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Film 299 Post

F299: Research Update #11

Below are my notes for the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Violent Women in Contemporary Cinema by Janice Loreck.

INTRODUCTION

  • Although a man’s violence might be represented as heroic or villainous, rarely is his capacity for physical aggression depicted as problematic in and of itself. When a woman commits an act of violence, her behaviour – indeed, her very existence – causes profound unease and questioning. 
  • The past century has seen a range of violent women appear on cinema screens, such as the femmes fatales of 1930s and 1940s film noir, the female freaks and monsters of 1950s horror films, the vigilante heroines of 1970s blaxploitation, and the beautiful warriors of late 1990s and early 2000s action cinema. Popular cinema of the past decade has showcased dozens of such character types. Athletic protagonists feature in Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014) and Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, 2011); violent girls appear in Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) and Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2011); female avengers populate Kill Bill Vols 1 & 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003; 2004) and The Brave One (Neil Jordan, 2007); and psychotic murderesses star in Excision (Richard Bates, Jr, 2012) and Nurse 3D (Doug Aarniokoski, 2013). 
  • These texts indicate that the violent woman’s transgressive subjectivity is under negotiation within multiple milieus of film culture. 
  • they also initiate a discussion about female violence, an act that signals their consequence in the broader culture’s exploration of gendered identities. 
  • In History of Animals, Aristotle describes females as ‘more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears . . . more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action’. Although the origins of this concept are millennia old, the idea of female non-aggression continues to manifest in all manner of contemporary discourses (even those that are seen as ideologically opposed to one another). As Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry write, ‘A conservative interpretation [of gender] sees women as peaceful and apolitical, a liberal view understands women as a pacifying influence on politics, and feminists who study global politics often critique the masculine violence of interstate relations’     
  • At the same time, however, madwomen, female monsters and killers are ubiquitous in global narrative traditions in ways that suggest that women have an innate capacity for vindictive cruelty; that they are, so to speak, ‘more deadly than the male’. 
  • ‘Women’s violence falls outside of . . . ideal-typical understanding of what it means to be a woman’ because ‘women are not supposed to be violent’ (2007: 2) (original emphasis). Moreover, as observed by Hilary Neroni, the violent woman is a disruptive figure who overturns ‘the ideological structures (most especially those involving gender) that regulate our experiences’ (2005: x). Whether they are depicted as heroines, villainesses or morally ambiguous characters, women who harm other people are challenging, ‘difficult’ subjects who undermine some of the most entrenched gender norms of Western culture. 

Violent Women in Cinema

  • observe that ‘a rich and diverse literature’ surrounds women who commit acts of violence onscreen 
  • ‘film-as-cultural-symptom’ hypothesis – sees the violent woman as a product of changing cultural attitudes about gender. Researchers such as Frank Krutnik have linked the femmes fatales of the original film noir cycle to the upheavals in the workforce and family during the 1940s post-war period (1991: 63); Stephane Dunn and Yvonne D. Sims associate blaxploitation vigilantes with second- wave feminism and the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s (Dunn 2008: 126; Sims 2006: 26); Lisa Coulthard and Rebecca Stringer connect popular action heroines to the post-feminist and neoliberalist eras of the 1990s (Coulthard 2007: 154–5; Stringer 2011: 269). Such research conceptualises the violent woman as a textual manifestation of an anxiety, trauma or ambivalence about gender that is characteristic of a particular historical moment. 
  • The other most common critical means of assessing the violent woman in popular cinema has been to investigate her as a trope of a specific genre, such as horror, film noir, action, slasher film, rape- revenge or exploitation.  
  • more recent work by Sherrie A. Inness (2004) and Marc O’Day (2004) on the action cin- emas of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Jacinda Read (2000) and Barbara Creed (1993) on the rape-revenge cycle, and Dunn (2008) and Sims (2006) on 1970s blaxploitation. In most cases, these studies’ primary goal is to give an account of how the violent woman integrates with the tropes, pleasures or functioning of a chosen genre. For instance, the work of O’Day, Inness and Dunn singles out narra- tive agency and display of corporeal utility as key traits of the violent woman in action and blaxploitation; such traits are essential to ensur- ing the forward momentum of these genres’ plots. Similarly, according to Creed’s analysis of horror cinema, the female monster complements the genre’s raison d’être: that is, she horrifies audiences with her abjec- tion (1993: 7). Another example is Mary Ann Doane’s analysis of the femme fatale, in which she states that the fatal woman’s deviousness integrates with the investigative, ‘hermeneutic drive’ of the hard-boiled noir film 
  • These scholars conceptualise women’s violence as indicative of a mode of existence that arises from living as a woman in a phallocentric, patriarchal society. Violence has a metaphoric function, gesturing towards the specificity of women’s experience in a culture that elides female subjectivity. 

