Welcome to Auteuse Theory


Welcome to Auteuse Theory. The purpose of this blog is to allow us to think about and write about a range of films made by women, from silent re-discoveries to the latest releases, from activist documentaries to mainstream Hollywood features, taking in examples from across the globe, whether famous or obscure. We have no desire to force ham-fisted links between very different films and very different filmmakers, to insist that they fit some pre-designated template of women’s cinema. Quite the opposite; we want to explore the diversity of forms taken by women’s filmmaking across different nations and eras. So why focus on women as a separate category at all? Why isolate their films from those of their male peers and think about them as some kind of exceptional or special case? Well, there’s still the matter of persistent inequality of opportunity within certain key authorial roles in the film industries. We all know the stats: even now, post-Bigelow Oscar win, women only constitute 10% of directors globally, and 15% of screenwriters. This is an improvement on previous years but it’s still (obviously!) a very minor proportion of the whole. As the British director Lynne Ramsay has commented, it’s ‘a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice. It really does matter.’ And although we are very reluctant to make simple equations between the fact of there being a woman being at the helm of a film and that film offering a more complex picture of femininity (there have always been battalions of male directors who are very good at telling female-focussed stories), there is nonetheless plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often true.

Our main subject is film but we will inevitably make forays into television and other media from time to time. We will be focussing predominantly on films directed by women, but we’re also interested in including films which demonstrate female authorship in other ways (writing, producing or performance). And we won’t be thinking about those films solely as women’s films. We don’t want to ghettoise them, so we’ll be connecting them to the time and place of their production, or their place within a genre or a movement, as much as we connect them to each other. There will be no rhyme or reason to the films that we discuss or the order in which they appear, instead we’ll be hoping for serendipitous connections, unexpected correspondences, sharp contrasts, strange juxtapositions; in other words, a blog that aims to be perpetually different and surprising. Most of the writing will be undertaken by the two main authors but interspersed with guest reviews from others who will each bring a fresh perspective.

And, finally, why the title Auteuse Theory? We were scouting around for a name that indicated a response to the old-fashioned auteur theory, and its insistence on ‘virility’ as a marker of directorial quality (all that Hawks and Ford worship). Women hadn’t only been marginalised in the making of films but the select few who had managed to break through were often given short shrift in the founding critical histories of film (with the exception of the highly problematic case of Leni Riefenstahl), until feminist scholars put Arzner, Weber, Guy-Blache, Lupino and Varda back into the picture. And this work of excavation and rediscovery continues – see the Women Film Pioneers and Women and Silent British Cinema websites for ongoing examples. We are aware of the problems of using the French feminised form of a professional name, drawing a gendered distinction between male and female practitioners (just as some publications reject the word actress in favour of actor for both men and women), but in the spirit of subversion, we wanted to occupy and feminise a word - auteur - which still sits at the heart of so much film scholarship and film appreciation. And although the blog is called Auteuse Theory, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of 'theories', the more intellectually generous plural form. These are some theories and thoughts and ideas arising from watching these films made by women. We hope you enjoy reading them…


Monday, 26 January 2015

Marleen Gorris and Antonia's Line (1995)

NEIL SINYARD



 
Antonia’s Line won the Oscar for the best foreign language film of 1995, the first film by a female director ever to accomplish this feat. The woman in question was the Dutch film-maker, Marleen Gorris, who had sprung to prominence with her sensational debut film, A Question of Silence (1982). Under the guise of a thriller about the seemingly motiveless murder of a male boutique owner by three women previously unknown to each other, the film was an audacious feminist polemic that stormed the citadels of oppressive patriarchy. Made almost as a kind of avant-garde movie which therefore pulled no punches, the film’s uncompromising originality propelled it into the mainstream, where it became hugely controversial.  Rather like the legal figures at the end of the film who fail to see that the huge explosion of derisive female laughter is directed at them, hypersensitive male critics missed the film’s mode of black comedy and were offended by its seeming proposition that the solution to patriarchy might be murder. (It was not proposing that, any more than cannibalism was being seriously offered as a solution to poverty and starvation in Jonathan Swift’s political pamphlet, A Modest Proposal: both satirists were taking up an extreme position and suggesting a metaphor that highlighted the horror of a particular social situation in the hope that the oppressors might feel some guilt and shame.) Possibly goaded by the angry accusations of an anti-male bias that bordered on hatred, Gorris’s second film was the even more ferocious Broken Mirrors (1984), whose main setting is a brothel in a city where a serial killer is on the loose.  1They’re all bastards,’ says the  proprietor about the clientele of her Happy House brothel to a new girl, who, significantly, has become a prostitute out of economic necessity. ‘Even the nice ones aren’t nice.’  Ironically, the only sympathetic male character in the film is literally a dirty old man,  a harmless,  unseen hermit who is befriended by the brothel-keeper, but who ,to her dismay, is expelled from his hideaway because he is not ‘normal’, the implication being that the ‘normal’ male is much more of a threat.

