Cruella ★★★

I saw this with the Old Biddies Club last weekend in honor of one of our founding member’s 60th birthday. (She’s by far the oldest among us, in case you were curious). We all enjoyed it well enough. There were scattered chuckles and a few gasps at the audacious fashion moments, and the whole experience paired nicely with the trough of guavaritas we had been swilling down throughout the evening. If I was left with a certain feeling of wistfulness afterwards, I don’t think it was solely due to the booze and the impending sense of our own mortality, but equally to the overall mildness of our collective response to the film. While Cruella certainly provided some moments of camp pleasure, it was totally devoid of anything that I’d call camp ecstasy

In case you hadn’t noticed, I write about camp sensibility a lot on here. In past reviews I’ve cited a distinction that was coined by Spy magazine in 1989 between “true camp” and “camp lite.” To that taxonomy, I think it’s high time we added a third category: corporate camp. I don’t think I need to do much more than to point to the global lifestyle brand created by RuPaul and the World of Wonder media empire as the inescapable exemplar of this phenomenon. It’s a hard truth that “capitalism is gonna capitalism,” and very few subcultural innovations are going to escape its voracious maw. The WoW brand of camp takes a few of its queerest tropes and distills them down to iterable formulas and memes. Anyone who’s watched any of the last ten seasons or so of Drag Race will already understand perfectly well how this process works: it’s essentially become a shameless celebration of the ways in which consumer culture can magically transform any set of signifiers of “outsider” status into just another lifestyle choice in an endless, sugary rainbow of commodified identities. The pleasures are still there, but all the rage, madness, delirium and vitriol have been reprocessed into the easily assimilable “storylines” of trauma, confession, acceptance, and belonging which every contestant is now called upon to reproduce — that is, to perform their personal embrace of the “self-actualizing” logic that keeps the whole system humming. 

So we should hardly be surprised that this is exactly the narrative that the Disney corporation serves up in its first deliberate foray into camp territory: tormented misfit gets her revenge through fierceness and fabulousness and manages to find herself along the way. Would it have been better had they handed the project to someone like Bruce LaBruce or Ryan Trecartin, either of whom might have given us a properly sociopathic canicidal freak as a heroine? Of course it would, but that’s just not gonna happen from family-friendly Disney. Their choice of Craig Gillespie as director makes a certain amount of sense, given that his previous project was also a rehabilitation of a camp-adjacent sociopath/villainess, Tonya Harding. (Oddly, the internet seems to have no idea whether Gillespie identifies as gay or straight. My guess is that he’s actually a closeted straight guy who’s afraid of the damage it might do to his career were his normative sexual orientation to become public.) But when you compare Cruella’s arc to those of Divine’s greatest characters (Babs Johnson, Dawn Davenport, and Lady Divine in Multiple Maniacs), you’ll see how a descent into complete psychosis should be properly done. 

The other inhibiting factor to camp sublimity here is the problem of what Jack Smith has called “good perfs.” The Emmas are just too talented to be able to pull off anything other than a decent simulation of a camp performance. Like Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy or Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, Thompson and Stone can do cartoonish villainy with relish and aplomb, but you never get the sense that they’re actually revealing anything about who they really are as people. Camp performance is never about submerging oneself in a role. Quite the opposite: it’s about exposing something, usually inadvertently, truly narcissistic and twisted about your actual personality through a too-naturalistic performance of stardom. If we actually thought by the end of the film that Emma Stone or Thompson were horrible divas in real life, I’m sure our gang would have enjoyed Cruella a hell of a lot more.

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