Women’s violence and filmic taste-categories

  • A survey of the violent woman in cinema shows that she appears prolifically in ‘low’ cultural forms such as exploitation cinema 
  • all of the films considered in this book present the violent woman as a complicated individual, making her available for scrutiny and contemplation. 

The violent woman as an enigma

  • observe that female murderers are ‘othered’ as a means of dealing with the challenge they make to gender norms. 
  • contemporary cultural discourses ‘have fully othered the vio- lent woman’ by constructing them as biological or psychological oddi- ties: such women ‘are not women at all, but singular mistakes and freak accidents’ (2007: 13). In her examination of legal discourses, Morrissey argues that prosecutors do not allow for the possibility of female violence, instead characterising women who kill as victims of circumstance rather than possessing a capacity for aggression. For Morrissey, this reveals ‘the exclusionary operation of discursive identity formation’ which cannot conceive of women as anything other than passive victims of violence (2003: 3). In such conceptions, the notions of the ‘subject’ and the ‘Other’ that these scholars use refer to personhood as an effect of structure; that is to say, the subject (and by implication the violent woman) is not an essential being but is produced by the systems and actions of language known as discourse. Such systems and actions, for Sjoberg, Gentry and Morrissey, disallow female violence, framing it as an unnatural phenomenon. 
  • Such reports represent the violent woman as an inscrutable or shape-shifting figure who is defined by mystery and elusiveness. 
  • the paradigmatic expression of this in film culture is the figure of the duplicitous femme fatale, a female character who is unpredictable and ‘never what she appears to be’ 
  • Julie Grossman notes that the conceptualisation of the femme fatale as unknowable overlooks the oft-complex representations of women in the genre: ‘the opaque powerful woman persists in objectifying female experience,’ she writes, because ‘the “femme fatale” is a symbol of fears about absolute female power, not a representation of complex female experience . . . which is often present in connection with film noir’s women’ (2009: 5). In addition, violent men are also occasionally presented as enigmatic or Other. 
  • That said, the association between femininity and mystery is culturally pervasive to the point where it becomes a dominant framework or reference point for women’s violence. Indeed, while Grossman criticises the insistent figuring of the femme fatale as an enigma, the fact that this has been a historically prevalent way of thinking about women in film noir indicates that the enigma has a powerful cultural existence as a concept. 
  • A key issue at stake in films that depict the homicidal woman is therefore how they respond to her construction as ‘an epistemological trauma’ or mystery. The characterisation of the violent woman as a problem in need of resolution meshes with the expectation that art and ‘quality’ cinema will explore the intricacies of human personhood for the spectator’s pleasure. 
  • This book therefore examines how each film attempts to make women’s violent personhood intelligible or, at the very least, interrogate how her mystery has been formed. 

Violent women in contemporary cinema

  • As Neroni writes, present-day culture is marked by an inabil- ity ‘to comprehend the complexities of femininity as an identity that includes violence’ (2005: 161). I argue that the films examined in this book not only encourage the spectator to consciously engage with such complexities; they also present this engagement as a central viewing pleasure for the spectator. 

CHAPTER 1: Horror, Hysteria and Female Malaise: Antichrist

  • The depiction of a violent, psychologically disturbed woman in Antichrist recalls the diagnosis of hysteria, a pre- dominantly feminine disease of both the mind and body 
  • The term originates from the Greek ‘hystera’ meaning ‘uterus’, and one of the earliest accounts of a hysteria-like illness is found in Plato’s Timaeus, in which he describes the disorder as the consequence of a distressed, ‘unfruitful’ uterus that moves around the body, obstructing respiration (2014: 132). Antichrist similarly links the female protago- nist’s aggression to her reproductive capacity insofar as her symptoms arise after the death of her only child. 
  • violent woman’s cultural construction as an enigma. Filmic narratives frequently betray a specifically epistemological anxiety about the violent woman’s subjectivity, positioning her as a ‘problem’ that must be solved: by foregrounding the Woman’s debilitating grief and anxiety, Antichrist certainly constructs a scenario that positions her as a mysterious entity

