Dir: Bruce LaBruce
Cert: 18 • Germany/Canada: 51 min • Jürgen Brüning Filmproduktion • February 9, 2014
Matt Greenfield reviews
Toronto-based director Bruce LaBruce returned to this year’s Berlinale Festival with queercore film Pierrot Lunaire. Set to Arnold Schöneberg’s composition of the same name, this silent black-and-white film is based on the true story of a transgender man’s search for identity and approval in 1970s Toronto. The protagonist, Pierrot, woos a young girl – Columbine – who giddily introduces her newfound boyfriend to her father. He denounces Pierrot as a fraud, seeing through his façade and revealing to an unbeknownst daughter that her boyfriend is not really a ‘man’. Although Columbine’s love for Pierrot continues regardless, the father’s jeers lead a torment-fuelled and humiliated Pierrot to go to delusional lengths to become a ‘real’ man.
The choice to set a transgender storyline to Schöneberg’s work seems to arise from one of the many perplexing directions of the piece; namely that it should be sung by a female soprano voice, although the singer is portraying a male character. Moreover, the style of vocal performance known as Sprechstimme – halfway between speech and singing – that expressionist composers like Schöneberg employed has a entirely unnerving, intense quality to it. This fits well alongside Pierrot’s angst, which we are confronted with throughout the melodrama. Nevertheless, by the 13th of the 21st movements, the constant uneasy tone along with the discordant music starts to feel too familiar and tends toward becoming dull.
There are only a few reprieves from the onslaught of what remains a challenging atonal composition. These intervals come from nascent Berlin DJ duo MadLick and feature a heavy pounding bass and the mantra “Fick, fick, fick!” – which means exactly what it sounds like it means. This may sound rather light-hearted compared to the tense vibe described above but they occur only in the scenes where we see quite a lot inflicted on the penises of go-go dancers in an unnamed club; first by means of a guillotine – during a movement titled ‘Beheading’ – and then by what appeared to be a scalpel blade, which really drove the audience to wince. And that makes the film difficult to tolerate. When we get to listen to something more accessible and less challenging we then have to deal with gruesome mutilations.
Intercut with these scenes of mutilation, however, are some of the most redeeming parts of the film. These come in the form of a minimalist symbolic staging of Pierrot’s genitalia being severed. These scenes – filmed in the theatre ‘Hebbel am Ufer’ where LaBruce put on Pierrot Lunaire in 2011 – are highly stylized, with a softer photographic contrast giving a sense of transcendent beauty away from the rather harsh look of the shots elsewhere in the film. These theatre scenes are the only instances where the aesthetic really complemented the unease of the music with great success. This brought about a far more rewarding experience whereby the music seemed less abrasive and more profound than earlier scenes, where dissonance distracted and overpowered the visual elements. Even so, it would have been better to have had more theatre-staged scenes like the above or a more varied use of visual styles overall to keep the audience engaged with the work.
If there is any social point that comes across in the film, it is only that the current hysteria over whether someone is pre-op or not misunderstands what is means to identify as transgender. It restrains and enforces the boundaries of gender within matters of sex. The film shows how Pierrot is confronted with this by Columbine’s father; it causes a great deal of anguish for the protagonist and leads to pretty gruesome consequences. That said, the film is so insular, the characters’ actions so convoluted and hyperbolic, and the music antiquated, that it appears to aim foremost at being abstractedly aesthetic.
The pretence yields some wonderful imagery and disturbing sequences, but the lack of variation in sound and visuals allows for parts to feel commonplace in an otherwise out of the ordinary and intriguing scenario.