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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.