Metro Weekly

The Saint of Sin: Bruce LaBruce on ‘Saint-Narcisse’ and the value of shock

Bruce LaBruce has forged a film career out of shock value and taboo. His latest, "Saint-Narcisse," adds twins to the mix

Bruce LaBruce, saint narcisse
Bruce LaBruce — Photo: Raul Hidalgo

“I’m a real believer in good, old-fashioned shock value.”

A bold declaration for anyone else, it sounds coyly understated coming from Bruce LaBruce, the Toronto-based filmmaker, photographer, writer, and artist who’s given us anarcho-feminist terrorists disguised as nuns and wound-fucking gay zombies, among other outrageous displays of sex, kink, and violence, across his iconoclastic film career.

“As John Waters says, ‘I believe in shock for shock’s sake,'” LaBruce says. “It just riles people up, gets them angry, gets them thinking. If you can throw in some interesting content along with it — political content — it gets people’s juices flowing.”

The man knows of which he speaks. Those anarcho-feminist terrorists in the 2017 camp thriller The Misandrists made quite a few people angry. His 2010 feature L.A. Zombie, starring porn god François Sagat as a very horny corpse, was banned in Australia. A year later, the Madrid opening of his photography exhibit Obscenity, featuring Spanish pop culture figures like Rossy DePalma depicted with religious iconography, triggered rage and protest from the nation’s Christian right, with one objector even tossing a firebomb through the gallery window. Fortunately, the bomb fizzled.

LaBruce’s latest feature, Saint-Narcisse, part of the Reel Affirmations Pride Film Festival (June 25-27), is set to rile up more reactionary rancor with its depiction of romance between handsome, long-lost twins Dominic and Daniel (both portrayed by Félix-Antoine Duval), as well as the abusive relationship between Daniel and the priest who raised him. And the provocateur’s Death Book, published in 2020, pushes further towards visual extremes of the morbidly sexy and scary, with graphic production stills from his films and never-before-exhibited photographs arranged, according to a press release, in “loosely connected vignettes, characterized by horror, the carnage accelerated rather than overcome.”

It’s a bit surprising, then, to discover that even Bruce LaBruce has his limits when it comes to viewing disturbing content, as a recent conversation lands on the subject of the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, LaBruce’s friend Gaspar Noé, a filmmaker, and Noé’s unrelentingly intense, queer-themed dance-horror film Climax. “Climax was amazing,” says LaBruce, before adding, “I don’t think I would sit through it again. I found it extremely upsetting. I was very disturbed at watching it.”

Admitting that he’s the sort to watch a horror movie through his fingers, LaBruce praises the film’s audacity. “In terms of representation, it’s a very diverse group of people, racially diverse, sexually diverse, and yet they all come to this horrific end that is imposed by a member of the group. I’ve had enough bad trips that it kind of brought back some of those memories.” Undoubtedly, some viewers might feel similarly watching LaBruce’s Otto; Or Up with Dead People.

An audacious purveyor of what have been called “Bruceploitation” flicks, the artist isn’t done with shocking people, and may not be done filming zombies. He’s been eagerly devising new projects to excite and disturb onscreen, online, and even on the NFT market, which he dove into recently — although he’s not fully sold on the format. “I guess my biggest skepticism about the whole thing, and I find this about social media as well, is it’s just this vast wasteland of imagery now,” he says.

“It’s mind-boggling. It’s just like an incredibly over-determined field of random signifiers that are just constantly being invented, that come and go at such an accelerated pace, that it’s kind of changed the whole idea of what art is and the function of art…. There’s more artists than there are people now. I think it must be very difficult for anyone to get noticed these days.

“When I was starting out, my early films coincided with the explosion of the gay and lesbian film festival circuit. A film that I made, No Skin Off My Ass, which was sexually explicit, where I was having sex with my boyfriend, we never expected it to go outside of underground bars in Toronto or alternative art spaces. Because of that circuit, it went international and became kind of a cult movie, which kind of launched whatever I’ve had since then. But there weren’t a lot of people doing stuff. The idea of being an artist was still pretty rarefied on a certain level, and now it seems like such a wasteland.”

Bruce LaBruce -- Photo: Saad Al-Hakkak
Bruce LaBruce — Photo: Saad Al-Hakkak

METRO WEEKLY: Your movies are always an adventure for the viewer. What keeps you motivated to make them?

LABRUCE: That’s a good question, motivation. Motivation is always tricky. I started out making films a long time ago, Super 8 experimental films in the ’80s. I was a film student. I went to film school, I went to grad school but mostly for film theory. I got a master’s in film theory and social and political thought at York University. But it was really the Super 8, experimental punk filmmaking that made me pick up a camera and want to make films, not theory. So it’s just been a process since then, working up to feature films and then larger budgets, and segueing into porn.