A mutual misunderstanding

  • As she arches her body, her chest rises and falls rapidly, mimicking the ‘hysterical seizure’ or ‘grande hystérie’, a full-body episode that supposedly resembles both childbirth and orgasm 
  • Antichrist in fact engages in a critique of the subjectify- ing medical power that the Man wields over the Woman. Although the film rearticulates a ‘mad’ or ‘bad’ cultural narrative of female violence – a formulation that imagines women’s aggression as a product of either her intrinsic evil or insanity (Morrissey 2003: 33) – it is also highly concerned with problematising masculine authority.  
  • Confused and enraged, the Man strangles the Woman to death, thereby perma- nently eliminating the threat she poses to his life and his authority as an analyst. 
  • Antichrist uses the figure of the feminine hysteric to foreground the oppressiveness, and limits, of masculine knowledge (rather than, for example, femininity’s horror). 
  • In ending so violently and with few conclusions about the ‘true’ cause of the woman’s illness, Antichrist could be accused of ulti- mately representing the violent, hysterical woman as an unsolvable enigma – an unresolved conundrum with which to undermine mas- culine authority. 
  • stripped of their individuality, these women seem to symbolise a supernatural or possibly even malevolent force of femininity, just as the Woman claimed. However, the image of the Man standing mystified as the women swarm around him foregrounds his ignorance. Male mis- understanding, rather than the horror of femininity, is the point that concludes Antichrist. 

Horror, drama, and generic provocation

  • Antichrist also undertakes several formal manoeuvres that position violent femininity as an expressive tool for critiquing male power. 
  • this boils down to the film’s evasive uncertainty about whether to represent [the female protagonist] as a case of psychological trauma or an incarnation of mythic evil. 
  • After Nic falls to his death, the Woman’s deep depres- sion becomes a plot event that requires resolution; it is the puzzle that organises the narrative. The spectacle and narrative fact of her grief encourage spectators to scrutinise her symptoms for clues regarding the nature of her malaise and to participate in her diagnosis, casting the Woman in the role of hysteric and the onlooker as analyst. A series of intense physical spectacles in the early parts of Antichrist reinforce this positioning: the Woman suffers panic attacks, hyperventilates, and, in one scene, beats her head against the edge of a porcelain toilet bowl. The Woman – her emotions and her subjectivity – becomes the enigma that initiates the narrative and positions the viewers in a state of non- knowledge about the woman onscreen. Moreover, the dialogue in these scenes invokes the discourse of psychology as a basis for understanding her behaviour. The Man insists that the Woman’s grief is ‘not a disease’ but ‘a natural, healthy reaction’ and encourages her to explore her emotions. The Man is clearly overconfident in his approach; he super- ciliously brandishes his wife’s medication and insists that she return home from hospital. 
  • Rather than maintaining a characterisation of the Woman’s violence as having its aetiology solely in psychological distress, the plot events of Antichrist pose a second possibility: that her behaviour is attributable to her inherent and supernatural feminine evil. The mysterious events that occur midway through Antichrist enact a generic shift away from psychological realism towards a regime of verisimilitude more appropriate to horror cinema. 
  • In its transformation from a meditation on the effects of grief on a woman’s mental state to a fatal spousal conflict with supernatural overtones, Antichrist can be understood as a psychodramatic art film that becomes a horror film 
  • This shift sees the film dispense with a clear psychological rationale for the Woman’s hysteria and instead insinuate that her behaviour is attribut- able to intrinsic evil. The tacit suggestion that supernatural entities are implicated in her actions is consistent with the popular horror genre’s regimes of verisimilitude: witches, demons and evil entities surface repeatedly in horror films 
  • In its depiction of a disordered doctor-patient relationship, the film instead entertains an extremely provocative (and, for many, ideologically unacceptable) explanation for the Woman’s violence: namely, that it stems from her inherent feminine evil. This deliberate generic frustration amounts to a formal subversion of the spectator’s gaze; the film invites, and then denies, the spectator’s drive to reveal, uncover and unmask the woman. 
  • the plot particulars of Antichrist also characterise the drive for knowledge as an explicitly masculine mode of looking. In the context of the film, psychology is a male discourse that superciliously acts upon the Woman via her husband. By char- acterising femininity as mysterious and possibly even evil, Antichrist allows its female protagonist to evade the Man’s – and the spectator’s – subjectifying desire to account for her illness. 
  • Critiquing the spectator by invoking an extremely misogynistic (not to mention archaic) rationale for female violence is undoubtedly a problematic manoeuvre that con- tributed to the audience’s outrage after the film’s premiere at Cannes. 

