Below are my notes for Chapters 2 and 3 of Violent Women in Contemporary Cinema by Janice Loreck.
CHAPTER 2: Science, sensation and the Female Monster: Trouble Every Day
- Animal-women, bestial aliens and wild human-hybrids are among the most enduring types of violent women in cinema.
- people affected by a mysterious illness that compels them to viciously attack their sexual partners, resulting in several gruesome scenes that the film shows in intimate detail
- Their stories centre on scientific voyeurism: in Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009), for example, the animal-woman is an experiment in genetic engineering; in Species, she is an alien-human hybrid raised in a lab; in Cat People, she is treated as a neurotic and hypochondriac; in Captive Wild Woman, she is once again a scientific experiment, this time in the human endocrine system.
The monster as ‘curiosity’
- She is therefore a feminine object of a masculine scientific drive for knowledge.
- However, whereas the Woman regularly describes and reflects upon her own experiences during therapy (and therefore has agency in her own treatment) Coré’s affliction renders her virtually mute and helpless.
- Coré is an object to be ‘aggressively revealed, unmasked, discovered’ by the investigators in the story, and, by extension, the spectator
- This figure is a female monster, either artificially created or naturally occurring, whose anoma- lousness positions her as both a terrifying antagonist and an epistemo- logically arousing object of enquiry.
- The scientist typically has two responsibilities that are in direct conflict with one another.
- Firstly, his own desire for knowledge compels him to study the female curiosity. Usually, the woman possesses physical attributes that make her a tantalising object of enquiry.
- Secondly, the scientist must also contain the woman, a task that is usually incompatible with his desire to unlock her secrets.
- Her very subjectivity is antagonistic; in her unknowability, she challenges the scientist’s persona as a possessor of knowledge.
- On one hand, the female monster’s death and the destruction of her body can be interpreted as an ideological manoeuvre. By removing the threat that she poses to masculine scientific knowledge, the film reinstates patriarchal authority.
Vision and Sensation
- the film seems to intrude on the personal space of the spectator
- earlier representations of female ‘freaks’ and oddities by reversing the way that subjectivity and monstrousness are engendered by more distanced, voyeuristic modes of spectatorship
- Mise-en-scène and narrative invite an epistemophilic mode of looking in relation to the female monster as a curiosity, either by literally objec- tifying the woman in the diegesis or by positioning the onlooker in terms of his or her remoteness to the female specimen.
- These scientific horror films also enforce distance between the monster and the scientist (and spectator) through the use of props and sets.
- Sometimes the female monster will quite literally be kept in a cage or vessel within a labora- tory, surrounded by the paraphernalia of remote scientific observation such as microscopes and computer monitors.
- In her study of the monstrous-feminine in cinema, Barbara Creed argues that cuts to a black screen like this one represent an abyss: ‘the cannibalizing black hole from which all life comes and to which all life returns’ (1993: 25).
- These brief moments where the films’ aesthetic conveys the collapsing of distance between the female monster and her victim tend to be a catastrophic consequence of the scientists’ failure to control the violent female;
- however, they tend to be fleeting moments, with the film quickly restoring a distanced, monocular perspective
- aesthetic of abjection
- Defined literally as that which is ‘cast off’, abjection involves an experience of the pre-Symbolic: the things that have been culturally and psy- chically rejected in order to accede to subjectivity.
- According to Creed, the ‘images of abjection’ that are frequently found in horror cinema include blood and viscera, corpses, saliva, sweat and tears (1993: 10); substances that exemplify the abject or ‘not me’
- “work of abjection” or “abjection at work”’
- Representations of the abject onscreen can inspire a sense of defilement in the spectator; to illustrate this, Creed cites the colloquial expressions for a particularly frightening horror film such as ‘it “made me sick” or “scared the shit out of me”
- This tactile, abject visuality influences the film’s inscription of violent female subjectivity at the same time as it breaks with generic expectations of it as a ‘restrained’ art film.
- The film positions the spectator into an experience of ontological encounter with the transgressive woman.
- Rather than differentiation, this produces an equivalence between the subject and the Other that is facilitated through the processes of spectatorship initiated in the film.
