry upstart with a still-fresh appetite for shock humor & pornography, but it’s got the clear vision & tonal control of an artist who’s been honing their craft for decades – like John Waters at his best.

Set “somewhere in Ger(wo)many” in an alternate timeline 1999 (near the release of Waters’s similarly militant Cecil B. Demented) The Misandrists establishes a femmetopia comprised of man-hating revolutionaries who train to violently overthrow the Patriarchy. The women’s testosterone-free environment is disrupted by three types of intruders before their pornography-funded political revolution is fully launched: a male anti-capitalist revolutionary harbored under the noses of their leadership, pig cops searching for that persona non grata, and the trans & non-binary comrades already in their midst despite their cis-femmes-only recruitment policy. There are abundant red flags early in the film that suggest it subscribes to grotesque TERF ideology, but that outdated lack of intersectionality & inclusivity becomes its exact political target if you allow it time to get there. It affords characters air time to voice repugnant trans-exclusionary ideals, but when one of its most disruptive outsiders declares “It’s time to reconcile your revolutionary beliefs with your sexual politics,” the sentiment rings genuine in a way few of its radical extremist bon mots do.

For the stretch of The Misandrists that does voice rad-fem, TERFy ideology, it does so only to indulge in over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek exaggerations of what feminism looks like in an exploitation cinema context. The femme “comrades” of the film form a “separatist commune” disguised as a convent of nuns-in-training. They’re actually training as “an army of lovers” looking to establish a self-sustaining lesbian society free of men, whom they consider “repulsive,” “despicable,” “contaminating,” and “the cops of the world.” Their political ideology playfully crosses the line into religious dogma, as they form a new femme version of Christianity around “The Mother, The Daughter, and The Holy Cunt.” Terms like “(wo)manual,” “herstory,” and “womansplain” roll off the tongue as if they were commonly spoken phrases instead of humorous perversions of idioms. As the title suggests, The Misandrists presents an exaggerated version of what shithead men imagine when they hear the word “feminism”: militant man-haters & lesbians gearing up to steal power from all men everywhere in a violent overthrow. When depicted so crassly & without nuance, that imaginary version of feminism is a hilarious, over-the-top cartoon. It’s also, unsurprisingly, badass.

What’s most distinctive about The Misandrists is how LaBruce finds ways to express his true, genuine ideology through pornography while still allowing rad-fem caricatures to voice the politics he’s openly mocking. Two femme comrades watch masc gay porn for “research,” voicing violent disgust for the very sexual acts LaBruce is infamous for including in his art. The film itself often crosses the line from militant feminism-spoofing exploitation cinema into full-on lesbian porno, leering at girls making out while a tender pop song dryly intones “Down, down, down with the Patriarchy.” A transgressive, queer filmmaker, LaBruce goes out of his way to make sure this display is not straight-guy masturbation fodder. He not only plays extensive clips of hardcore gay pornography in an early scene, he also includes graphic footage of a real-life gender reassignment surgery and disrupts the straight eroticism of the lesbian sex scenes with perverse kinky defilements of food (including the filthiest use of eggs that I’ve ever seen in any film, including Tampopo). When a character proclaims, “Pornography is an act of insurrection against the dominating order,” it feels like one of the few moments when LaBruce is expressing a genuine political thought, as opposed to an over-the-top cartoon caricature of feminism. Of course he believes pornography could be a useful tool for funding a queer revolution – he’s already been using it that way for decades.

If you’re looking for a shocking, over-the-top slice of campy schlock, 2018 isn’t likely to offer a much more perfect specimen than The Misandrists. That might be the only way in which the film is “perfect,” as it deliberately traffics in imperfections & insincerities to prove a larger political point and to stay true to LaBruce’s D.I.Y. queercore sensibilities. Every year I ask myself which calendar release I would most want to watch with John Waters, The Pope of Filth, and I imagine this sarcastic, pornographic, politically angry act of feminist camp would tickle him like no other 2018 release I’ve seen.

-Brandon Ledet