The visible and the knowable

  • Since Laura Mulvey’s treatise on visual pleasure provided a foundational account of the way that cinema positions women in relation to the psychic needs of the masculine spectator, the role of vision in the production of female subjectivity has been of interest to feminist scholars. Yet such regimes can also be described as driven by pleasure in knowledge. 
  • Film representation must therefore establish a direct correlation between the observable and truth. 
  • Niche cinema forms place exclusionary requirements upon their audience, demand- ing high levels of cultural competency in order to foster a pleasure in interpretation or reading 
  • ‘the visible’ does indeed equal ‘the knowable’. The early scenes of the film establish two cinematographic styles that visually signify the Woman’s objective and subjective experience, thereby suggesting the possibility of interpreting the Woman’s malaise and providing a kind of pleasure in knowledge associated with art cinema modes of spectatorship.  
  • hand-held style to signify diegetic reality and high-speed footage to represent subjective reality, with the hand-held camera showing events occurring in real time and space and the high-speed camera depicting the Woman’s fantasies or imaginings 
  • the hand-held camera gives the spectator a powerful omniscience, allowing her or him to see the Woman’s private, anguished moments 
  • In contrast, the high-speed sequences represent events occurring in the characters’ imaginations. These images are steady, vividly colourised and extremely still. 
  • Both of these camera styles make the Woman available for the spectator’s scrutiny: the hand-held enables an unfettered access, whereas the visualisation sequences render the Woman’s psyche ‘observable’, thus empowering the spectator to inspect her mind as well as her body. Precisely because of their dreamlike, fantastical qual- ity, these images reaffirm vision’s positivist value. 

Examining the patient

  • figuration of female subjectivity through the representation of the face. Faces are a key point of feminist interest 
  • As Doane remarks, the face is figured as ‘the instance of subjectivity’ and ‘the mark of individuality’ 
  • faces are a focal point for the epistemophilic gaze – the face is ‘the most readable space of the body’, the most immediate signifier of emotion and unique identity, as well as a site that requires special interpretation on the part of the onlooker 
  • In keeping with Doane’s descriptions, the intense focus on the face in the early scenes of Antichrist elevates the Woman – particularly her emotions – to the status of a narrative enigma to be solved. 
  • The intense focus on the face in the early scenes of Antichrist is part of the film’s elevation of the Woman and her subjectivity to the status of a narrative enigma to be solved. Faces in close-up function as surfaces where emotion, character psychology and motivation manifest. 
  • If, as David Bordwell suggests, characters in art cinema search for the aetiologies of their emotions (1979: 58), spec- tators at the start of Antichrist are implicated in a process of connecting the expressions that manifest on the Woman’s face with her interior psychic state. Although the face is a surface, it has also been described as having a special profundity linked to the subject’s essential personhood; for instance, being described as ‘a mirror of the soul’ 
  • The visual representation of the Woman’s face in Antichrist sug- gests that it possesses a profundity of meaning – a subjectivity – avail- able only to those who can decipher it.  
  • (Veiling) This intensifies the hermeneutic drive of the gaze by aesthetically representing the face as a mystery. 
  • By becoming a surface that shows only the lack of an interior, the Woman’s face is unavailable to be read or scrutinised. Instead, the face becomes what I call a visage: an objectified likeness that indicates the terrifying absence of the soul rather than a hidden profundity. 
  • By morphing the face to represent the horrifying lack of an interior rather than a profound per- sonhood, the film inhibits the spectator’s ability to decode the Woman. 
  • all see a female heroine paradoxically evade patriarchal power precisely through her victimisation and, in some cases, violent death 

Spectacles of Violence

  • Popular and academic discourses often imply that film violence should have an identifiable meaning or utility; for instance, as a function of artistic expression or social comment  
  • On one hand, the film’s representation of violence recalls the real and continuing acts of misogyny perpetrated against women in the historical world. 
  • Antichrist largely withholds the means to make sense of the Woman’s violence as rooted in a psychological malaise or demonic monstrosity. The image of her self-mutilation may show, as Linda Badley suggests, that the Woman has ‘internalized’ misogynistic violence, or it may simply be misogy- nistic discourse articulated in visual form (2010: 149). Like the Woman herself, violence in Antichrist is an inscrutable symptom: a spectacle with ambivalent meaning. 

