Jan 3, 2013

Seduction: The Cruel Woman

A personal friend of German New Cinema dandy Werner Schroeter and his cinematographer Elfi Mikesch, one would think that kraut lesbian auteur Monika Treut (Female Misbehavior, Warrior of Light) would be a great and original filmmaker whose sacrilegious Sapphic cinema would be next to none, but that just is not the case, at least as far as I am concerned. Admittedly one of her films, Seduction: The Cruel Woman (1985) aka Verführung: Die Grausame Frau – a debut feature-length work she co-directed with Miss Mikesch – does have some highly commendable aesthetic merit comparable to Schroeter's Der Rosenkönig (1986) aka The Rose King (a work Mikesch also shot), if not due to her collaborator's previous experience working on her own films and those of Rosa von Praunheim, including the standout neo-German expressionist work Horror Vacui (1984). A literature and philosophy major in college who wrote her doctoral thesis on the role of women in the works of Marquis de Sade’s Juliette (1797) and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870) – Treut was certainly intellectually prepared to direct Seduction: The Cruel Woman; a strikingly seedy but sleekly stylized cinematic work about a decidedly debauched, seemingly deranged, and determinedly deranged dominatrix who owns a hellish torture gallery where she keeps a number of loyal and sometimes disloyal slaves who sport haute couture when not getting manhandled by their maniacal mistress; a mostly malicious and somewhat monetary-inclined master of misanthropy, misandry, and bestial butch mayhem. Inspired and loosely based on Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus in Furs, Seduction: The Cruel Woman features a highly modern yet urbane ‘lesbian fascist’ aesthetic where leather, pleather, high heels, skulls, studded dildos, torture chamber bathrooms and psychopath chic dominate the imagery in an oftentimes oneiric realm where nihilistic flesh and fantasy make for an atmosphere not all that different from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), albeit more rigidly refined without a supernatural element or over-the-top horror flick special effects. Since directing Seduction: The Cruel Woman, Treut has yet to direct another film that even remotely resembles the cultivated risqué atmosphere she, at least in part, conjured up with her first feature, so I can only assume that, like with Bruce LaBruce and his most immaculately directed cinematic work Hustler White (1996), the Sappho auteur owes much of the look of her standout work to her co-director. One could also say the same about fellow butch Teutonic auteuress Ulrike Ottinger, whose early works Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1978) and Ticket of No Return (1979) seem to have seriously influenced the aesthetic and themes of Seduction: The Cruel Woman, because after the severance of her personal and creative partnership with Tabea Blumenschein, the look (a distinctly postmodern Germanic one with she-he S&M imagery) of her films dramatically changed for the worse. Although Mikesch would continue to operate the camera on subsequent works directed by Treut, none of these films, mostly being of a quirky lesbian flavor that is probably decisively distasteful to anyone that isn’t a lily-licker or so-called trans-man, have the penetrating if perturbing power of Seduction: The Cruel Woman.

If I can credit Monika Treut and her cunt-licking compatriot Elfi Mikesch with anything, it is – for better or worse – demanding that viewers of Seduction: The Cruel Woman participate to some degree; whether they like or not. Indeed for masochists, the film might be something approaching celluloid masturbation of sorts, and to the sadist, one might want to decapitate the lead anti-heroess for daring to be such a demanding and over domineering bitch on a high horse of hateful hedonism. A wanton and wacked witch with wild ideas that she has turned into a highly profitable and perverse full-time profession and odious obsession, lead Wanda (Mechthild Grossmann) seems like a particularly pulchritudinous woman upon superficial glance, but when she opens her cunt-biting and cock-chopping mouth, it is quite apparent that she has far from a ladylike soul, but certainly a spiteful proclivity towards sexual sadism of the distinctly Sapphic man-loathing kind. Although she has a number of lovers/admirers/employees/slaves from both respective genders, including Gregor (Udo Kier); a rather romantic dreamer who thinks he can convert a dyke to dick due to their past romantic relationship, Justine (Sheila McLaughlin); a foreign femme and torture ‘trainee’ who has yet to realize that seduction is an illusion, and Herr Maehrsch (Peter Weibel); a jerk-off journalist who discovers that he enjoys being a human toilet after falling under the mistress' spell while interviewing her for an article. Friederike – the so called “lady prime minister,” and friend and servant as Wanda calls her – is in charge of “propaganda and protocol” at the phantasmagorical S&M gallery of fascism of the flesh where both pain and pleasure are transcended for something more pathological. If all of the patently perverse players of Seduction: The Cruel Woman have something in common, it is that they are all looking to fill some sort of inner void, with their feverish fetishism being the means from which they try to appease this metaphysical hunger. Despite taking the role of fetish Führer in her temple of torture, wretched wench Wanda is indubitably the most ‘spiritually’ and emotionally vacuous of the bondage bunch as she is all but disturbingly dead inside, hence her nefarious need to dominate and destroy others, or at least what little is left of their innate humanity, goodness, and innocence. An admitted and positively proud “mysterious tyrant,” Wanda tells journalist Maehrsch (before he realizes his dream of having dykes defecate in his mouth) that, “sexuality in that way no longer interests me,” meaning she no longer has interest in natural sexual intercourse and human affection, but instead a need to dominate and, in some cases, destroy those weaker than herself for monetary profit. Of course, Wanda is not always able to maintain her sadistic stoicism, as she has a bodacious bitch attack every week (or so says her dissatisfied lover) when overwhelmed by what is left of her ‘previous self’ and having to deal with the daily needs of her attention-starved servants. Although Wanda is able to hold up her domineering front most of the time, some of her underlings are less stable, thus resulting in a violent backlash at the considerably anti-climatic conclusion of Seduction: The Cruel Woman.

Described as, “like a sexier version of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” in Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video (1996) by an author displaying a bit of a proclivity towards puffery, I would still argue Seduction: The Cruel Woman is one of the best lesbian films I have ever seen (and actually sat through in its entirety) and probably the only one I have watched more than once, but I guess that does not say much as a student of Weininger and Mencken. Unlike Fassbinder’s Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant aka The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant – a work featuring some of the most marvelously miserable melodrama ever brought to the silverscreen, Seduction: The Cruel Woman features a whole lot more style than substance, which is undoubtedly the film's most glaring flaw. The film originally had its world premiere at the 1985 Berlin Film Festival, to which Monika Treut remarked regarding the audience response, “That opening was like a riot. It’s still a nightmare to me, which makes it hard to recall. It was packed, sold out three days beforehand…we didn’t know what going to happen…the audience got so mad. They attacked us. Only people who hated the film talked. That was only men. They just went crazy.” Of course, I can see why most men and probably also the majority of women would hate the film, as the lead Wanda embodies every repellant, repugnant, and reprehensible trait a biological ‘woman’ could have, as the ultimate ‘anti-woman’ who, aside from being stunningly beautiful in appearance, does not feature a single trait the men looked for in the opposite sex like being humble, passive, dainty, empathetic, and sweet, thereupon making her the ultimate cinematic bull-dyke fantasy as the archetype for the intangible Über-dyke; a physical lipstick lesbo, but also with the menacing might of a cultivated carpet-muncher who is manlier than most men and has women flocking to her bed. That being said, Wanda seems like the extreme of a mad matron with a macabre case of penis envy, hence her perennial and impenetrable bitter dissatisfaction to the very end.   Needless to say, it is no coincidence that Treut would go on to direct a number of films featuring female-to-male transsexuals.

-Ty E

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