When people talk about gender and sexuality, they usually do so from within the context of a broad social narrative. Arguably the most popular gender narrative of the day is that we (in the West particularly) are in the process of weaning ourselves off of a particularly toxic and reductive understanding of human sexuality. According to this narrative, we have progressed from what was essentially a tri-partite model of human sexuality (straight male, straight female, and Other) to an N-partite model that allows not only for differences in sexual preference but variations in relationship models, different sexual practices and conceptions of gender that rely upon variables other than genital shape and chromosomal configuration. Under the logic of this narrative, a three-box understanding of human sexuality is repressive and so the more boxes we add to our model, the closer we come to a theory that reflects the enormous complexity of human sexual identity. In an ideal world, everyone would fit into their own universally recognised pigeonhole with nobody left puzzling as to how they fit in or who they are. Though giddily utopian, this narrative is not without its critics.
Back in the 1970s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault began to examine the different ways in which humanity has conceived of sexuality. He concluded that, far from being a historical reality, the above narrative was a construct of the 1960s and that, much like previous models of human sexuality, it contained the embryo of an intensely problematic political programme. Foucault argued that the urge to determine the ‘truth’ about a particular phenomenon and break it down into distinct categories tends to go hand-in-hand with a desire to control the phenomenon. For example, while most people do have a conception of race, their conception tends to be a lot less exacting that the systems created by governments intent upon dehumanising particular groups of humans. Thus, while most Westerners are now content to use the term ‘mixed race’ to describe people of mixed racial heritage, previous generations have used terms like ‘mulatto’ and ‘quadroon’ to determine not only which races were mixed but also in what proportions. Though pointless in the West today, these linguistic categories would have proved extraordinarily useful for societies that practiced apartheid, slavery or any other systematic abuse of different racial groups. Indeed, the first step towards the Final Solution was the creation of a legal framework allowing Nazi officials to ‘objectively’ distinguish between Jews and non-Jews on the basis of their parentage.
Though Foucault stops well short of drawing a parallel between how people used systems of racial classification and how people use systems of sexual classification, he does express profound concern over our assumption that more precise systems of top-down classification are somehow a sign of progress. After all, ‘Octaroon’ is a more precise term than ‘Black person’ but nobody in their right mind would consider it progressive to begin pigeon-holing people on the basis of their having one Afro-Caribbean grandparent. Systems of top-down classification require measurement and basing someone’s identity upon their ability to satisfy objective scientific criteria is intensely dehumanising… we see this not only in the Victorian and Nazi obsession with skull sizes but also in the grotesquely gynaecological language applied to the Trans* community when the need to fit people into pre-existing categories invariably devolves into discussions of genital shape and chromosomal configuration.
Kimberley Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry won awards and captured hearts by drawing the world’s attention to the real-life story of Brandon Teena, who was betrayed, raped and murdered by a group of friends who believed that Brandon had misrepresented his gender. When the film was first released in 1999, many people described it as the story of a woman who ‘passed herself off’ as a man in an effort to reconcile her desire to sleep with women with the universal homophobia of 1990s Nebraska. Since then, awareness has expanded and so most people now think of the film as a tragic story about how an intolerant culture treats transgender people. However, while both sets of readings say quite a lot about our need to impose clear boundaries on ambiguous phenomena, a better reading of the film is to take it as an attack on the process of classification itself.
One of the enduring concerns of human culture is how to deal with thoughts and feelings that are not recognisably our own.
Much like the ancients, who associated odd feelings and passing moods with particular deities, Saint Augustine viewed unwelcome thoughts as something external to the self. According to Augustine, our urge to transgress God’s laws stems from a wound inflicted by Original Sin and passed down through the generations by sexual contact. Later churchmen would describe the concept of Original Sin as:
“Privation of the righteousness which every man ought to possess”
Inspired by the Augustinian concept of Concupiscence but intent upon creating a materialistic account of human nature, Sigmund Freud divided the self into different parts and invoked the concept of the unconscious as a place where unspeakable thoughts and desires boil and occasionally rise up, hammering at the walls of the conscious self. Though no longer central to scientific accounts of human nature, Freud’s account of the self remains incredibly influential. Artists and mental health professionals conspire to present the mind as a city under constant pressure from a vast and barely manageable neurochemical hinterland where entire streets pass in and out of the surrounding jungle. The question of how we navigate such a city, where we draw the line between town and country, ours and not-ours not only endures to this day but also accounts for many of the most striking literary and philosophical innovations of the 20th Century.
