‘Love Lies Bleeding’ Brussels Premiere Marred by Homophobia, Toxicity and Violence: ‘Things Spun Wildly Out of Hand’

Chaos reigned at the Brussels premiere of “Love Lies Bleeding” on Saturday, after a barrage of homophobic and misogynistic comments during the screening led to a mass walkout followed by retaliatory protests and a police response. More than 60 queer women stormed out of the regional premiere once the screening turned toxic, while screening organizers claim at least three instances of physical violence.

“Things spun wildly out of hand,” attendee Elina Fischer tells Variety. Calling their experience “traumatic and horrible,” Fischer adds: “We were afraid for our lives, because the kinds of people who say such things during a film screening are the kinds of people who assault us. So we got scared and had to get out.”

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After premiering to critical acclaim out of Sundance and Berlin, Rose Glass’ A24-produced thriller has yet to see wide release in Francophone Europe – making the recent screening at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF) a galvanizing first-look event that pulled in two markedly different audiences, polarizing them to disastrous effect. (Belgian distributor The Searchers will release the film later this year.)

While the Brussels fest has built a reputation on boisterous screenings animated by ribald interaction – with a smart aleck vibe akin to “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and a loyal audience that leans male and geeky – a younger, queerer, more female-skewing crowd flocked to the Saturday premiere for the chance to see Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian ignite on the big screen (though the stars were not in attendance). Unfortunately, sparks flew in the 1,400-seat auditorium as well.

Attendees tell Variety that the screening’s erstwhile irreverent commentary soon curdled into more disturbing – and, more to the point, legally dubious – extremes once the film’s same-sex romance took the forefront. Love scenes were met with homophobic heckles and jeers, while an instance of sexual coercion drew applause.

Festival representatives corroborate this account, but insist that the ugliness came from a small segment of the crowd. “10 people out of 1,400 is already 10 too many,” says BIFFF press chief Jonathan Lenaerts.

‘Love Lies Bleeding’
‘Love Lies Bleeding’

The attendees outlined some the screening’s worst moments as part of a longer statement they shared with Variety: “We know the difference between standard jokes and lesbophobic insults and commentary. When audience members applaud during [what we feel to be] a rape scene, when they pantomime masturbation and catcall the actresses on screen by shouting ‘get naked,’ ‘she wants cock,’ ‘disgusting,’ and ‘dirty dykes’ at the slightest scene of lesbian intimacy, once spectators stand up to leave the theater or ask for respect, only to be booed, insulted and physically assaulted, and once dozens of lesbians leave the theater in tears, dirtied, degraded and shocked, we can’t speak of a ‘good-natured’ atmosphere.”

The first walkouts began at around the 20-minute mark, while others from the queer community stayed in to push back against the audience commentary. Both parties confirm that some altercations turned from verbal to physical as tempers flared — though the question of instigation leads to predictably contrasting responses. Still, both would agree that the rise in hostility gave way to a similar rise in invective, leading to barbs with a hateful bite.

“Once we stood up, we started hearing insults directed at us,” says an attendee who goes by Næ Palm. “It became something much nastier. Violent. We were overwhelmed, crying and we said to each other that this wasn’t normal.”

Such heated language fueled a growing exodus – eventually seeing somewhere between 60 and 80 attendees regrouping in the cinema lobby. There, the young viewers began to push back en masse.

In lieu of admission refunds, the protesters pushed against the very event – asking that the show be cut short. When festival organizers opted against that request, the incensed attendees became more vocal in their protests, looking to interrupt the screening from the outside before local law enforcement arrived to break up the demonstration.

“We shouted so that they could hear us inside too, to spoil their experience of the film a bit, just as they had spoiled ours,” Palm says.

BIFFF’s Jonathan Lenaerts confirms that the festival called the police to break up the protest and to ensure that the nearly sold-out show could continue. With no further festival dates planned and the wider release not yet dated, Saturday’s chaotic evening was for many an eagerly awaited opportunity to see “Love Lies Bleeding” on the big screen — a fact that makes the BIFFF’s interest in the title all the more bittersweet.

“We had programmed this film specifically because it touched on the LGBT community,” Lenaerts says. “We thought it was great that [this kind of] fantasy filmmaking was also opening to this community, giving us the perfect opportunity to welcome a new audience to our festival.”

Few would argue that the gambit paid off, though Lenaerts hopes to keep trying.

“We have a duty to contextualize,” he says. “To make sure that all communities feel welcome and on the same footing. The humor in the room should never be targeted and mean spirited, and all exceptions are intolerable. To be frank, a gram of shit will spoil a kilo of caviar, and right now, we’re going to do everything we can to remove that gram of shit. We will take direct measures: If someone makes inappropriate comments, they’ll be immediately thrown out.”

Still, the festival might have some ways to go to make this new audience feel welcome — or seen. On Sunday, BIFFF released a statement calling the previous evening’s events “unacceptable” and apologizing to the audience for “discriminatory remarks against any community.” Only the release made no explicit mention as to the nature of those inflammatory remarks, a point not lost on many of those who felt targeted.

“The press release makes absolutely no apology, and takes absolutely no responsibility for making a mistake,” Palm says. “The BIFFF – and festivals in general – should recognize that their films are not neutral, that some have a political value, something to say about certain communities, as was the case with the lesbian community here. And it was a mistake to present this film without any context or preparation — especially for such an audience.”

“This film represents us,” Fischer says. “It was made for and by our community, so to have our experience ruined by homophobes is terrible. We all feel very sad, shocked and angry, because we feel that our position cannot exist without attack. [The fight against] homophobia still has a long way to go.”

“We’ve really been robbed of something, robbed of our moment,” Palm adds.

In a further statement on Wednesday night, BIFFF organizers said they plan to “improve the training of our volunteers” and have decided to remind audience members of festival rules “before each screening with a slide and video clip.” The fest also said it has increased security in its theaters.

“We cannot accept that the BIFFF is being described as ‘homophobic, transphobic and lesbophobic’ without any nuance,” the statement reads. “We have been working for 42 years to ensure inclusivity and diversity in our selection, our events, our guests, our audiences and our juries. The festival, just as society in general, must evolve.”

A24 did not immediately respond to Variety‘s request for comment.

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