Louis(e) de Ville: Get your freak on!

Gender bender: Louis(e)de Ville. (Supplied)

Gender bender: Louis(e)de Ville. (Supplied)


She has the looks of an Anne Hathaway, the gamine charm of a 1920s flapper, and the obvious intelligence of someone who can articulate, with clarity, her ambitions and her processes in relation to her work. She also stars in  a Portrait of a Bad Girl, showing at the Out in Africa South African Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. 

She could have been a diplomat! Or so we are informed by the publicity. That's a commendation, no doubt, but watching De Ville on camera it's clear she could be more than that – she could be a superstar.

The bracketed "e" in her name troubles its gendered spelling: in French, as occasionally transferred to English, a terminal "e" means a feminine noun, and one lacking that "e" is masculine. De Ville is both, or is bracketing one to highlight the other.

A similar orthogoraphic convention is employed in names such as "Sarrazin", which can be feminised into "Sarrasine", a switch familiar from Roland Barthes's famous structuralist analysis of the Honoré de Balzac story Sarrasine, a study Barthes titled S/Z. In the slash dividing those two gender-determining letters lies a space of ambiguity or slippage — and that's precisely what De Ville's performance work is about.

As she explains in one of the interviews in the documentary, she was turned on to feminism during her teens, at school in small-town Kentucky. It seems that by the time she left school she was already on to queer theory, having moved on from mere second-wave feminism and the politics of gay and lesbian liberation to the more difficult tendencies in gender and identity politics. Queer aims to dissolve the binaries of sexual identity: not just the classic and foundational male/female binary, but also the subsidiary ones of gay/straight, butch/femme and so on. 

This De Ville does through burlesque, a genre of performance she refers back to Mae West and that great star's predecessors in the downmarket entertainment industry of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Not too far from striptease, one of De Ville's modes, burlesque is sexy, provocative, and always partly a send-up, which is clearly a big element of what appeals to De Ville. She mixes humour, satire, dance, voice, music and theatre to concoct these marvellous performances of hers, a fair amount of which we see in this filmic portrait.

Her big show so far, it seems, is one based on her character Betty Sharp, a repressed housewife who half-discovers alternatives to her heteronormative life(style) and goes more than a little sexually crazy during an hilarious enactment of what looks like a cooking demonstration. In this work, De Ville brings together the classically theatrical (much play with set, props and costume) and the dramatic monologue. Betty is riven with contradictions, but De Ville is very clear about the political orientation of her work, and it's fun to see complex, multivalent artworks that nonetheless have a simple, liberatory message.

In other works, closer perhaps to performance art than to theatre as such, De Ville provokes a range of stunned reactions. One sexual parody, in which she ejects ping pong balls from her vagina (or seems to), while wearing a chicken's head, is simply the maddest, silliest and funniest comment on sex and desire since Annie Sprinkle's faux memoirs. De Ville's drag-king impersonations, such as her take on the groin-pumping Prince, are brilliant and disturbing at the same time, especially when her hypermasculine personae are set against her hyperfeminine ones, which include Marie Antoinette.

As De Ville says, she wants to be able to play with all the possibilities of gender and sexuality. And, as she notes with her Judith Butler tome in hand, gender is performative, so she's able to use performance to highlight that as well as to explore all those possibilities. And if she offends traditional lesbians by her extensive use of dildos to create masculine personae for herself, well, then she offends. She's way more likely, though, to get them — and the rest of us – laughing ourselves silly.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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