Sound, space and monstrous encounters
- troubles the spectator’s orientation by generating a sense of bodily invasion.
- This contrasts with the way that the classic horror discovery plot engenders monstrous female Otherness; instead of enabling a unified and separate voyeuristic gaze, tactile sound in Trouble Every Day enacts contact between the spectator and the violent woman.
- sounds evoke a sense of contact
- This haptic sound positions the listener in terms of his or her proximity to the monster herself, as well as a sympathetic experi- ence of the onscreen events.
- Sound here suggests an encounter – a collapsing of clinical observation – that positions the listener not as a discrete, masterful subjectivity but in terms of his or her fluid proximity to Coré.
- horror films frequently use cinematographic techniques, such as zooms and tracking shots, to implicate the spectator’s body in encounters with the monster onscreen
- Some films figure the monster as literally repulsive – their victims flinch, look away or shield themselves upon encountering the terrifying creature – whereas other horror films convey the monster’s attraction or pull.
- smooth space is immersive and undifferentiated, whereas striated space is ‘in principle infinite, open, and unlimited in every direction; it has neither top nor bottom nor cen- tre; it does not assign fixed and mobile elements but rather distributes a continuous variation’
- This abyss, she writes, represents the archaic mother figure that is explicitly associated with the maternal body
- ‘boundaries, designed to keep the abject at bay, threaten to disintegrate, collapse’, explains Creed (1993: 29),
- whereas Marks suggests that smooth space ‘does something to dissolve the boundaries between the beholder and the thing beheld’ (2004: 80).
- For Marks, smooth space is also evocative of haptic sensation; because smooth space is immersive, it is ‘felt’ on the spectator’s body.
- The film’s depiction of smooth space positions the spectator into a contaminating closeness with Coré as the violent female monster.
- As Marks explains, this embodied immersion in space dismantles the rigid construction of distance between the self and other that is called into place by the scopic regimes of classical narrative cinema, producing a sensation of being closer to the object, even ‘the possibility of one becoming the other’
- Trouble Every Day enacts an encounter with the violent female Other, insisting that she is not an entity to be quarantined and controlled by patriarchal power, but an otherness that can trouble the very metaphysical foundations upon which masculine subjectivity is conceptualised as a discrete and sovereign wholeness.
- Both are wary of the kind of scientific, hierarchical, masculine knowledge that erects divisions between subjects and simultaneously creates the female enigma.
- Whereas von Trier’s film engenders the violent woman by manipulating spectators’ expectations of the film’s art cinema genericity, Denis’s text interrogates the categories of human personhood by provoking an embodied, sensory horror reaction in the spectator.
- As such, the world of Trouble Every Day is one where violent men and aggressive women possess an ontological contiguity.
- To express this, the film creates a viewing experience that promotes closeness and, at least for the film’s running time, breaks down barriers between the violent woman and the onlooker.
- Trouble Every Day is therefore best described as a filmic thought- experiment that queries the nature of selfhood, mobilising the violent woman to destabilise gender, humanity, violence and monstrosity.
- Trouble Every Day answers the desire to know the violent woman by challenging fixed notions of subjectivity and otherness altogether.
CHAPTER 3: Sex and Self-Expression: Fatal Women in Baise-moi
- One of the most enduring images of female violence in the Western cultural tradition is that of the dangerous seductress.
- This continuing association between female eroticism and malicious intent has led Alice Myers and Sarah Wight to declare that all women’s violence is framed in terms of gender difference and sexuality:
- ‘[W]hen a woman commits an act of criminal violence,’ they write, ‘her sex is the lens through which all of her actions are seen and understood’ (1996: xi).
- Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry go further, arguing that ‘a woman’s violence is a sexual event’ (2007: 46) (original emphasis).
- A cursory survey of cinematic representation since the 1940s shows that films frame a woman’s aggression as contiguous with her sexuality in a variety of different ways.
- Some films represent women’s allure as both a means of obfuscating her nature and as a weapon to be wielded against men.
- Other films equate feminine sexuality with a more ontological danger; for example, the abject female monsters of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) horrify because they expose ‘the fragility’ of the symbolic order that governs masculine subjectivity (Creed 1986: 48).
