Devil Between the Legs (Arturo Ripstein, Mexico/Spain) — Masters

By Michael Sicinski

Well folks, it’s September 2019, and here we have a late-breaking entry for Worst Film of the Decade. I’m not kidding, and I’m not levelling empty hyperbole. I have been a major supporter of director Arturo Ripstein and screenwriter Paz Alicia Garciadiego in the past: The Beginning and the End (1993) and The Virgin of Lust (2002) are particular favourites of mine. But this, the pair’s seventeenth collaboration, is quite possibly the most sustained, meticulously constructed cinematic vision of sexism since Lars von Trier hired a “misogyny consultant” to help out on Antichrist (2009).

At least with that well-appointed fiasco, there was a pretty clear sense that the film was not on the side of femicide. By contrast, Devil Between the Legs, which might sell more easily in certain territories if they just cut the shit and call it Slut-Shaming: The Motion Picture, starts out looking like it might be a grungy chamber drama about a faltering marriage between a retired pharmacist known only as The Mister (Alejandro Suárez) and his long-suffering wife, Beatriz (Sylvia Pasquel), which is complicated by the kibitzing presence of Dinorah (Greta Cervantes), a 15-year-old housekeeper. But once we see Beatriz in the bathroom pouring bleach in her vagina to cure her “crotch rot,” we begin to understand that something is definitely amiss in this film.

The Mister is obsessed with the erroneous belief that Beatriz is having an affair. (He in fact is the one screwing around.) He persists in this obsession because before they were married, Beatriz had a very active sex life, and while on some level this was clearly a turn-on for The Mister, he also calls her a slut, recounts tales of her promiscuity in order to humiliate her, and fixates on/is repulsed by her vaginal secretions. Despite ample evidence that Beatriz is an abused spouse, Dinorah decides that she is in fact an ungrateful, wanton woman, and helps The Mister exact his revenge on her.

This is but a précis of the myriad indignities to which Beatriz is subjected, and for a time it seems that Ripstein and Garciadiego are setting the viewer up for some sort of eleventh-hour catharsis, not that this would justify the previous two-plus-hours. But it is not to be: Devil Between the Legs, in spite of its sumptuous black-and-white photography and somewhat dishevelled mise-en-scène, is every bit as hermetic and deterministic as a Michel Franco film, or certain Michael Haneke stunts, but since it is not as aggressively antiseptic, the airlessness of this vile universe may not be as immediately apparent. There’s no question that Ripstein’s direction is masterful, and in its way this is a “late” auteur film, exhibiting a sort of crystalline version of the worst aspects of the Ripstein/Garciadiego worldview. Devil Between the Legs makes no concessions and offers no apologies. I suppose that, in its own repugnant way, it’s admirable, but it’s not something anyone should feel obliged to actually watch.

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