Define Frenzy: Emotional Masochism in Queer Cinema

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Define Frenzy: Emotional Masochism in Queer Cinema

“Define Frenzy” is a series of weekly essays for Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen. You can read last year’s essays here and last week’s essay here.

While shelving in the film and drama section of the bookstore where I work, I picked up a book called A Little Bit Wicked. It’s the memoir of actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth, former star of Pushing Daisies (a role that scored her an Emmy) and Tony winner for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown!. She’s perhaps best known as Glinda the Good Witch in Wicked. The title of her book is a pun, you see.

It reminded me, of all people, of German New Wave director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant: Looking at the book, thinking about the film, fresh off of weeping on the train finishing Andre Aciman’s tale of queer desire, Call Me By Your Name, it occurred to me that there is nothing if not a deeply wicked pleasure in the emotional masochism of queer romance.

What is it about watching the fraught, often unfulfilled dynamics that populate works like Fassbinder’s? In the film, based on his play (which was semi-autobiographical), an elite fashion designer, Petra (Margit Carstensen), begins a relationship with her new muse, Karin (Hanna Schygulla), but the power dynamics between them-and Petra’s silent, bossed-around assistant, Marlene (Irm Hermann)-are never equal. It’s all captivatingly visceral, how power that is given, relinquished and snatched can have a concrete, potent power on the audience.

As Petra and Karin hurl vitriol at one another, their relationship deteriorates far beyond Petra’s control and the film takes on an Edward Albee-esque absurdity: Fassbinder’s formalism is demanding, but any distance between film and audience, character and viewer disappears into oblivion. Karin recounts a lewd, racist tryst with a black soldier to make Petra jealous, and the latter retaliates, calling Karin a whore. But then Petra backtracks, screaming at Karin to lie to her. All the while, Marlene watches without a word, (supposedly) without agency, almost voyeuristically, taking both pleasure and pain from witnessing Petra obsess and clutch at the idea of Karin, literally lunging for the phone on the floor when it rings.

Though one’s reflexive reaction is that seeing such desperation shouldn’t feel right, it does. That Petra should be as entrenched in this obsession, so entangled in this one-sided romance, seems so strange. All of the signs to ignore and to stop caring are there, but that she continues to invest her energy is ostensibly absure. In a way, though, the absurd is queer. Petra is dressed in green, her hair another wig of many, this time curly and blonde and with a red flower on it, makeup caking her face, accentuating a kabuki-esque femininity: She exudes a kind of draggy quality. And yet, in all of the melodrama, Fassbinder not only makes you feel-Petra’s pain, Karin’s apathy, Marlene’s quiet suppression-but makes you identify with these contradictory, absurd, masochistic characters.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant merges the director’s background in experimental filmmaking with his ambitious formal approach, allowing the film to exist only over the course of five scenes, each taking place in what feels like real time: limited cuts, and camera placement that surveys both the entire geography and interior architecture of the set and the geography of the characters’ desires. Fassbinder and his players easily convince the audience to transition, to swing back and forth between being with the cast in the enclosed studio rooms, but also afar, watching as everything goes down. Fassbinder creates a sense of disembodiment, like being in a complicated relationship yourself: at once in it, experiencing, and yet completely apart, above, looking at it curiously like a piece of moving, complex art. Fassbinder can profile his characters from a distance, or invade their space, balancing remoteness and intimacy.

Emotional masochism as a mode of telling queer relationship stories are part of a historical lineage. There’s a sadomasochistic quality to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, both with its main cowboys, but as well with the way the characters navigate their own feelings within the environments in which they are entrapped. In Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By the Lake, a man falls in love at a cruising beach with someone who is most certainly a serial killer. There’s The Boys in the Band, a descendant of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the sense that a booze-drenched party incites yelling and self-loathing and an inability to reconcile with queer selfhood. There’s Gregg Araki’s The Living End and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, Pawel Pawilkowski’s My Summer of Love, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. There’s The Children’s Hour and Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George and countless others that explore, so often, when queerness is not yet a good enough armor against pain. That’s the common discourse today, that queerness makes us invincible, like armor, immune to hurt and trauma. Should queerness have been framed as armor in the first place? Maybe not.

Maybe such framing started with something like Jean Genet’s first and only film, Un Chant D’Amour (1950), in which two prisoners in adjacent cells perform a dance of impossible eroticism, sending (cigarette) smoke signals to one another even though they know can’t ever fulfill the desire behind such signals. Filmed in stark black and white, Un Chant D’Amour reaches into the unknown through the gradations of its images, through the darkness and the light and what’s in between. The prisoners are probably in jail for being homosexuals; between them exists a world that no one else can see.

Genet’s experimental film is silent, reveling instead in movement and gesture as its primary form of language. Looking at the two men, separated by a brick wall, Genet makes desire feel and look like a film projector, one that, in its attempt to cover everything, to fill in every crack and crevice, projects something onto everything, onto everyone. We can’t know what the two handsome men are thinking, and yet their physical and emotional presence makes their intentions clear, but spectrally. They move elegantly against the wall, as if trying to pass through, the smoke unfurling from their mouths their only form of communication, like words sprawled both messily and with elegance on a page, a love note sent to someone who understands your language like few others do. Not a word is spoken, but their dance together is an entire emotional story.

Via social context, and the confining nature of the setting, the men, through their pas de deux and smoke signals embrace impossibility. They also embrace secrecy and darkness and the pain of living on the margins and only being able to be with one another in the dark, communicating through codes. The audience swoons under Genet’s intoxicating romance, forcing the viewer to embrace the same vulnerabilities and ambiguities. What is queerness-otherness-if not a makeshift shield, where vulnerability is its surface?

Perhaps embedded in our cultural history, in our stories ranging from A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood to Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran, is the acceptance and embracing of pain as a thing that shapes identity, that becomes as close to us as our own yearning. Pain is what makes queerness so intensely powerful. In Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, the book’s narrator opines about being undone by the one person that changed and didn’t change and unchanged him-all these contradictions that make pain, pleasure and being into one thing.

These complex emotions and feelings, which the narrator attempts to unpack, are fundamental to the queer person he’s become. For some people to hear, for so long, that they can’t have love and that they can’t live their truth, whatever form that may take, certainly allows trauma to bleed into the inspirational stories we tell ourselves and each other. The fun, the vicariousness, the magnetism of experiencing such emotionally sadomasochistic stories is tinged with something a little bit wicked.

Kyle Turner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. His work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Village Voice, Slate and Little White Lies. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.