It’s also that I’m an extreme cinephile, and always have been, since I was a kid. My parents were big film buffs. Even though they were farmers, and just had [eighth grade] education, but they loved Hollywood cinema and they knew all about it, and they knew all the names of all the bit players and character actors and everything, and they took us to the movies all the time. They took us to the drive-in a lot without even bothering to check which movies were playing, so I saw movies that I probably shouldn’t have seen from a very young age. I was shocked to see Night of the Living Dead at a young age that really impressed me and made me go, “Wow, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen, I want to do that.”

MW: What were they farming?

LABRUCE: It was a small, 200-acre mixed farm, so it was cattle, dairy, and beef. And pigs and chickens. The whole deal. My father is quite a character. He was also a trapper and a hunter.

MW: That sounds very Canadian.

LABRUCE: It is pretty Canadian. And I have this new book out, Death Book, right now, which is some of the most extreme images in my work of sex and violence, and I explain in the introduction that a lot of it I think had to do with seeing all sorts of slaughter and castration and death and really violent stuff when I was really small. I’d help my father castrate the pigs and stuff like that. But also the sex. He had a bull and a boar to breed livestock, so I would see them fucking all the time in the fields. You learn quick on a farm.

Saint Narcisse
Saint Narcisse

MW: About making porn, was there anybody in your ear telling you, “Once you cross this line, it’ll be hard to be accepted on the other side as a cinema auteur?”

LABRUCE: I started in my art, in my experimental films, using found porn imagery to begin with, and splicing that in with other footage, with my fanzine J.D.s, which was a queercore fanzine. We also used a lot of pornographic imagery to really be in your face about gay sex and not to pussyfoot around the idea of it, but to make it as clear and as unapologetic as possible.

So I already was making it early on very naïvely. I started doing it with my friends and stuff, and my boyfriend. We just thought we were making sexually explicit art films but my producer and I, Jürgen Brüning, it turned out that we gained reputations as pornographers. So that’s when we just went, “Well, fuck it, if they’re going to call us pornographers, we’re already in it, so we might as well be in it to win it.” He started the first-ever porn company in Berlin, Cazzo Film, and it was partly how we bankrolled my early films, too — release two versions, a hardcore and softcore, and the hardcore was sold as full-on hardcore porn.

MW: I first saw a softcore version of L.A. Zombie, and I needed to see the hardcore version.

LABRUCE: It’s quite a different experience.

MW: It really, really is. Given all the sex you’ve depicted, the variety of kinks and fetishes that you’ve shown in your movies, it seems surprising that it’s taken you this long to get around to twins making love — or twincest, as it’s known. How long has the idea for Saint-Narcisse been bouncing around?

LABRUCE: That was the working title, actually: Twincest. I was talked out of it. One of my best friends in university had an identical twin, and I knew her twin sister as well. They were pretty intense twins. They were those twins that knew what was going on if the other one was in trouble. They had a real psychic connection, it seemed. I’ve had other twin friends over the years.

In one of my earlier movies, Super 8½, I have — well, they’re not twins, I don’t know if they’re identified as twins, but they’re sisters who kind of have sex with each other, the Friday sisters. It’s one of those taboos that’s always intrigued me. Strangely, it’s probably the most acceptable incest taboo in a way, because people can kind of understand why you would be sexually attracted to someone who’s identical to you, like a mirror image of you, because it’s like jerking off in front of the mirror or whatever. It’s like having an embodiment of yourself outside of yourself to play with. There’s still the cultural taboo and prohibition, the social contract that says you’re not supposed to do that, but I’ve known a lot of twins who are intimate with each other in that way.

That was the starting point of not only an exploration of narcissism, but of these kinds of incest taboos. It’s strange, some of them are seen to be more, as I said, socially acceptable than others. In the movie as well, the mother Beatrice is having intimate relations with her dead ex-girlfriend’s daughter, who looks exactly like her mother when she was young, so it’s not technically against the rules, it’s not technically an incest taboo, but it totally has incestuous overtones that are inescapable.

MW: The Narcissus myth usually is a cautionary tale of the suffering he causes through his self-regard, but in this case, that self-love is a path to family and wholeness. It’s more or less a good thing. You talked about how much it makes sense, someone being attracted to their own likeness. Is this what you’re trying to say about those gay men who seem to pursue an ideal version of themselves? Like the twin boyfriend.