Conclusion

  • Antichrist frustrates the aggressive impulse to unmask the woman that appears in cultural narratives about women’s violence.    
  • the film refuses to fully explain the origins of the woman’s murderous behaviour, offering incomplete or risible explanations designed to pro- duce frustration in the onlooker 
  • Antichrist is therefore best described as a sympathetic retelling of the ‘woman as enigma’ narrative insofar as it characterises the Woman as a misunderstood figure rather than a threatening entity. Although she brutally injures the Man, the Woman is positioned at all times as a victim of her husband’s corrosive attentions, and she pays for his therapeutic failures with her life. This strategy notably departs from earlier representations of hysterical women in horror and thriller texts 
  • Certainly, the Woman of Antichrist meets the same deadly fate as these other violent women. Instead of straightforwardly portraying femininity as frightening and mysterious, however, Antichrist condemns male misunderstanding of femininity. 
  • While Antichrist is critical of masculine power, it is important to note that this does not necessarily entail it engaging in feminist film practice
  • some reviewers who comment on the film’s gender politics take the opposing view, arguing that Antichrist disseminates a misogynistic representation of the female protagonist under the guise of an artistic right to provocation 
  • When the Man asks his wife if she wants to kill him, she replies: ‘not yet.’ Her response indicates that, like the horror film villainesses that precede her, the Woman threatens the male protagonist’s survival and is thus ‘responsible’ for her fate.
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Film 299 Post

F299: Research Update #9

Below are my notes for And the Mirror Cracked – Feminist Cinema and Film Theory by Anneke Smelik.

  • “Feminist film theory has yet to explore and work through anger, which for women continues to be, as it has been historically, the most unacceptable of all emotions.” -Tania Modleski

Introduction

  • It is understood that a critical analysis of violence against women can yield insight into the sources of misogyny in masculinist society. 
  • The portrayal of violence in films is not always centred around women’s victimization; women’s resistance can become violent too. 
  • The question is why murderous women feature in feminist films. What connects all the murderesses in their differences is the desire to take their lives into their own hands, to liberate themselves from victim roles and to win the struggle for survival. 
  • This points to another characteristic that films on female violence share: violence committed by women is never gratuitous but always a form of resistance against injustice, abuse of power or sexual violence. The films seek to find representations for an experience of anger and frustration 
  • Images of female violence, then, are a very specific attempt on the part of feminist filmmakers ‘to construct the female subject from that political and intellectual rage’, to quote de Lauretis 
  • The theme of female killers may be taken not only as provocation but also as a metaphor, as a cinematic figure representing women’s experience. Many feminist filmmakers have used metaphorical representations of violence for their exposure of masculinism. 

Moving Metaphors

  • A Question of Silence presents the western world as a prison for women; Broken Mirrors shows this world as a brothel and in The Last Island a potential paradise turns into a worldly hell. Each film is situated in a separate world set apart from normal society; within the microcosm of these enclaves power relations between the sexes explode into violence. In this way the prison, the brothel and the desert island become metaphors for a male-dominated society in which women are subjected to the position of ‘the second sex’. 
  • The political impact of Gorris’ film, then, must be sought in the interplay between realism and metaphorism. The importance lies in the simultaneity of the two; neglect of either would make the film much less effective. Spectators can choose to deny or ignore one of those levels in the text, thus undermining a potential feminist interpretation. 
  • Keeping the balance between the realist and the metaphorical is not a problem only for the spectator, but also for the filmmaker. The use of metaphors can be misfired by neglecting the realist level of the film. 
  • The careful construction of a cinematic metaphor, then, one that allows for a continuous interplay between literal and figural meanings, is of the utmost importance for the feminist filmmaker who wants both to move and convince her audience.  