- Other films position a violent woman’s sexuality as evidence of her all-encompassing corruption
- women’s violence see these murder- esses as ‘motivated by their overwhelming perversion
Reframing sex in Baise-moi
- Sexually explicit sex acts are once again appearing in esthetically ambitious films depicting complex and explicit sexual relations that are neither the whole point of the film (as in pornography) nor tacked on gratuitously (as in soft-core ‘exploitation’).
- Instead, sex has an expressive function in Baise-moi insofar as it shows Nadine and Manu’s subjectivity as marginalised women.
- Put another way: whereas a woman’s sexuality is often used as a point of occlusion – or, conversely, of visual objectification – Baise-moi is an exploration of Nadine and Manu’s experiences as subjects of a particular milieu.
- the film is about ‘wounded women, abused by and used by men, by women, by the world’ and is therefore an ‘exploration of two women of the underclass’.
- Hetero-erotic spectacle in Baise-moi therefore operates as an expressive strategy that represents Nadine and Manu’s experience – their boredom, their social and cultural milieu, and their identities as violent women.
- Critics link the film’s hetero-erotic spectacle with a filmic milieu that possesses particular creative goals: specifically, the representation of human experience.
Visual Culture and Identity
- the film itself also frames its sex scenes as expressions of the protagonists’ identity
- Baise-moi shows Nadine and Manu’s sexual encounters using an aesthetic that Linda Williams calls ‘maximum visibility’: the defining characteristic of mainstream pornography. Williams observes that the principle of maximum visibility can manifest in a variety of different stylistic regimes; however, its enduring goal is to make the sex act as visible as possible. Common aesthetics include ‘close-ups of body parts’, the lighting of ‘easily obscured genitals’, the use of ‘sexual positions that show the most of bodies and organs’ and, very importantly, the image of ejaculation
- Rather than adding these scenes to sate an objectifying male gaze, Baise-moi uses maximum visibility to communicate the classed and gendered conditions of the protagonists’ experience. Specifically, the aesthetic produces them as women whose lives are shaped by the sex industry and saturated with pornographic imagery; where sex is frank, utilitarian and brief.
- Maximum visibility becomes a way of conveying Nadine and Manu’s position as subjects of a particular marginalised economic, sexual and cultural milieu.
- ‘framed by various realist modalities . . . to reveal the emotional, experiential and social realities of sex and sexuality’ (2006: 43).
- The way that Baise-moi establishes this sense of authenticity contrasts with one of the classical femme fatale’s deadliest characteristics: her ability to falsify sexual interest.
- Sex scenes in pornography therefore attempt to ‘force’ women into similarly observable displays of sexual pleasure.
- This explains the prevalence of coercive sex in pornography where a woman is ‘made’ to experience pleasure through forced intercourse.
- Williams argues that the logic of maximum visibility cannot represent female pleasure, partly because women’s orgasms are an internal physiological response that have no parallel with the male ‘standard of evidence’ (1989: 49–50).
- The logic of maximum visibility therefore coerces female sexuality into phallocentric schema of meaning.
- Baise-moi frames these scenes as an expression of Nadine and Manu’s sexual experience and enjoyment, comprising the very aesthetic that pervades the protagonists’ world.
Maximum Visibility and Emotion
- exposing the inner emotional experience of its two protagonists
- ‘the wobbling flesh is all too tragically human’
- ‘There’s a joyousness and abandon here that hints at another, more pleasurable world . . . beyond the brutality’ (2001: n.p.).
- Instead of arguing that the erotic sequences are base and emotionless, these critics suggest that such moments contribute to the personal expressivity of Baise-moi.
- Bainbridge suggests that cinema can therefore represent sub- jectivity by externalising the subject’s internal life, with emotions acting as both evidence and an affirmation of personal experience
Returning the Gaze
- I have argued that hetero-erotic spectacle takes up a special role in Baise-moi, wherein it operates to signify the violent woman’s subjectivity. However, I have not countered the argument, made by several researchers, that cinema objectifies the violent woman.
