Reviews

Les Demons Des Dorothy: On Reclaiming Horror From The Male Gaze

I personally resonated with this as a person who has dreamt of transcending the gender binary (and its impositions on my body’s aesthetics) since the day that I learnt that society, at-large, was deeply invested in force-fitting me into it.

Les Demons De Dorothy (The Demons of Dorothy) is a French movie by Alexis Langlois about the creative vision of a queer person named Dorothy. The protagonist yearns deeply to make a ‘glitter core’ lesbian film, Biker Chicks in Love. In its script, they use a variety of pulp fiction-ish plotlines to symbolize queer oppression by the patriarchal nation-state, hinting at its use of the military-entertainment complex to produce culture in society that is suited to its own interests, instead of encouraging the free expression of people’s true desires.

Langlois remarked on this subtle commentary made by the film: “The film criticizes the people in power who decide which films are made, which ones are given money or not…So obviously, some people feel targeted. And then the queer images that the film conjures upset a lot of people too.” For me, the depiction of the lesbian protagonists’ bodies is particularly refreshing. It is sexual and titillating, even though it does so without the lecherous and ravenously exploitative nature of the male gaze. When asked about this, Langlois said: “XXL breasts, like surgery, are a symbol of all the people criticized for their physique or for what they are. Here, what is mocked becomes armor. It is also a queer cartoon-ish fantasy, a way of saying that with cinema, we can have the body we dream of. In my films, artifice becomes reality.”

Also read: Whose sentiments got hurt anyway?

I personally resonated with this as a person who has dreamt of transcending the gender binary (and its impositions on my body’s aesthetics) since the day that I learnt that society, at-large, was deeply invested in force-fitting me into it. For instance, my love for lifting weights would often be criticized out of concern that I would end up looking ‘too masculine’. This was ironically right alongside being made painfully aware of how my cleavage was beginning to spill out of my button-up shirts, as is very natural, given the shape and form of breasts. Feminine aesthetics are a tightrope to walk, as is evident in its representation in normative cinema, wherein the narrative of the character’s own relationship with their body is dismissed, while engineering a salacious response from the viewer by employing the mechanics of the male gaze. On the other hand, Langlois’ lesbians were free and safe in their bodies with XXL breasts, a dream for most of us in our private as well as public lives. My response was a deep sense of awe in the liberation and bodily autonomy that they embodied.

“People say that [the representation of these cultural symbols] is not universal. That these stories aren’t going to reach the general public. It’s funny, because when they say mainstream, they mean the rich heterosexuals who make ‘realistic films’. Anyway, I think a cis-het [film-maker] wouldn’t have had problems [to raise money for their films], but I think a cis-het couldn’t have written this movie!” said Langlois, in an email interview with Gaysi Family.

Cut to real life, Dorothy’s film is rejected for a grant in lieu of a trendier film-maker, Xena Lodan, who seems to have established themself by using the resources made available by their “rich papa”. When Dorothy’s producer, Petula, urges them to write less activist-y, more intimist scripts and be “less Dorothy”, our protagonist seems to experience an episode of psychosis, possibly influenced by the campy vampire-slayer show they’re watching.

In this dream state, Dorothy’s demons spill out of their literal closet – first in the form of their mother, the archetype of internalized patriarchy, who belittles their talent and keeps saying that their film will never be made. To escape her, Dorothy locks themself up in the closet only to discover that it is a cavernous portal, filled with stage props and masques, leading to Petula’s office. This plot device reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline; an experience threatening to burst open the protagonist’s psyche with fantasies coming to life, but not quite like how they imagined. Visually, it was a lot like the 1990 fantasy comedy horror film, The Witches, that starred Angelica Houston.

In confronting their demons in the closet, Dorothy’s belief in telling their story on their own terms is reinforced. Rife with pop spectacle a la (one of) Dorothy’s inspiration, Ulrike Ottinger, Dorothy’s film features queer lovers sporting “Lolo Ferrari-boobs”. Ferrari’s body aesthetic represents the cultural symbol that Langlois grew up with. “At the [height of her fame], everyone criticized her: they said she was a freak, that she was too sexual, stupid… this struck me. I believe that, as a child, Lolo made me feel seen as a queer person.”  This imagery and storytelling reckons with the pressures of the dominant male gaze in mainstream cinema, that likes for women to be represented as delicate, shy, self-evasive, and cowering from its intrusive attention. On the other hand, Dorothy’s characters are audacious, gaudy, brazen, and hedonistic. Among them, Dorothy finds comfort as well as euphoria, and hopes to offer this to the audience as well.

Dorothy’s journey mirrors Langlois’ own story as a film-maker. “For me it is important to tell [stories about] the violence that our communities live [with], but it is also important to overcome this violence and to show that together we can do beautiful and crazy things. That’s why I like [the horror] genre in films; you can dream up worlds, bodies and stories. We can move away from reality to make it change! We can create images that make us dream, that make us laugh and that give us strength to face the world.”

The horror and fantasy genres in films and books have always been a playground for the imagination of the oppressed. Queer folx, black and brown communities, women, indigenous tribes, are all reclaiming what horror really feels like, having lived in a globalized world with structures that uphold white supremacist, patriarchal ethos at the cost of their lives and communities. Moving away from the deeply racist and ‘othering’ gaze of Lovecraft (in books such as Dunwich Horror) to the externalized introspection of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein about anthropocentricity and Jordan Peele’s reading of the performative wokeness of white culture in “post-racial Amercia” that was ushered in with the election of Obama as US President in 2008, in his film Get Out, has opened up new ways of depicting horror. Langlois shared their own vision for this genre as a queer person: “Films that deal with the violence we experience, but films that also offer other perspectives. Films that exorcize reality! Films with strange and beautiful images. Funny movies that don’t take themselves seriously. Because for me, queer is obviously camp! I like it when movies poke fun at the seriousness of cis-hets! Let’s be monstrous, funny and flaming!”

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Tejaswi is journalist and researcher whose attention is captured by post-colonial human relationships at a time of the Internet of Things. She can't wait to become a full-time potter soon, though!

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