Tell me if you’ve heard these before. How does a radical feminist end each prayer? A-wo-men. What does a radical feminist need to put together her Ikea furniture? A wo-manual. What’s the most humorless country on Earth? Ger(wo)many.
Such is the level of wit on display in “The Misandrists,” Bruce LaBruce’s new cutting-edge satire about how the most extreme elements of Second Wave Feminism — i.e., the version prevalent half a century ago — were, like, totally cray-zay.
If nothing else, the New Queer Cinema icon’s tenth feature is a reminder that transgression need clear the lowest of bars to be glorified as such. “The Misandrists” is much more interesting than to read about than it is to see: A group of lesbian separatists hatch a scheme to persuade the world of the value of gender equality via politically correct porn, but the group’s coherence is threatened by the presence of an injured man who’s smuggled into the isolated, militantly (read: cartoonishly) feminist stronghold-cum-school where a new generation of violent ideologues are being trained.
Set in Germany in 1999, this riff on Don Siegel’s “The Beguiled” includes storylines about compulsory lesbianism, SAT-vocabulary-heavy treatises on academic feminism, a debate about the role of trans women in women-only spaces, (mostly unrelated) threats of castration, snippets of gay male pornography (a LaBruce obsession), and several nubile actresses in sexy Catholic-schoolgirl uniforms, their skin-tight miniskirts so meager you can catch more than a glimpse of underwear.
Why is the next generation of anti-men revolutionaries dressed for the male gaze? If you’re the kind of viewer who expects basic coherence from a movie, “The Misandrists” is probably not for you.
LaBruce’s technique here — and for some of the auteur’s admirers, its probable selling point — is to constantly throw provocations at the audience in the hopes that one of the taboos that he breaks will elicit a reaction. But the result feels haphazard, rendering the 85-minute running time a slog, and is stuffed with bad-on-purpose lines like, “Wake up and smell the estrogen.” Because goading is the film’s ultimate goal, there’s not enough attention paid to basic storytelling elements, like the barely-there characterization and the across-the-board atrocious acting.
And in too many scenes, it’s simply unclear what the writer-director’s intention is. Are we supposed to take the Female Liberation Army’s mission to make the world a better place, for example, as mere foolhardiness? Creative idealism? A surprisingly effective tactic? In lieu of the productive ambivalence LaBruce may be going for, all I’ve got is my hands up in the air.
But the film’s greatest disappointment is how empty and irrelevant its lampooning feels. Despite renewed attacks from the right, particularly since 2016, feminism has become a driving force in pop culture — and thus ripe for a comic reckoning. Shows like “Girls,” “Broad City,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and “Inside Amy Schumer,” as well as sites like Reductress, have captured the zeitgeist by engaging with the feminism of today, not the cobwebbed version of the “Mad Men” years that has few adherents or influence in the 21st century.
An eleventh-hour burst of hard-to-watch violence does get closer to true impropriety, but with so little investment stored up in the characters, it registers as a hollow shock. In the end, the only transgression “The Misandrists” really commits is self-satisfied solipsism.