 

The vehemence of Gorris’s feminism in her first two films even discomfited some feminists, who accused her of being not so much provocative as paranoid. (See, for example, Pam Cook’s review of Broken Mirrors in Monthly Film Bulletin, April, 1985: 114) Nevertheless, The Last Island (1990) continued in much the same vein, being a feminine Lord of the Flies for grown-ups, in which a motley group of men and women are shipwrecked on an island, fall out, turn violent, and where only the women survive. Still, the characterisation of the men is more complex than before; and this strain is continued in Antonia’s Line, which is mellower and even upbeat in effect and allows some males to exhibit such hitherto unacknowledged characteristics as kindness, unselfishness and compassion. Here the nice ones stay nice. Admittedly, the narrative is still unashamedly female-driven and dominated, and the most sympathetic man is a philosophical recluse who would make even  Schopenhauer look cheerful by comparison. Yet there is a greater generosity of spirit to all humankind, and an exuberant relish for life’s variety that sweeps up everything in its path. When it was shown at the Toronto Festival, the film was given a standing ovation.

 

The story is told in flashback by Antonia (a superb performance from Willeke  van Ammelrooy), remembering her past on what she has decided is to be the last day of her life; and also by a narrator who only at the end reveals herself to be Antonia’s great-granddaughter, Sarah. The point of view is important, for, whereas at the beginning  it is said of their community that “ men’s noise rode roughshod over {a woman’s] silence”, the women  will gradually be given a voice; will insist on making themselves heard; and will  assume power over their own lives and, crucially, their own sexuality. When Antonia and her daughter Danielle  (Els Dottermans) have first returned to Antonia’s home village just after the war to attend to her dying mother and take over the family farm, they have walked past a wall which has the sign ‘Welcome To Our Liberators’ scrawled over it. It no doubt refers to the Allied soldiers who have liberated the village after the war, but, in retrospect, it will apply equally to Antonia and Danielle, who will go some way towards liberating the community from its chauvinism, prejudice and conformity.

 

Over a number of years Antonia’s farm will become a kind of benevolent matriarchy, a haven for the misfits and the maltreated of the village.  These include the retarded Deedee (Marina de Graaf), who, in an early scene reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, has been offered up for sale by her brutish father. When she is being sexually abused in a barn by her brother, Pitte, Danielle leaps to her defence by impaling Pitte with a pitchfork and taking her back to the farm. Deedee will bond with Loony Lips, who has been taken under her wing by Antonia when he is being persecuted by the sons of  Farmer Bas (Jan Decleir), a relative newcomer to the village (he has only been there twenty years). Bas will be impressed by Antonia’s humanity and courage and will propose marriage. ‘The sons need a mother,’ he says. ‘But I don’t need your sons,’ says Antonia, who will refuse his offer but will later enter into a relationship with him of deep mutual affection. In the meantime, the growing Danielle decides she wants a baby. ‘And what about a husband to go with it?’ asks Antonia. ‘I don’t think so,’ she replies. Danielle will have a daughter, Therese (Veerle van Overloop), who will turn out to be a mathematical genius. Danielle herself will become a gifted painter and fall in love at first sight with Therese’s teacher, a moment signalled when Danielle, who has always had a vivid imagination,   immediately transforms her in her mind’s eye into a vision of Botticelli’s Venus.

