John Waters' cult-movie par excellence will be presented once again to the public at the Locarno Film Festival in the original Odorama version, in order to allow viewers to relive the experience that the filmmaker had originally invented for his 1981 film.
Commonly recognized as a trash homage to the poetics of Douglas Sirk, Polyester is a feature film even more cinephile than it appears on the surface. The most enthusiastic horror movie fans will be able to see small but visible references to masterpieces of the genre such as John Carpenter's Halloween or George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Not to mention the prologue with the mad scientist who introduces Odorama, which seems to have come directly from a Mel Brooks parody.
The main setting of the film is, as usual, the wealthy and bourgeois American suburbs, in this case that of his native Baltimore. From the very first scene Waters explicitly states his intention to target the very heart of society, namely the family institution: the protagonist of the story is Francine Fishpaw, a dissatisfied mother who tries to keep together a nucleus composed of the abusive and drunken husband, a foot fetishist maniac son and a daughter who thinks only of having a good time with the delinquent of the moment. When Waters chooses to broaden the scope of his criticism and goes beyond the simple depiction of the family, he then inserts into the film a cult scene in which the "Rebel without a cause", strictly white, literally (and metaphorically) takes aim at minorities such as Asians, Jews and obviously Afro-Americans, as if to indicate that the effects of the decay hidden within the walls of the home inevitably spread through the folds in the fabric of society.
Using the distorting lens of the grotesque as the main process to overturn common good taste, Polyester develops along a very precise narrative line, in which the exuberant body of Divine in a state of grace almost seems to dictate the film's aesthetic rules. The way of the cross to which Francine more or less deliberately submits herself visually is a tour de force which is still difficult to absorb today: thirty-eight years after its release Polyester succeeds incredibly to disturb the audience without necessarily shocking it, and this in fact becomes a process all the more disturbing because it does not stop at the surface of the scene. Nothing, or almost nothing, is spared by Waters' lashing streak: also, the places that in theory should represent a moment of comfort for tortured psychologies become small scenes of the woman's personal hell in this film. From this perspective, the short but atrocious scene set during the Alcoholics Anonymous session represents the "lowest" and paradoxically "highest" point of Polyester's subversive poetics, the acrobat's summit of John Waters' filmography.