LABRUCE: Twinnies we call them, yeah. I think there’s essentially two kinds of gay men: the ones who are looking for a mirror image of themselves, and the others who are looking for the exact opposite of themselves, which is interesting. In terms of the movie, it’s kind of cheeky at the end to suggest that all these taboos are broken, and everyone lives happily ever after. But partly what I’m getting at I guess is Freud’s idea of family romance, which is about how there’s sexual tensions within the nuclear family, which is what the Oedipus complex is based on, the son jealous of the father’s affection for the mother and wanting to get rid of the father so he can have the mother for himself, these kinds of sexual fantasies and tensions. I don’t think it does any good to make people feel really shameful and guilty about these kinds of impulses or sexual fantasies, which is what quite often happens. You’re made to feel like there’s something wrong with you, that you’re a pervert, that it’s unnatural.

So I guess partly I’m trying to make the point that they are just social contracts that can be bent and played with, and you don’t have to kill yourself if you have those kinds of impulses. In fact, there was a really interesting study I was reading about, where people who are even an immediate family member, but they haven’t been raised together — it could be even a parent and a child — when they’re reunited, if they’ve never seen each other and they’re reunited, or when they’re united again in adulthood, there is quite often a very strong kind of sexual, romantic kind of attraction. That’s one of the reasons why the incest taboo exists, because you’re living in an intimate social environment, and it isn’t practical or doesn’t make sense for everyone to be having sex with each other. It gets complicated. But the impulse is there because you recognize yourself in that person, I guess. It is a kind of incestuous drive.

I think there’s good narcissism and bad narcissism. The bad narcissism would be complete solipsism, which is not in short supply these days, complete obsession with one’s own image and constantly gazing at oneself on the phone, which is the new Narcissus reflection. But there’s good narcissism in as much as the two twins realize that they have a void, something their other half is missing and that’s what they’re searching for, and so when they find each other, they both become whole again. So that’s kind of a good narcissism.

Bruce LaBruce -- Photo: James Munk
Bruce LaBruce — Photo: James Munk

MW: And it’s sort of sweet for you, for a Bruce LaBruce film.

LABRUCE: I would say so. So is Gerontophilia, I would say. I kind of see Gerontophilia and Saint-Narcisse as companion pieces. They were both made in Quebec and with slightly larger budgets and much more straightforward narratives than some of my other films. They’re more melodramatic and romantic. I mean, all my films are romantic, but usually I fuck it up with some kind of really crazy perversion or some kind of shocking imagery.

In these two, the idea was to make the film pretty accessible — to mainstream audiences, and to draw them in with this romantic genre. Because both could be almost seen kind of like romantic comedies at a certain level. Gerontophilia, of course, about a young boy who has a fetish for the elderly and falls in love with an old man.

But they’re kind of tricky because they draw you in and they present you with this romance and you can identify with these characters who are in love with each other, but then you kind of don’t realize in a way that it’s a completely insane relationship, like an 80-year old with an 18-year old. And the trick for that movie was to have believable chemistry between the two actors, which I think I managed to do. And the same with the twins. The challenge was to make them, first of all, believable as separate characters, and then also to make their love and the scene in which they make love, it kind of all builds up to that, to make that in a way credible, that it’s actually almost plausible.

MW: That leads to my next question, about The Misandrists. There’s a scene in the movie of forced sex reassignment surgery. I’m wondering what was the response you got from that scene, specifically?

LABRUCE: Yeah, that scene, specifically. I mean, a lot of people really hated the film.

MW: I did not hate it, by the way. I reviewed it and went “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes.

LABRUCE: Oh, nice.

MW: But let’s talk about the ones who hated it.

LABRUCE: Amongst lesbian and trans people, I would say it was pretty equally divided, stratified, love or hate. Obviously, I knew that it was incredibly loaded. To do any kind of idea of forced gender reassignment is fraught with all sorts of peril in terms of representation. I think in the spirit of the film, the film is camp, but it’s camp played pretty straight in some ways. There are different things going on, like melodrama and even a lot of horror tropes in the movie — the big, old scary house and what’s in the basement. And then the night of the forced reassignment surgery is coded as Frankenstein’s monster night, with the body on the slab and the sexual experimentation aspect of it, and the blood splattering and everything. It’s all coded as horror and camp.

So within the context of the film, the joke is that this guy is actually politically on-side with these anarcho-feminists. He’s totally sympathetic with their politics and even their separatism, but then Big Mother thinks that he has to prove his revolutionary commitment by going all the way, which is a theme that runs through my films — like in The Raspberry Reich, Gudrun makes her straight followers have gay sex with each other to prove their revolutionary commitment. So in the same way, she’s expecting this guy to prove his revolutionary commitment. I think you have to take it more in the spirit of what the movie is, which is camp and fun and horror and in a weird way, a way of really dealing with the issue of TERFs. Because in the end, Big Mother finally comes around and accepts all the women in the movement, both the trans person who decides to keep her penis, and the young boy who’s forced into the cause.