The Question of Gender

  • In a closely knit narrative structure Silence gradually reveals that the women have no motive in the conventional sense, but that the murder is the indirect outcome of years of humiliation and objectification. 
    • The murder being an expression of their unspoken anger, it metaphorically stands for women’s outrage at and resistance to masculinist society. 
  • In featuring stereotyped characters from different classes, ages, and race, the film represents the position of women as an oppressed gender in male-dominated culture. 
  • By establishing contiguity among a number of women in the text, the film indicates that the story of the murder is a cover-up to the other story: that of bonding in a community of women akin in positionality and politics, different in race and class’ 
  • From the narrative and visual perspective of these individual women it becomes clear that each of them feels she has no right to exist outside her function for men and therefore cannot develop her own identity. 
    • Because the female characters consistently are the subject in narrative terms (focalization) and on the visual level (ocularization), the acquire a subjectivity for the spectator which is time and again denied to them within the diegesis of the film. 
    • The women, and through identification the female spectator too, find themselves in the situation of ‘Woman’, that Simone de Beauvoir describes as follows:
      • Now, what peculiarly signalizes the situation of woman is that she — a free and autonomous being like all human creatures — nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other. … The drama of woman lies in this conflict between the fundamental aspirations of every subject (ego) — who always regards the self as the essential — and the compulsions of a situation in which she is the inessential.
  • Silence exhibits the drama of women who experience themselves as subjects in a society that does not allow for female subjectivity.  
  • Silence further represents the oppression of women in metaphors of silence. In various ways the film shows that the female voice has no right of speech and that, not being heard, women are enveloped in silence. 
  • When the psychiatrist asks her why they have killed the man, Christine draws simple figures on a white sheet: a man, a woman and a child enclosed in a house, obsessively repeating the drawing of the same figures over and over again. Her drawings indicate her feelings of suffocation in the nuclear family. 
  • A metaphor is a figure of condensation which creates paradigmatic relations in a film, and a metonymy is a figure of displacement which creates syntagmatic relations. 
    • Metz is, however, quick to point out that these characteristics never occur in a ‘pure’ binary state, but spill over one into the other. 
  • A metaphor is a figure that refers to the referent by way of similarity. It derives its force and meaning from a continuous movement back and forth between the figural and the literal. 
  • The process of figuration works quite differently in cinema, because a metaphor can be visualized directly and without words into an image. 
    • The relation of similarity (or contiguity in case of metonymy) is established through montage to another image, the referent to which it is compared. In other words, a cinematic metaphor, in its being always already visualized, works through literalization. 
  • Indexical similarities establish a common ground for the metaphorical comparison between home and prison; such as the camera movement within the cramped space of the rooms at home or the prison cells, and the cross-cutting from home to prison. 
    • The juxtaposition of the images through montage, discursive contiguity in Metz’ terms, brings an element of metonymy into the metaphor. Hence, the metaphor feeds back into the image: the prison feels as much like home for the women as home feels like a prison. 
  • The metaphor of the home as prison sets off a process in which a more abstract idea shapes itself: that gender can be considered as imprisoning women in a certain role from which they need to liberate themselves. 
  • In Silence the metaphorization of the prison changes the context of imprisonment into its opposite: where usually the prison indicates an order in which a committed offence is punished by deprivation of freedom, in the film the prison becomes a potential safe place which protects women from a masculinist society that is both offensive to women and deprives them of their freedom.  

Looking and Killing

  • the strong stereotypes of the female characters and the virtual lack of individualization of the male characters directs the film away from realism into social realism. This makes the film into a sustained critique of masculinist society rather than an attack on individual men.  
  • The particular iconical and indexical signifiers in the murder scenes encourage a metaphorical reading; it is a ritual rather than a ‘real act’. The absence of a corpse and the persistent focus on the women takes the attention away from the sacrificed man to female resistance against male domination and even more specifically to women’s bonding with each other. 
  • Being part of the scene, and watching silently, the spectator too becomes responsible for the murder.  
  • Ritual, as a symbolic act, is by definition (also) metaphorical. Morover, ritual depends for its effect and function on the presence of an audience. 
  • ‘By placing the conclusive instance of speech — the act of the murder — at the beginning of the narrative as retaliation against the attempt to silence the three women, the film propounds the thesis that women are not heard, not that they do not speak’ (1992: 60). 
    • For Lucy Fischer the murder is clearly not a real life event, but both a ‘silent ceremonial performance’ (1989: 293) and a ‘highly theatrical modernist drama’ (295) that purposefully puts the audience into a position of guilt. 

Looking and Laughing

  • the murder is not acknowledged as ‘sexual’ violence, in that the legal order denies the importance of sexual difference in the murder case. 
  • The masculinist discourse of the judge and the prosecutor proves unable to acknowledge the importance and implications of sexual difference; it denies the significant fact that in this case women have killed a man. 
    • In not recognizing the murder as ‘sexual’ violence, the judicial order cannot understand the motive. 
    • The narrative of the film has shown in meaningful details the paramount importance of the paradox that masculinist society is based on and constitutes the differential category of gender, while it at the same time refuses to see that women are different. 
    • This refusal rests on the tacit premise of taking the male gender as the norm and the female as the deviation; by giving men subjectivity while women remain non-subjects. 
    • Because of its inability to accept sexual difference as a meaningful category the legal discourse becomes violent: the prosecutor breaks off the dialogue, interrupts the speaker, refuses to listen, in short, he does not take women seriously and reduces them to silence. 
    • He represents the violence of a culture which strikes half of its members with muteness by its in-difference. 
  • The women’s laughter is a sign of their understanding of the events in the courtroom; they are aware of their predicament and the total inability of the court to connect cause to effect. 
  • It is a liberating laugh which binds the women together. 
    • With their laughter the women shut out those who do not share their insight and understanding. 
    • Therefore the laughter is placed outside the order of the dominant discourse; after all, speech is no longer possible. 
    • The laughter breaks through the silence that has surrounded the women for so long. 
    • It also thwarts all male authority, turning the court case into the farce it has been from the start. 
    • Hence the laughter becomes a symbolic sign for women’s resistance against the masculinist order.
    • Ordered to leave the courtroom the murderesses descend the stairs in the middle of the courtroom, still laughing, surrounded by the women who have witnessed the murder.  
  • The spectator, in identifying with the female characters, and having understood the pain of their subjection and hence the motive for the murder, is invited to take their position. With the murder they could only watch and silently witness, with great unease presumably; with the impeding judgment in the courtroom they can actually participate, joining in with the laughter of the female characters.  
  • In the end, laughter is the real ‘weapon’ against masculinist indifference and a unique way to break through the silence. 