 

And so it goes on. A friend, who has helped Antonia find a suitable young man to father Danielle’s child, turns up at the farm and immediately falls for a curate,  who has just left the church because he found it too constricting for his innate sense of happiness; and together they will produce twelve children. If all this sounds impossibly idyllic, one should add that the film is not blind to the darker sides of life. Although a kindly and much loved tutor to Antonia’s offspring, the hermit Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers) can never shake himself free from his conviction of the fundamental cruelty and futility of existence, and he will commit suicide. Loony Lips will die in an accident and Deedeee will be inconsolable, until reminded that ‘life wants to live’ and she must carry on. In the most disturbing section of the film, Deedee’s contemptible brother, Pitte returns to the village and, in retaliation for Danielle’s attack on him all those years before, pays her back by raping (offscreen) her daughter, Therese. All out for revenge, Antonia will arm herself with a shotgun, but, on confronting the rapist, she curses rather than kills him, saying that killing is not in her nature. Women give life, not take it; to do the latter would be fighting a monster like him with the very weapons they deplore. Curiously, though, the curse  casts its spell. Later that night, Pitte is to be beaten up by the sons of Farmer Bas; and when he returns home, he is murdered by his brother, who has always hated him.

 

The fulfilment of Antonia’s curse seems like an element in a fairy-tale, and is an example of the film’s narrative and stylistic fluidity. Although grounded mainly in earthy naturalism, paying particular attention to collective enterprise and the women’s domestic labour on the farm, the film also has whimsical flights of fantasy and surrealism. Antonia’s mother sits up in her coffin to sing ‘My Blue Heaven’ at her own funeral ; a statue of Mary suddenly smiles; a stone angel uses its wing to clobber an unholy priest who has refused the last rites to a man who sheltered Jews during the war. This rich stew of disparate elements- magical realism, bucolic revelry, Europeanised gloom- was not to everyone’s taste; and even an admirer of the film like Robin Wood thought that the film’s Utopian fantasy, ‘miraculously exempt from the incursions of corporate capitalism’ was inconsistent with other details of the film, such as the fact that this village, which seems removed from most of the trappings of modern civilisation, is nevertheless situated in close proximity to a large modern university. ‘We need empowering utopian fantasies,’ he wrote, but added that ‘they must take into account the conditions within which we actually today exist and struggle, for how can we strive to reach a utopia in which it is impossible to believe?’ (Wood: 316-17) However, it is possible to take the film as essentially as a folk-tale or matriarchal fable with, in the words of a Sight and Sound review (May, 1997: 59) “all the magic of a Chagall painting.” Certainly the film is less concerned with social realism and evolution  than with the eternal life-cycle of birth and death. This is  nicely conveyed in the circling camera movement as Therese’s new-born baby girl is handed from villager to villager in an act of communal blessing; and also suggested in the narrator’s summation that ‘as this long chronicle draws to a conclusion, nothing has ended.’

 

Since Antonia’s Line, Gorris has moved from filming her own original screenplays and tended to specialise more in heavyweight literary adaptations. She crafted a fine cinematic interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s feminist classic, Mrs Dalloway (1997), starring Vanessa Redgrave; and an interesting version of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Luzhin Project (2000), with John Turturro and Emily Watson. With Emily Watson again, she also made a compelling adaptation of Eugenia Ginzburg’s harrowing but ultimately heroic personal memoir as a literary professor in the Stalinist era sentenced to ten years hard labour in Siberia, Within the Whirlwind (2009), which has had only a limited worldwide release. Recently she has directed a television mini-series about the life of Rembrandt. Antonia’s Line remains her biggest international success thus far, with audiences relishing its warm vitality, lusty femininity and gutsy resilience in the face of patriarchal prejudice and pressure, though, in my view, Robin Wood is right in suggesting  that A Question of Silence still stands as ‘her finest achievement to date’ (Wood: 317)  In that film, the women’s laughter in the courtroom that concludes the trial, undermining the confidence and certainty of arrogant male authority, is as liberating as  Ibsen’s notorious and resonant slammed door that concludes A Doll’s House. A Question of Suilence alone will ensure that Gorris remains a permanent icon of feminist film at its most powerful,  provocative and pertinent.

 


Suggested Reading

 

Pam Cook             ‘Review: Broken Mirrors,’ Monthly Film Bulletin,

          April, 1985,p.114.

Maggie Humm      ‘Author/Auteur: Feminist Literary Theory and Feminist

         Film’ in Feminism and Film, Edinburgh University Press,1999, pp.90-111.

Barbara Koenig Quart  Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema,

          New York: Praeger, 1988.

Neil Sinyard            ‘A Question of Gorris’, Dutch Crossing, Winter,1997,

          pp.100-116.

Tom Tunney and

Geoffrey McNab      ‘Review: Antonia’s Line’, Sight and Sound, May, 1997,p.59.

Robin Wood              Sexual Politics and Narrative Film, Columbia University Press,

         1998, pp.315-17. 

 

            

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