Saint Narcisse
Saint Narcisse

MW: Moving outside the film, Saint-Narcisse is screening here virtually as part of D.C.’s Reel Affirmations Pride Film Fest. What do you think is the value of festivals still, especially queer festivals?

LABRUCE: We were lucky with Saint-Narcisse. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September, and there was kind of a lull in the COVID numbers last early September so they did have some public screenings for Venice last year before the numbers went crazy again. We were able to go. You work so hard to make a film, I mean it can be years of your life, and so there is something about screening it in front of an audience and having it at a big festival where there’s lots of spotlight on it. It’s kind of an affirmation of all the work you’ve done. There’s a glamorous aspect to it. I mean, the Canadian ambassador to Italy came to our premiere and there was a lot of excitement, because a lot of festivals had been canceled before that.

In queer terms, I do like the glamorous Venice experience and all that kind of stuff. I was head of the Queer Palm at Cannes one year. I do like the glitz and glamour. But then my favorite festivals outside of that are the small queer festivals that I’m invited to quite often. In the last four years, I went to Peru and Chile and Colombia and Belgrade, Serbia, to these festivals where queer activism is nascent. They’re still fighting for the very basic rights of just pure existential rights of being able to be gay, to be able to walk down the street, to be able to have basic rights, and not be afraid of being bashed. Visibility and just very basic rights. Those are very exciting to me. It makes me remember the struggles that we’ve had in the West and the U.S., Western Europe, Canada, where not that long ago, we were engaged in the exact same struggle and what we’re seeing now, obviously, is a total regression in so many parts of the world.

MW: Like Hungary, last week.

LABRUCE: Hungary and Poland and The States, too. I mean, they’re trying to revoke certain rights. Trump rolled back trans rights. There’s certain elements now in the Republican Party that are going back to really antediluvian ideas about anti-gay ideas, trying to roll back rights and so forth. Progress is never linear. There’s always regressions and full-blown historical moments where all the hard-fought rights are in danger again. That’s the function of queer festivals, I think. They’ve always been more political, directly political, than mainstream festivals. They’re more about community and networking and allowing or giving expression to extremely marginalized voices that wouldn’t get a spot in a mainstream festival.

MW: Yeah, the fascist tendencies that we’re seeing here and elsewhere in the world, especially as they’re being applied to what they’re calling homosexual propaganda, is a real struggle. Do you think better art comes out of that struggle?

LABRUCE: It’s interesting. I’ve always been against this idea of affirmation — queer films that are affirming an image of homosexuality. Films that are supposed to be representing a positive portrayal of what it means to be gay or trans or lesbian. I think that is not the way to go. I’ve always been against this idea of GLAAD trying to pre-censor scripts — get their hands on Hollywood scripts before the films are even made to tell people how they can and cannot represent gays or queers. I’m really against that. I think part of the function of cinema is to reflect the zeitgeist, how people actually perceive homosexuality and homosexuals and gay sex and all that kind of thing. So just to present an idealized version of it that doesn’t bear any relation to reality, I don’t think is the function of art.

Sure it’s great to have affirmative images as well. The problem becomes, who determines what is a good gay? And with assimilation, there can be a new moralism against certain kinds of gay behavior, gay sexuality, the more extreme S&M sex, or even just being extremely sexually active with multiple partners or all those kinds of things, are sometimes even frowned upon now by the gay establishment.

That’s one thing that I’ve always pushed against, is to really free my mind and represent homosexuality in such a way that it’s not contingent on anyone’s idea of what it is to be a good gay. There’s no limit to the kind of representation that you can have. If it’s a negative portrayal of a homosexual or if it’s a serial killer. I mean, it’s what happens in real life and whatever happens in real life is fodder for art.

MW: Gays can even be zombies. Are you done with zombies? Do you have more undead stories that you want to tell?

LABRUCE: I really do want to make a third one. I think that would be cool. I have kind of an idea. It’s kind of a remake — I better not say which movie, but it’s a remake of an old film noir. The whole movie is basically about a dead man walking already, so I was just thinking about making it literal. It’s enormously appealing to me, those kinds of movies. They’re so much fun.

MW: I want to ask you about Death Book. Is it available for sale in the U.S.? Because I wasn’t sure.