Parallel Perspectives

  • the cinematic strategies represent the women three-dimensionally by filming them in time (there is only one cut in the whole take) and in space (the framing of the long shot is quite large in relation to the small and crowded room). This is another way of giving subjectivity to the women both narratively and visually. 
  • Spectatorial focalization, that is the intervention of the implied director, through the juxtaposition of these two scenes as well as through the camera work, framing and montage, create a contrast between the women as subjects in their own right and the women as objects of the male gaze. 
    • The scene thus exposes the effects of the male look upon women. 
    • These iconic and indexical signs turn the short sequence into a feminist point of view: the look as sign becomes a metaphor for ‘the male gaze’. 
  • Broken Mirrors engages the viewer emotionally with the women as subjects and then makes the spectator critically aware when the women function as objects for men. 
    • Thus, the spectator experiences almost physically the pain of woman’s continuous objectification: the pain when she is deprived of her voice, her body, and her freedom. 
    • In blocking the way to identification at the moment when the female characters are objectified, the spectator is invited to reflect critically on the objectification of women by men. 
    • These alternating positions involve the spectator in a viewing process that is alternately emotional and intellectual. 

Lethal Looks

  • Because the camera films the man without attaching itself to his look, the female character is never seen through his eyes. 
    • The narrator does not present the nameless woman voyeuristically to the spectator, but instead makes her the focalizer in some of the scenes in the thriller story. 
    • Her perspective is the same as the spectator’s: she does not understand what is happening and asks aloud the question that the spectator is worrying about all along: ‘Why?’ 
  • He pins the pictures methodically on the wall, adding them to the pictures of his previous three victims whom he photographed from the beginning of their captivity until their deaths. 
    • All the elements from feminist analyses of the male gaze can be found in this substitute: a man directs his gaze at a female body; it gives him pleasure to look; and his gaze objectifies, petrifies even, the woman in his power.  
  • Broken Mirrors metaphorically shows that looking is not a mere innocent act because it always takes place within a given pattern of dominance and submission. 
  • Mulvey has already pointed out the relation between voyeurism and sadism, observing that the ‘pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt … asserting control and subjugating the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness’ 
  • For Mulvey it is fear of castration, the fear that the sight of the ‘castrated’ woman instills in men, which motivates male sadism. 
    • In Broken Mirrors this is suggested in the metaphor of the camera as phallus; the murderer is ‘castrated’ in that he does not perform any sexual act other than the surrogate of photographing the female body. 
    • Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder — a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time. (Sontag 1979: 14–15) 
  • silence is a female form of resistance when all hope is lost. It is only then that the murderer speaks, begging her to speak, calling her a whore. 
    • But the woman refuses to react any more; she remains silent, knowing that it is the male gaze and nothing else that sees her as a whore 
  • The spectator learns this also from the parallel story of the brothel. Men can own the women they look at, because they have the power and the money to act upon their gaze.  
  • Instead the film shows the pain and suffering caused by the male objectifying gaze. Thus, the cinematic strategy of suspense is turned into a feminist vision. Broken Mirrors shows in lucid images the answer to de Lauretis’ question ‘how did Medusa feel seeing herself in Perseus’ mirror just before being slain?’ (1984: 109). I would say miserable beyond words. 

