Jan 24, 2013


A totally thrilling and theatric tragicomedic tale about tyrannical brothers, torn and tormented sisters, tranny temptresses, heroically heterosexual French dress designers, unsubtly sexually aberrant S&M debauchery, heavily implied incest, and the grand tradition of classical opera and the Grand Guignol, the Belgian-Dutch-French co-production Mascara (1987) directed by Belgian auteur Patrick Conrad is as big-budget as curiously campy European arthouse sleaze works come as an ill-fated (both critically and commercially) film that is hopelessly screaming – like a hysterical queen suffering from benzo-withdraw while reminiscing over his/her favorite over-touchy-feely uncle – for a cult following it has, quite inexplicitly, yet to acquire. In the rich cinematic tradition of high-camp auteur filmmakers like Jean Cocteau, Luchino Visconti, Liliana Cavani, Werner Schroeter, and Agustí Villaronga, yet daringly disguised as a Hollywood psychosexual thriller with the intention of making it palatable for the philistine masses, Mascara ultimately proved to be too patently perverse and morally dubious for the average filmgoer, hence why it was a total failure at the box offices. Even so, the film still manages to put subsequent commercially successful transsexual thrillers like The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and The Crying Game (1992) to shame in its sometimes sardonic sensuality, conspicuous yet cabalistic cloven-footed camp consciousness, and strikingly erotic and anti-erotic absurdity, but it seems only a select few have had the honor of viewing this super 'sleeper' of cinema. Imagine Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1950 cinematic adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants Terribles except more penetratingly perverse, meets Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950) aka Orphée where many of the character’s genders are reversed (if not altogether ambigous) and set in an underground opera house from hermaphrodite Hades akin to Monika Treut and Elfi Mikesch’s Sacher-Masoch-esque realm of the sadistically sexually unchaste in Seduction: The Cruel Woman (1985), but exquisitely executed in such a torridly tongue-in-cheek style that one would never describe it as ‘art,’ at least with a straight face, and you have Mascara; a soundly sordid sin-saluting and eccentrically entertaining cinematic work where erratic erotomaniacs, delirious deviants, and the psychotically sexually confused are in the majority and the sexually sane are a sad underwhelming minority.  That being said, whether one likes Mascara not, I doubt any viewer of the film will ever forget the scenes featuring otherworldly netherworld 'Mister Butterfly'; a place lethally lurid operatic nightmare factory of fetishism and foul flesh where sex and violence go together like razorblades and cyanide. A near perfect work of titillating and terrorizing trash entertainment for refined cinephiles (or just a plain masterpiece for the trash-inclined), Mascara is a rare reminder that severely sleazy sinema can, in fact, being startlingly sophisticated with the sort of subversive aristocrat cinematic class that 'perfect Wagnerite' Ludwig II of Bavaria and camp horror writer-poet Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock would have surely appreciated.

