Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival is an odd film.
Equal parts horror, musical, comedy, and drama with an aesthetic that marries a 70’s Italian horror film and old Hollywood glamour, meshing them together like Busby Berkeley on acid.
Amidst the at-times nightmarish surreal visuals, cartoonish performances, and heavy-hitting musical numbers, the glaring subtext might go unnoticed. This is a film about an oppressive patriarchal society and the growing, violent unrest of those cast out by it.
Heaven is presented as a glamorous hollywood film studio with its new arrivals designated as applicants each eager to take part in Heavenly Films Productions tales of morality, all penned by an all-knowing, all-wise creator. The rules of heaven are rigid. They are not meant to question, only to accept God’s wisdom. They’re each given armbands reminiscent of fascist dictatorships, each with a number assigning them a chosen station. All of these stations are named after various animals, with the top being the companions who have various levels of authority and privileges as well as audiences with the Almighty God himself, and at the bottom, lowly stable animals forced to do menial labor.
Those filling the lowest rank are women.
None of this is particularly subtle, or even subtext. It’s a story told by the devil as he lays out God’s fascism and the plight of heaven’s minority groups. One of the characters, an applicant named Cora, is even explicitly told that the love she has for the protagonist June, is illegal. Her queerness is weaponized and used against her for blackmail; she’s threatened to not only be outed to those around her, but cast out of heaven.
For me, having dealt with growing up gay and genderqueer in a religious community, this point of the narrative really stung. Like me, Cora wasn’t immediately thrown out for her otherness, but most definitely pointed out to her in a particularly vile and insidious manner.
We’re warned to straighten up—no pun intended—to get our act together and get conforming or else. The "or else" of course being thrown out, ejected from whatever privileges we’re allowed. It’s telling that Cora must uphold the heteronormative standards and reject the woman she loves, or endure the same punishment that June later receives, barbaric harassment before being dumped on the doorsteps of hell.
June and Cora are on the big intersectional dumping grounds of misogyny in heaven’s hypocrite patriarchy. As queer women, they are forced to hide that queerness so they can keep whatever station is relegated to them as women. There are no visible female figures in any realm of authority, save for one of the Translators, Heaven’s version of the gestapo. The only role for a woman in a patriarchal society is either subservient, or violently upholding the status quo.
One woman upsets God merely because her cheeks are frowning, and he orders his Agent to have her fixed. When we later see her, she has been indeed fixed: her mouth is permanently fixed into a permanent ghoulish grin.
I feel the "mortal implications" of this scene are pretty fucking frank.
And what is June’s crime? Through her dialogue and flirtations, it can be assumed that June reciprocates Cora’s feelings for her, but she is also seen throughout the film kissing and dating the Agent, God’s lapdog. If her queerness is hidden from view, she remains fairly straight-passing to the onlookers of heaven, and in this way we can see the reality of queer and pansexual women who hold "passing privilege"—an erasure of their identity coupled with near-constant effort to undermine that identity and expose them as one or the other, the right or the wrong kind of gay or straight or whatever, no matter how well they "pass" as straight.
It’s likely deliberate that the man who exposes Cora and June is seen constantly writing newspaper articles and carrying around a gaudy antique camera.
The final straw for June is when she seeks knowledge in the banned books section of God’s library. There’s some deliberate biblical imagery relating to the fall of Adam and Eve—she questions why others were privileged and she is not, and that she seeks more than her lot in life. She dares to question it, and is cast out of heaven.
“The moral of heaven?” The devil ponders. “Tis better to be content with one’s lot than to desire things one is told they’re not fit to receive. And people say I’m the cruel one!”
Marginalized people can find a place in a heteronormative society, so long as that status quo is never questioned nor threatened. Women in particular are often forced into silence for daring speak about the harassment they’ve faced. It’s a narrative that allows those who’d enforce the status quo a modicum of tolerance and acceptance, albeit with the heavy reminder that we are to know our place, to fall in line as the chorus of the song would suggest.
The same musical number ends with the man pointing to the higher number on his armband, reminding all the stable animals of his place and theirs.
Contrast Heaven’s rigid structures with that of Hell, a chaotic carnival of horrors full of bitter abused individuals, cast out and humiliated by God. It is no safe haven for poor June, as she’s quickly taken advantage of and her tragedy mocked even by those who should be the most sympathetic to her plight.
Many queer people can tell you how they fled their abusive homes and right into the arms of what they thought would be a loving community, only to find the same rigid patriarchal standards and heteronormative practices that made them outcasts to begin with. Hell is on the very edge of becoming those things, begrudgingly keeping to the same standards God enforces on them.
Sinners are still punished and tortured, just as God wants them to be.
The devil readily admits that Hell has become an imitation of Heaven, that the same toxicity and oppression that he despises from God has found its home in the carnival he’s built. He recognizes the need for change—that’s why he is picking up arms and preparing for war.
This is revolutionary. It’s the same kind of attitude I wish I could see reflected more in queer communities. I’d love for gay male culture to reject the body-shaming and racism that pervades our social and dating scenes. I’d love it if radical feminists understood that their transphobia is a leftover from the same patriarchal abuse we are all fighting.
In Hell, June is allowed to recreate her identity as the Painted Doll and embrace all those things about herself that she kept in hushed secrets for fear of discovery. She becomes bitter and mean, but also powerful. The devil lets her in on his plan to wage war against God, and that includes her own revenge against her former lover, the Agent, the man who abused and deceived her. There’s a celebration in this bit, a middle finger to a society that has cast you out and it’s done in song and dance and lurid lights.
It’s queer femme revenge laced with arsenic.
The film is a call-to-arms as well as a demand to rejoice in your otherness. It recognizes the tragedy most of us share in our histories, the sordid tales that led to us becoming who we are, but then dons that tragedy as armor. It also reminds us to be cautious to reject the patriarchal standards that have infected our communities.
There’s also something extremely empowering here for me personally, as someone who was told repeatedly that my sexuality would send me to hell, that in hell it’s where the Painted Doll finds both revenge and power.
Vindication feels good.