The politics of personal sexual preference underscore nearly every scene of Multiple Maniacs, perhaps writer-director John Waters’s most audacious and demented rebuke to both the supposed pleasantries of bourgeois life and the lie of a progressive politics predicated on complacency. That includes not only an opening sequence in which Lady Divine (Divine) and her “cavalcade of perversions” lure a group of onlookers into a “free show” to be robbed blind, but also a restaging of the stations of the cross, and a character’s rape at the claws of a 15-foot lobster. While events grow increasingly outlandish and unhinged, the film understands that the “freak show” has moved from the circus tent to the suburbs, with curious suburbanites hoping to gawk not at the genetic mutations on display throughout something like Tod Browning’s Freaks, but the behaviors of a post-sexual liberation that have been dialed several clicks past being socially acceptable.
Nevertheless, Waters interweaves his critique of noxious domesticity into the characters at the core of Multiple Maniacs, allowing insights to spring from unexpected places. Take the scene in which Mr. David (David Lochary) and Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce) share a post-coital cigarette and the latter, jealous of Lady Divine, laments that she can’t compete with someone who men likely see as “a real piece.” Indeed, even if the character’s projections about popular sexual taste are askew, the suggestion of Lady Divine as a pinnacle of femininity cuts to the core of Waters’s very aesthetic interests, with unorthodox bodies and behaviors elevated to an ideal realm.
It’s the audience’s laughter at Bonnie’s presumption that Waters is interested in dissecting, not necessarily the pathological motivations of the characters involved. It’s telling that, at one point, posters for Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema are glimpsed in a character’s bedroom, since both of these films utilize psychosexual themes to psychologize their characters. Multiple Maniacs, on the other hand, couldn’t be less compelled toward such an understanding of its acts and behaviors, but nor does that reduce Waters’s film to the realm of parody or camp. Instead, he’s engaging a wilier form of social progressivism that strips away severity in favor of hard-edged lunacy and signals a break from the constraints of so-called good taste.
Multiple Maniacs, then, isn’t beholden to the conventional building blocks of narrative, such as character development or resolving a social problem. When Lady Divine embarks on a quest to find Mr. David after learning of his infidelity from a nosey barmaid (Edith Massey), she’s first accosted by a couple of rapists, then led by the hand of a boy angel to a church, where she meets Mink (Mink Stole), also known as the Religious Whore. Mink seduces Lady Divine during a prayer and subsequently inserts her rosary into one of Lady Divine’s “most private parts.” The prolonged sequence does inaugurate the pair’s plans to murder David and Bonnie, but its narrative function is incidental due to the Buñuelian disregard for religious sanctity.
Accordingly, Waters’s film is the ultimate fusing of arthouse and grindhouse with its wall-to-wall band of misfits, thieves, murderers, schemers, and rapists. They’re presented in no uncertain terms as antisocial, irreverent people, yet there’s no pretense of the documentary realism here which plagues other films that attempt to naturalize their ethnographic interests. That’s because Waters constructs absurdist satire rather than neorealism, utilizing street locations and guerilla filmmaking techniques to reverse the modernist aims of most European art cinema from the era. It’s difficult to image anyone other than Waters giving his protagonist the immortal line: “I’d been raped before, but never in such an unnatural and brutal way.”
Evaluating Multiple Maniacs against its contemporaries is a curious task. The film shares a handheld visual style akin to John Cassavetes’s Faces, an interest in sexual subcultures shared by Paul Morrissey’s Flesh, and foreshadows the violent conflict between a Manson-like crew and a suburban family in Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Yet Waters’s film is the strangest of the lot, introducing characters and interactions that have no singular progenitor or referent. Divine’s line deliveries alone, a mix of anger and ease, of savagery and understanding, comprise a novel formation of post-lib gender play, in which verbal and physical displays of violence deny the “peace and love” ethos of the time by dismantling simple constructions of right and wrong.
And yet, it would be inaccurate to assert that Multiple Maniacs has no sense of either moral compass or its characters’ relationship with elements from the real world. Rather, Waters implies that art cannot make rigid sense of these issues, for doing so, especially in a socially directive manner, risks extolling one’s own political sensibilities in place of fortifying empirical expressions of difference, depraved or otherwise.