Literally almost struck (via car) by fleeting love in the form of a only slightly-loony lady of class and sass named Gaby Hart (Charlotte Rampling), Chris Brine (Derek de Lint) – a surprisingly stoic and certifiably sane French costume designer – has no idea that he is about to become the pawn of a prominent and sexually perverted police commissioner; the ambiguous lifelong lover and brother of the special lady that will sweep away the dandy dressmaker's hearty heart. An aesthetically and sexually insane cinematic work featuring male femme fatales, corrupt cops who love ladies with cocks, esoteric S&M opera, and mysterious shemale deaths in a rather ridiculous realm where semen-demon-eats-semen-demen, Mascara is nothing short of Orpheus from ominous yet ostensibly orgasmic homo hell. A crazy cunt of a cop named Bert Sanders (Michael Sarrazin) – who according to his own sister, derived his fanatical love of opera as a baby whilst suckling on their culturally refined mother's nipple – loves his all-seeing/knowing/corrupting power as a perverted police commissioner, but not as much as his love for his widowed sister Gaby and shemales singing "Salome" by Richard Strauss. As the sort of slick sociopathic lawman of lunacy you would expect to find in David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), except all the more aberrant and unabashedly arrogant, Bert uses his power to cover-up crimes, as well as his erratically exotic extra-extracurricular activities, but also to keep tabs on his sister's gentlemen callers. Needless to say, when Gaby starts fornicating with Frenchman Chris, the police officer decides his sister's boyfriend must go, but not before using the froggy costume-designer to special tailor a dress (that literally drives the already-crazy cop absolutely mad) for his favorite tranny opera singers at his favorite underground opera house Mister Butterfly; a hyper-hedonistic hellfire of heretical homos where powerful crypto-perverts and nefariously narcissistic high-class lady-dudes with tits and female asses ‘go bump in the night.’ When the star queen shemale of the Satanic surrealist S&M show is violently strangled to death one fateful night, Bert naturally attempts to implicate Chris – the man who designed the decadent dress – for the murder, thus forcing Gaby to decide whether she will defend her lover or loyally support her bat-shit crazy bro's conspiratorial plans. Apparently not the first time Bert butchered one of her love affairs, Gaby – a single mother whose husband died mysteriously a couple years before – is rather weary of starting a serious romantic relationship, thereupon sending mixed messages to Chris despite her unwavering love for the charming dressmaker. A sexually confused psychopath whose cunning yet corny charm is only rivaled by his fervently flaming freak-outs that are especially triggered by Chris’ sparkly and shimmering dress, Bert would make for a standout case study for Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) as a character fit for an early John Waters, but played in an almost 'surrealistically' straight fashion that eclipses Christian Bale's stoic yet too severely satirical performance in American Psycho (2000). Like any great work of killer camp cinema, one finds themselves subconsciously rooting for berserk bad boy Bert, even if one knows it will not be long before his perverse proclivity for chicks with dicks will get the better of him.

 Mascara indubitably proved to be catastrophic for director Patrick Conrad’s career in filmmaker as he would never direct a film again after his delightfully deranging big budget crypto-tribute to Cocteau. Interestingly, Mascara does the opposite of the classic camp subgenre of ‘Grande Dame Guignol’ in casting a middle-aged (not quite elderly, but surely past her prime!) Charlotte Rampling (Tis Pity She's a Whore, Stardust Memories) – an actress quite well known for playing a number of pathologically perverse and psychosexually disturbed roles throughout her career as a determined diva of decadence, including playing a concentration camp sex slave who senselessly swoons over a SS officer BDSM-style in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) and even falling in love with a chimpanzee in Nagisa Oshima’s Max mon amour (1986) aka Max, My Love – in a relatively ‘normal’ role as a sad yet sensible woman whose emotionally debilitating personal problems stem from her uniquely unhinged brothers’ incestuous love for her. Of course, Rampling's ostensibly against-type performance in Mascara is not the only thing marvelously mixed-up about Mascara, as the comprehensibly camp conscious cinematic affair maliciously molests the sexually aberrant aesthetic sensibility to the point where the audio-visually ravished viewer begs for more, but, unfortunately, at least as far as I know, no other film does what Belgian auteur Patrick Conrad’s film does; homogenizing high and low kitsch in killer thriller form. Although Michael Sarrazin is generally best known for his performance in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) directed by Sydney Pollack, I will always remember him as the loveable lonely lunatic in Mascara; a film that gave the Canadian actor the opportunity to make-up (with literal make-up) for his missed career-changing opportunity (Sarrazin was originally cast for the role but was unable to go through with it due to a prior contract) to play gay-for-pay cowboy Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969). Unfortunately, while Midnight Cowboy went on to be the first and only X-rated film to win “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards, Mascara is not even popular enough to warrant an actual DVD release, but I guess that is what one should expect from the only film that has done the seemingly impossible by aesthetically reconciling the high-camp decadence of Werner Schroeter's Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972) aka The Death of Maria Malibran with the salacious slasher sodomy and bloody homo-cidal brutality of William Friedkin's Cruising (1980).

-Ty E

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