Four strutting teenage boys played by four strutting teenage girls compose the magnetic centerpiece of Bertrand Mandico’s heady debut feature, Wild Boys (Les garçons sauvages), which had its New York premiere on February 24th at The Film Society of Lincoln Center.  Supremely bizarre, extraordinarily thoughtful, and operating according to a brilliant and idiosyncratic logic all its own, Les garçons sauvages doesn’t so much take up the project of gender investigation as dash all gender formulae and theory to smithereens.  The titular girl-boys are a swaggering parody of overplayed adolescent male virility, all smash-mouth sexual impulse, growl, and mechanical cult-worship of their bejeweled deity, “Trevor.”  After sexually assaulting and inadvertently murdering their literature professor, the four are cast from their upper-class families and entrusted to the care of the draconian Captain (Sam Louwyck), who promises to tame and reform them—Mandico employs a more loaded term,“civilize”—over the course of a grueling sea voyage.

The film is arranged in two communicating halves: the establishment of the artificial world and the ultimate transcendence of that world into a contradictory new order.  In the first hour of the film, Mandico constructs an environment of overdetermined fakery, where every set and prop detail has a blatant studio feel and where the over- and under-exposed black-and-white frames further enable the surreal imagery to elude the eye’s capture.  The central action is often destabilized by the pronounced presence of a green screen backdrop, into which the foreground characters sometimes transcend, looming large over their companions. At best, the boundary between individual and habitat is a flimsy demarcation, supplying one of the film’s central tenets as well as its seasick horizon.  There is overwrought and repetitive imagery: the fruit, the jewels, the hair, and the stench, overdetermined in their sexually suggestive and fecund symbolism. The soundtrack is similarly contrived, featuring a string of classical pieces so overplayed as to have been sapped of their emotional substance— among them, Lakmé’s syrupy “Flower Duet” and Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy”.

The palpably constructed nature of the film, and by evident translation, its human social realm, take no exception to gender, which is marked as an equally insubstantial artifact.  Beyond the titular garçons, each of the foregrounded characters share a kind of composite sexual identity, bearing single, Amazonian breasts and/or phalluses so prosthetic they seem to be Freudian stand-ins, both manifested as if they were designed according to only a vague notion of function and shape.  Desire is established as something fluid and fraught with confusion and cruelty, directed to and from each subject and to the phallic and yonic appendages of the natural world with indiscriminate compulsion.

In the film’s second half, the three girl-boys, weary of The Captain’s punishments and monotonous rations of black, hairy peaches, mutiny and return to the verdant pleasure-island where they earlier lost their companion, Hubert.  The island is reigned by the elegant, jewel-laden Dr. Severin(e) (Elina Löwensohn), who was the late Captain’s employer and originally male, hence the alternative spellings. As Dr. Severin(e) later explains to the teens, the fruit they had been consuming— at once both edenic apple and Odyssean lotus— contains a hormonal compound which serves as the catalyst for sudden and radical sexual transformation.  One by one, the girl-boys “grow” breasts; to their unending horror, their evidently prosthetic genitalia drop suddenly and inopportunely to the ground, buried in the sand or swept away in the surf. The girl-boys “become”—or are reduced—to the essential femininity we always suspected of them, shrouded beneath the violent adolescent masquerade. While Dr. Severin(e) declares that this process is the core of her project to tame wild boys and rid the world of its violence, in a subsequent hallucination, her gilded womb yields an unloaded revolver, and bullets like eggs.  Reveling in their new bodies, the girls grow into their swagger—but not out of their ferocity—joining Dr. Severin(e) in a more sophisticated and organized league of enlightenment.

Les garçons sauvages blasts through an astonishing chain of conventions without ceremony, engaging with just as many questions without deigning to supply solutions.  The expressive lexicon of Les garçons sauvages is slyly coded in the imagery of feminist-psychoanalytic film critique: Mulvey’s reference to castration anxiety, Cissoux’s dual presentations of bisexuality, and Butler’s notion of gender performativity all make appearances, warped into surrealist mayhem and laid out as a glittering provocation.  With effortless punk panache, the film manages to undermine the traditional subprojects of the male gaze; the processes of identification, desire, and commodification are immediately confounded, circling in on themselves as they lock in confrontation with these variously nontraditional subjects. Mandico ushers the audience away from facile conclusions, ensuring they grasp no more than the vapor trails of a dream, prolonging and then denying the anticipated release of intellectual or moral gratification.  While the film declines to announce its scheme, its after-images leave indelible marks on the mind; its very elusiveness becomes its greatest strength as the viewer traces its lines of interrogation over and over again. One thing is certain: to watch these young women believably and charismatically commandeer the coveted male role and then somersault back into a comfortable femininity is to become acquainted with a revolutionary new aesthetic of gender.