Tuesday 14 April 2020

Review: Below Her Mouth

Year: 2016
Director: April Mullen
Screenplay: Stephanie Fabrizi
Starring: Erika Linder, Natalie Krill

Time for an odd story. One of my hobbies is photography. Most of my work is mainly women. I often ask my subjects “how do you want to be shot?” I like the subject to have an aim of the shoot and their answer will usually provide a steppingstone to the type of tone the finished image will be. One model who I enjoy shooting with was quick to voice her concerns with previous photographers over sexualizing her recent shoots. A more than reasonable argument, so I looked to avoid heading down the same path. However, the model bought props which unfortunately would negate her comments if used. When she asked to place these items within the shot. I refused. The simple reason. If you don’t want to be observed under a certain gaze, it may be wise not to utilise things that may suggest otherwise. Below Her Mouth holds a similar problem. Although the film has an issue of addition as opposed to subtraction. It is a film full of sex. However, it has the same conundrum I felt I had with my model friend: What story are you trying to tell?

Films that single-handedly deal in the female gaze on screen still seem to be somewhat of a taboo even in 2020. Which is why it’s easy to a film like Below the Mouth wanting to be a lesbian romance straightly told. However, April Mullen’s sexually charged tale of an illicit affair between a female roofer (Erika Linder) and a fashion editor (Natalie Krill) in a heterosexual engagement is not too dissimilar to the testosterone-based cliché we often hear. It’s only interested in one thing.

Let’s not lie. Below Her Mouth is sexy. It’s really sexy.  The negative reviews I read about the film after watching the film, gave off the sort of puritanical leaning which seems to claim that they were somewhat above the film depicting sex which may cause an actual element of desire.  It wasn’t hard to find a review that labelled the film as pornography. The physicality within the sexual scenes is substantial. It’s a film that never shies away from sex. The scenes are as plentiful as they are explicit. The film is very happy to depict two very desirable women in a variety of sexually tense situations, often bathing them in natural light or framing their writhing bodies in aesthetically pleasing compositions. Both Mullen and Maya Bankovic have done their homework here. Being a non-Hollywood movie, it also means they can push the bar on what they can show.  And with no snickering in the back, the film knows how to make the sex look good.

The film’s struggle for substance in the narrative, however, provides the perfect element of truth to any cynic. Every sexual composition is lush and will no doubt corner the male gaze as well as the female one. However, the film’s turgid dialogue, sloppy metaphors and lack of characterization help push the idea that Below the Mouth is titillation and titillation only. The film’s use of one character nailing the roof outside while intercutting with the other woman masturbating in the bath while fantasizing over her is not only comically on the nose, but some of the scenes particular logistics feel unnecessary. The story keeps roofer Dallas’s backstory needlessly hidden while highlighting that she enjoys sex. The building of her character gives us little reason to care for her motives. In addition to this, as Dallas’ coded as the more masculine character, with her assertiveness being nearly her only trait, some of Dallas’s behavior is considered non-problematic simply because it’s a woman performing the actions. They could easily be perceived as toxic. The film gives little attention to Dallas's development. Keeping her an enigma, her pull towards Jasmine as well as her methods are left elliptical and unpolished.

Fashion editor Jasmine fairs only slightly better as an engaged woman who was seemingly scared straight due to one singular event in her childhood, however, the films lackluster character development again does little to convince as to why she’d be willing to drop her otherwise happy existence.

The film hints at a gender and sexuality struggle which may have been compelling. A secondary character exclamation of having to wear “conventional” women’s clothes to dictate that she fits in with certain societal expectations is sadly never built on. While Dallas’s statement of a coming out story being never-ending may not fully justify her lack of background story but is a small amount of profundity in a film that is far more interested in strap-on dildos.

All the elements add up to a film which is full of scenes that could make one hot under the collar but with sexual politics which were held together better in films which were more invested in who the film was about. The likes of My Summer of Love (2004), Moonlight (2018) or Princess Cyd (2017) name a few films which may not observe same-sex relationships with the same sexual explicitness yet hold an emotional attentiveness which Below Her Mouth seems disengaged with. If, however, one can ignore the battered clichés and slight dramatic displays at play, Below Her Mouth may hold some appeal simply by having scenes that could stream up a few windows. Don’t look for a powerfully told story through. It dissipates as quickly as condensation.

Below Her Mouth was viewed via Netflix UK