Empty space

  • the feminine is traditionally represented in Hollywood cinema as something unknown, as the enigma creating a place in the narrative structure that remains void (Kuhn 1982: 32–42). 
    • This empty space functions as the locus for images, representations and metaphorizations of the feminine. 
  • The empty narrative space positions the female subject as a structural obstacle or boundary. 
  • Narrative is structured around this space: in the beginning of the story the hero makes it his aim to solve the mystery, in the middle he tries to get through to the enigma and in the end he has solved it. 
    • As many feminist critics have pointed out, the ‘solution’ of the mystery lies either in the destruction of the woman (death or prison) or in her incorporation into the symbolic order (marriage); 
    • these being the two conventional endings of Hollywood cinema  
  • the female characters in both films are shown as subjects in a historical and social context that militates against their subjectivity 
  • De Lauretis argues that women can only become subjects when they live through and represent the contradiction of being both ‘Woman’ and ‘women’; of being both an image of the feminine and a socio-historical subject.  
  • The reversal of dominant discourse (metaphorizing ‘man’ as the empty space) and representing female subjects as both Woman and women, creates a powerful feminist discourse that specifically addresses the female spectator (whether lesbian or not). 

And the mirror cracked

  • The moment the mystery is finally solved — the identity of the murderer — the structure of the film has already convinced the spectator that the identity of the man is completely beside the point; that he is anonymous ‘Man’. 
  • The metaphor is not the enigma but the solution of the enigma’ (1986: 426). Indeed, when the spectator understands that the murderer is a metaphorical expression of male violence in general, the enigma of his identity is solved. In accepting the reflexive relationship between the two narratives, the spectator understands both of them as a metaphorical expression of the violent power relations between the sexes. 
    • The fetters with which the serial killer ties his female victims to a bed is a metaphor of the bondage that keeps women chained to sexual submission. 
    • Because the treatment of the prostitutes in the brothel can in the same way be seen as a metaphorization of the sexual objectification and possession of women, the serial killer is clearly not an isolated psychopath but rather one step down on the ladder of sexual violence against women. 
  • The breaking of the mirrors is a ritualistic act of resistance against the male gaze, against cultural representations of femininity, against the objectifying look that make women into whores, against the distorted self-images of women — all of which she shoots to pieces in the symbol of the mirror. 

The Passion of Feminism

  • ‘Conflict lies at the basis of every art’, writes Eisenstein in his essay ‘Beyond the shot’ (1987: 145). For feminist filmmakers the basic social conflict is based on gender.  
  • Rather, the major conflict in both Silence and Broken Mirrors is expressed in the experience of women who are subjects in a culture that refuses them the status of subject. 
    • Gorris has chosen to represent the struggle between the sexes from the exclusive point of view of ‘the second sex’, which has found its cinematic expression in forms of ocularization and focalization, framing, camera work and montage.  
  • A string of metaphors creates for the spectator a feminist vision on masculinist society where women are imprisoned in the straitjacket of gender: the world is a prison (Silence); or where women are exploited and abused: the world is a brothel (Broken Mirrors) 
  • It is from the concrete iconic image that the metaphor of women’s oppression is transformed into a symbolic image. 
    • The metaphor is not an escape, but a liberation, from too literal a meaning, just as the level of realism is a liberation from ‘facile allegory’. 
    • Thus, the metaphors call for a certain mental effort to understand the object in which they are grounded. 
    • In mediating the spectator’s understanding of social reality from a female point of view, the metaphors produce their specific energetic interpretants. 
  • To view the films just realistically leads to absurd statements; that feminists are castrating bitches out to kill men (Silence) or that all men are whorehoppers and psychopaths out to victimize women (Broken Mirrors). 
  • To view the films only metaphorically, however, would mean to miss out on the important realization of the forms and issues of women’s real oppression and suffering in a male-dominated society.
  • The suffering of the individual female characters of the film is elevated to a universal level. André’s text refers to a visionary future, a utopian spring, in which ‘we’ will be transformed. 
    • The discrepancy with reality is too pronounced to offer the spectator a sprinkling of hope. Instead, it is a moment of stillness that evokes what should be but is not possible, before the spiral of violence explodes towards the end. 

Conclusion

  • Through metaphorization grounded in realism, Gorris has constructed a feminist rhetoric which cannot fail to leave the spectator unmoved, whether positively or negatively. 
  • What then is the ‘logical’, final, interpretant of the metaphors — the imprisonment, prostitution and abuse of women in masculinist society? 
  • Mental effort is required for understanding the complexities of the cinematic metaphors. 
    • The logical interpretant involves making sense of those feelings and mental efforts. And the only sense is a feminist one. 
    • The final interpretant thus results in a ‘habit-change’, a modification of consciousness, or in feminist terms: consciousness-raising. 
  • A feminist truth that denounces a hegemonic culture denigrating, denying, and violating female subjectivity. A Question of Silence and Broken Mirrors have succeeded in representing the passion of feminism and in getting women through the lethal looking glass.