- Christine Holmlund argues that beautiful, violent heroines ‘are not nec- essarily a cause for feminist jubilation’ because their subversiveness is limited by their eroticised presentation.
- They are almost always ‘white, lithe and lovely’ and do not necessarily represent the far less glamorous personas of real women who kill
- classical cinema produces women in terms of their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, indicating that a structuring, scopophilic masculinity engenders their representation.
- O’Day posits that the action heroine’s beauty ‘allays’ the transgression that her violence makes to normative gender categories
- Whereas ‘traditional’ spectatorship theory (or, more specifically, the psychoanalytic model that hypothesises the possibility of voyeuristic pleasure) presumes a unidirectional gaze between the spectator and the screen, the filmic strategy of ‘looking back’ brings the spectator into an awareness of his or her subjectivity in relation to the depictions onscreen.
- Maximum visibility and other forms of erotic spectacle can change how subject positions are inscribed in the cinematic apparatus.
- This mode of spectatorship has implications for how the woman is represented, chiefly because it inscribes her as another subject rather than an objectified Other to a masculine gaze.
- Baise-moi uses maximum visibility to ‘look back’ at the spectator. Whereas most films introduce their ‘fatal women’ or ‘babe heroines’ in ways that quickly establish their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, maximally vis- ible scenes in Baise-moi acknowledge the spectator in ways that disrupt voyeuristic visual pleasure.
- Instead of titillating the onlooker, however, the combination of sexual violence and maximum visibility in the rape scene ‘looks back’ at spectators
- However, the rapists’ aggression haunts the scene as a potential point of identification for the spectator. Viewers can imagine a sadistic response to the sequence (even if they, themselves, do not expe- rience such a reaction) and may strongly wish not to identify with the attackers.
- The possibility of pleasure in the men’s violence thus exists as a hypothetical response to the rape scene. It operates as a fantasy, a negative way of relating to the film, in the mind of the spectator.
- Triadic identification occurs when a spectator momentarily identifies with an imagined (and usually policing) societal gaze: a ‘third’ look that intervenes in the relationship between text and spectator.
- In particular, when a spectator suddenly becomes aware that he or she is watching material that the broader society might deem inappropriate, he or she may experience intense feelings of shame and self-awareness.
- As Laine explains, this occurs because spectators internalise societal norms that operate as an imag- ined look – ‘the “panoptic” look of the larger social structures’
- the voyeur can only feel shame once he or she conceptualises the Other as a subject and identifies with the Other’s gaze. With the realisation that oneself exists as an object for the Other, the Other therefore becomes a subject, an individual, in the mind of the voyeur.
- When women kill in cinema, sex very often precedes, follows or precipitates their violence.
- As Sjoberg and Gentry observe, ‘women’s involvement in sexual activity is somehow always closely linked to women’s violence’
- Popular genres that link female violence and sex emphasise the woman’s hetero-erotic appeal in ways that betray an organising voyeuristic subjectivity inscribed in the text.
- Drawing on the aesthetic of maximum visibility, the film positions the onlooker in a relationship of anti-voyeurism to the text
- It is a film that wants to avoid the coercion – or the ‘magic trick’ – of forcing violent women to speak about their intimate sexual subjectiv- ity. Instead, Nadine and Manu unmask themselves using the very por- nographic idiom that they are familiar with (and, controversially, that objectifies them as women).
- Indeed, the sex scenes between the Man and Woman, which are often bitter and violent, underscore the lack of communication between the two.
- At one point, the Woman demands that the Man slap her across the face while the two are intimate together; later, she attacks him at a vulnerable moment during intercourse.
- Baise-Moi is a film about violent ‘lower class’ women, made by supposedly marginal women. The mainstream doesn’t want to hear about people with nothing, the disenfranchised, the margin- als, taking up arms and killing people for fun and money. It hap- pens, of course, but we’re not allowed to acknowledge it.
- As these comments suggest, Baise-moi is a film that uncompromisingly relates the violent woman’s experience to the spectator, even if this process involves exposing audiences to aspects of Nadine and Manu’s lives that they may not wish to confront.
- To know the violent woman in Baise-moi is to witness all parts of her experience: her hedonistic pleasures, her sexual victimisation and her brutality.