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Close-Up on Bertrand Mandico’s “The Wild Boys”

Bertrand Mandico’s “The Wild Boys” depicts a metamorphosis from male to female, set against a landscape of gender fluidity.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Bertrand Mandico's The Wild Boys (2017), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from September 14 – October 14, 2018 as a Special Discovery.
“I’m sick to death of this self. I want another.”
Orlando, Virginia Woolf, 1928
Bertrand Mandico’s The Wild Boys depicts a metamorphosis from male to female, set against a landscape of gender fluidity. Upon a cursory glance, Mandico’s cinema seems to exist to be deconstructed. Like his short films, his first feature occupies an epicene world that collapses the binaries of biological sex and gender, extrapolating a dilemma described in Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which addresses men’s creation and spectatorship of images of women on film. In The Wild Boys, Mandico complicates the spectatorship of biological sex in that the titular boys are all played by women.
The film’s title recalls the 1971 novel of the same name by William S. Burroughs, about a gang of homosexuals who attempt a revolution. Mandico’s film portrays a kind of sexual evolution. In the film, a gang of five entitled schoolboys—Hubert, Tanguy, Jean-Louis, Sloane, and Romauld (Diane Rouxel, Anaël Snoek, Vimala Pons, Mathilde Warnier, and Pauline Lorillard)—rape a schoolteacher. As punishment, they become wards of the Captain (Sam Louwyck), who can “transform any violent boy into a civilized human being.” He spirits them away on a ship, where they endure humiliation and the trials of seafaring. They eventually reach an island (shot at the island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean) where the Captain crosses paths with old acquaintance Séverin/e (Elina Löwensohn) and where the boys drink the nectar of a phallic tree, causing them to gradually transform into girls.  
One could think of The Wild Boys as occupying the de facto tradition of casting against sex—which indirectly draws the viewer’s attention to the arbitrary assignment of sex in the first place—that began as early as classical Greek drama, comic and tragic. Greek theater cast men in the roles of women by necessity, as women were forbidden from performing onstage. The humor of Greek comedy (comedy by the Greek definition of anything that wasn’t a tragedy) such as Lysistrata, however, depended partially on elements of drag and camp, which is not the case in Mandico’s films. Nor does The Wild Boys intend to use women to mimetically portray men (or at least successfully ‘pass’ as men), as with Linda Hunt in Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). The Wild Boys is perhaps closer to traditional stage productions of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, which has typically cast a lithe woman in the titular role, and Shûsuke Kaneko’s Summer Vacation 1999 (1988), about the homoerotic exchanges between three schoolboys, all of whom are played by girls.
Yet it would be reductive to read the film as an allegory or a homosexual ‘coming-of-age’ story, given Mandico’s tendency to collapse the binaries of biological sex and sexual preference. The Wild Boys could take place in the same intersex universe seen in Mandico’s short films. The Captain himself functions as an intersex figure in the film, comparable to Löwensohn’s breasted man in Souvenirs d’un montreur de seins (2014) in that he has one breast. Similarly, the phallic tree from which the boys drink the nectar could be from the same phylum as the tree that rapes the virgin in Y a-t-il une vierge encore vivante? (2015). The characters are also epicene in the same manner as the characters in Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution (2015), epicene being a linguistic term used to define a noun that remains unchanged when applied to either gender—‘nurse’ and ‘soldier’ for instance are epicene nouns in English, whereas ‘actor/actress’ and ‘widow/widower,’ are not—that one can apply heuristically to the portrayal of gender on film.
In addition to portraying intersex characters, the film complicates certain visual conventions and stereotypical behaviors associated with the genders. Clothing in particular figures prominently in The Wild Boys, and is predicated on the convention that men’s clothing typically masks the body’s form whereas women’s clothing does not. The cut of men’s trousers will hide the wideness of hips, whereas women’s trousers often accentuate it, for instance. Mandico uses costume as the primary means of collapsing gender: The boys dress in button front shirts, suspenders and neckties, which alludes to certain double-standards in the modern socialization of the sexes—specifically young boys and girls—that have been established in the West for only about 100 years. Up until World War I, children up to the age of 6 or 7 wore ‘genderless’ white dresses and uncut hair, and after that age (and contrary to historical imagination) wore the gender-specific colors of pink and blue interchangeably. With that in mind, consider an early sequence where the five boys all wear grotesque masks that do not register as either sex, leaving the viewer to determine gender solely by costume.
The Wild Boys contains all of the visual hallmarks for which Mandico is known from his short films: The use of rear-projection, color field, tinted lenses, and so on. Mandico takes advantage of the film’s setting—primarily at sea and on the beach—by complicating popular imagery of sailors and seafaring. Historically, the image of the sailor and seafaring life has existed as an icon of established notions of masculinity: physical strength, drinking, and fighting. At the same time, since the early twentieth century the image of sailor and the sailor’s uniform has been synonymous with male homosexuality and transgressive female costume: consider the dream sequence in Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947), where the protagonist is carried by a muscular, almost angelic man in a white sailor’s uniform, and the now-iconic sailor costume worn by Barbra Streisand for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1963. The theme of the ‘handsome sailor’—construed as either angelic or dangerous—emerges in large part out of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1924) and Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest (1947), respectively. Mandico brings his particular form of subversion to this imagery by dressing the Captain in a sequin peacoat, while later in the film Jean-Louis appropriates the Captain’s hat.
Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947)
Barbra Streisand at the Hollywood Bowl, 1963
In turning visual conventions on their head, Mandico forces the viewer to rethink the notion of spectatorship in watching women onscreen. The viewer knows logically that the young men are being portrayed by biological women, yet is denied the visual pleasure of seeing images of ‘women’ onscreen, and therefore unable to impose an erotic fantasy upon them. A sequence late in the film where Romauld’s penis and scrotum fall off to reveal a vagina visually suggests what Mulvey described as the patriarchal unconscious: a literal castration resulting from metamorphosis. In short, The Wild Boys disrupts what Mulvey called “erotic ways of viewing,” or the viewer’s socially-established understanding of sexual difference that controls images.

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