As one of my most anticipated films of the festival, I went into Below Her Mouth with high hopes. As I sat in the theatre waiting for the film to start, I read some background on Mullen’s choice to work with an all female crew and her hopes for what she’s bringing across on screen.
It can be hard sometimes, as a woman, to create a space that is all your own and feels true to you and even harder to get that across to other people in a male-dominated sphere. Predictably, Mullen’s comments about portraying “an authentic female perspective” won some ire from my fellow movie-goer. Nonetheless, we were both interested in seeing if Mullen could succeed in bringing something to the screen that indeed presented an obvious or unique “female gaze,” distinct from similar male-authored offerings.
Ultimately, what Mullen’s story struggles with is not perspective, but content. The film follows Dallas (Erika Linder), an overtly lesbian roofer who likes to party and have frivolous sexual interactions, and Jasmine (Natalie Krill), a bored and beautiful fashion editor engaged to a man she’s been with for six years. And that is essentially as fleshed out as it gets. The film’s dialogue is stilted and contrived, while painting a picture of its characters that is skeletal and mostly cliche (Sample dialogue: Dallas: “What do you do?” Jasmine: “I’m in fashion..I’m a fashion editor for a magazine.” Dallas: “So you’re the boss?” Jasmine: “It’s more complicated than that”). Their initial meeting and connection seems unlikely and Dallas’ aggressive pursuit of Jasmine would be declared problematic in a film where her character was replaced by a man. Their day trip across the city, composed mostly of montages of them kissing and telling each other everything (still without managing to give the audience any sense of them as people) is remarkably mundane (although maybe love is always that way to those on the outside).
Mullen has created space for her actors to genuinely connect on screen; the film’s sex scenes are tender and sincere. I was drawn into the world of two that the women inhabit. Additionally, they are beautifully composed. There’s a notable scene in which the two actors are entwined in Dallas’ bed in the daylight. The lines of the girls’ bodies on the apartment’s raised bed mimics the horizontal line of the huge window that lets soft light spill over them.
But has Mullen produced anything substantially different from her male counterparts? I for one was more invested in the onscreen relationships of Adele and Emma in Blue is the Warmest Color or Carol and Therese in Carol, both directed by men (Abdellatif Kechiche and Todd Haynes, respectively) and both portrayed in films that Mullen, at the post-film Q&A, said that she had seen but wasn’t influenced by (obviously). If Mullen had spent as much time constructing her characters as she did considering how she would light them (she bathes Dallas’ scenes in harsh, gritty light and bold colours and Jasmine’s with warmer tones) they might be a little more compelling.
Sadly, the sex scenes are the film’s main strengths. Along with the excruciatingly monotonous soundtrack, the film mostly exists as a porno with high production value (maybe that’s why the dialogue sounds so familiar…).
As an aside: I would personally like to know why film (and television) that offers perspective on characters questioning their sexuality always has to portray its hetero relationships as impossibly vanilla, yuppie lifestyles in contrast to their exciting and hip same-sex alternative (and c’mon: is it a crime to enjoy a nice cup of french pressed coffee and read the newspaper on a weekend morning? Jasmine looks like she might crawl out of her skin).
Regardless, I was genuinely excited when April Mullen came up to introduce her film and, later, to answer questions. It is inspiring to see a woman directing and, while I don’t believe the film was as effective as it could have been, trying to bring a distinct feminine voice into her filmmaking.