LABRUCE: Yeah. It’s for Baron Books. They have a series of Death Books and I just did one of them. It’s available in bookstores. I don’t know about D.C., but it is in New York and L.A., and I think other cities as well. And you can order it online.

MW: Of all of the visual and dramatic elements in your films over the years, why did you want to compile the most disturbing, bloody, violent images in one volume?

LABRUCE: I was approached with this idea of making a book called Death Book, so this was my interpretation of it. Partly it was investigating myself, why I have so much violent, sexual imagery in my movies. Like I said, I kind of traced it back to what I experienced as a kid. There’s a couple of car crash scenes, gruesome ones in the book that are camp because they’re fashion, but when I was a kid I saw a gruesome car crash outside the farm and saw a guy die in the middle of the road. Part of it is that trauma and part of it is, I just wanted to compile it and then see what was going on there. A lot of it is based on this hypocrisy that I’ve seen in the mainstream media, where you can show the most vile images of violence, but you can’t show explicit sex. So I always thought that was bizarre, to the point where the violence becomes highly sexualized, so it almost seems as if, as long as the sex act is made into something like a spectacle of violence, then it becomes acceptable.

And I’m also influenced partly by the Viennese Actionists, who did very bloody imagery and performance art. So at my art gallery openings, over the past 20 years, I recreated all these very bloody crime scenes and scenes of terrorist abduction and torture and sometimes zombies, sometimes just soldiers. Not soldiers, but terrorists. Soldiers of fortune, I guess. Part of it is also the analog, the blood and guts, the actual fake blood and the fake gore and the splatter.

MW: The shiny redness and everything.

LABRUCE: Yeah, but it’s very tactile. I’m a real fan of exploitation movies from the ’70s. Like I said, I probably saw Night of the Living Dead when I was 10 or something. So I find CGI violence very cold. It’s almost bloodless, almost fascist because it’s so clean, as opposed to the old analog effects where you’re playing with gore and splatter. There’s something playful about it. It’s kind of like playacting. It’s cathartic. It’s fun. It’s a playful way of dealing with your anxieties about death and violence. Even when you’re watching it, you can tell the difference between a good old-fashioned splatter movie with real splatter, and CGI, which makes me feel kind of detached and disengaged. So that’s part of it.

MW: Is it true you’re getting involved in the NFT market? If so, what is it that you’re doing?

LABRUCE: I just try to keep up with modern trends. I’m kind of a technophobe. I’m really not a technical person, so it’s been really challenging for me. To even make a movie like Saint-Narcisse was a big challenge, because I’d never done special effects before. I kept on saying to my producer, “I don’t know how to do this. I’ve never done this before.” And he’d just say, “It’s not that complicated.” And then it was really — what’s the expression? — fake it until you make it.

That’s been my entire film career really — fake it until you make it. I just kind of did it, learned how to do it on the fly. Of course, we had a whole team of people. Same with stuff like NFTs. I was really ignorant about cryptocurrency, so it was kind of a little bit of a crash course in cryptocurrency. I have the same concerns as everyone else, the environmental stuff. I feel kind of guilty about it, but then I’m like, is it any different from flying commercial or having an iPhone? Is it really any different? I’m hoping that they find ways of making it more environmentally friendly.

MW: Director Kevin Smith announced that his next film, he’s going to auction as an NFT, meaning that someone can buy it, they can distribute it, exhibit it, or they could essentially never show it to another living soul if they want. Can you imagine doing that?

LABRUCE: Well as far as I understand NFTs, they still exist. I can sell an NFT of a photograph, but I can also still sell it as an actual blown-up, framed photograph. They’re not mutually exclusive. I think it’s more the idea of a new kind of commerce. It’s a new kind of cryptocurrency. It’s a new kind of market. I don’t think it’ll replace the old market. I think it’s just an alternative market. I still don’t really understand it enough to talk about it.

MW: But it could also herald a moment that we’re watching movies in a virtual space. While your avatar is roaming around some virtual village, you stop at a movie theater — which I’ve never done, but conceivably could be doing by next year.

LABRUCE: Right, I hate that kind of stuff. I always hated Second Life. I know people who are really into it. I’m not a virtual guy so much. I still like fucking in person.

Saint-Narcisse screens virtually as part of the Reel Affirmations D.C. Pride Film Festival, running Friday, June 25 through Sunday, June 27. Tickets to stream individual films are $10. Passes to view all seven films are $60. Each pass or ticket gives you access to the films from 12:00 a.m. on Friday to 11:59 p.m. Sunday. Visit www.thedccenter.org/events/pridefilmfest.

Learn more about the films of Bruce LaBruce at www.brucelabruce.com.

Follow Bruce LaBruce on Twitter at @brucelabruce.

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