Like many psychological thrillers, Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool follows a character’s attempt to repress, confront and ultimately claim ownership of a series of unwelcome and unrecognisable thoughts, but as sophisticated as the film’s distinctions may be, it is never entirely clear where the film’s main protagonist begins and ends.
Art house film has always had a problematic relationship with female sexuality. Though art house directors are far more likely to construct their films around strong female characters than their Hollywood counterparts, their engagement with these characters’ sexualities is often limited to stripping an actress naked and posing her in a series of titillating tableaux such as those found in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme D’Or winning film Blue is the Warmest Colour. The further a female character ventures from the realms of male fantasy, the more likely it is that her sexuality will be turned against her and used as a sign of encroaching madness, alienation or spiritual collapse. In art house film, sad men may become murderers but sad women will always become prostitutes.
The tragedy of problematic narratives is that they frequently outlive the social attitudes that first informed them. For example, while the films of Luis Bunuel may have been informed by the remnants of his Jesuitical education, the phrases and characters he helped to develop in films like Belle de Jour passed into common usage and came to form part of the basic vocabulary of art house film. Used and revisited for decade after decade, the character of the fallen woman is now so familiar to art house audiences that directors no longer feel the need to spell out why promiscuous women are sad women… they just show us a female character having loads of sex and allow us to fill in the blanks. We have been trained through repetition and this training followed us out of the cinema and into our daily lives meaning that, without ever having been subjected to an argument about the evils of promiscuity, our first reaction to promiscuous women is to assume that there is something terribly wrong with them.
The alternative to allowing our culture to train us is to question the values embedded in stock cinematic phrases and champion works that set out to subvert stock phrases and use them to draw our attention to the sexism and racism that is perpetuated by our own intellectual laziness. Thankfully, while the 2013 Cannes jury was content to give the biggest prize in art house film to a work that presented sexually empowered women as hollow vessels and childlike victims, another director in competition set out to pick a fight with the myth of the fallen woman. The director in question is Francois Ozon and his film is Jeune et Jolie.
FilmJuice has my review of Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Wish You Were Here, an Australian mystery/drama that is not to be confused with David Leland’s oddball British tragedy of the same name.
Set between Australia and Cambodia, Wish You Were Here is a great-looking film that is hamstrung by its director’s self-indulgence and borderline racism. The plot revolves around a pair of Australian couples who visit Cambodia and have a great old time until one of the group disappears. Understandably distraught, the remaining holiday makers limp back home and begin worrying about the disappearance of their friend and the fact that reporting his disappearance to the authorities might shine a light not only on their illegal activities but also their dysfunctional relationships. I say that the film is borderline racist as it falls into the familiar trap of using a non-white culture as backdrop for the breakdown of white middle-class lives. Colourful marketplaces, yay! Maimed beggars and brown dudes with machine guns, boo!
However, more interesting than Darcy-Smith’s use of lazy racist stereotypes is his failure to fuse the mystery and kitchen sink drama genres:
Darcy-Smith’s mistake lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between mysteries and dramas: The focus of a mystery is on leading the audience through a particular narrative while the focus of a drama is on unravelling the complexities of character. While psychological mysteries can sustain a hybridisation of the two genres, Wish You Were Here is ultimately a story about a missing tourist and not an exploration of why the characters are the way that they are. As you would expect from a plot structured around a missing person narrative, the characters only have as much depth as that central mystery requires meaning that while Darcy-Smith gives his actors vast amounts of time in which to explore their characters, the characters they are exploring are neither particularly deep nor particularly interesting. If Darcy-Smith wanted to direct a character-based drama then he should have written a script about character and not about an extraneous mystery. In a way, it’s a bit like turning up at the cinema to watch Avengers 2 only to discover that the director has decided to focus on the inner life of the bloke who drives the aircraft carrier. There’s nothing wrong with making a film about the bloke who drives the aircraft carrier but if you do then at least go to the trouble of working from a script that explores the character’s background and how they got recruited into SHIELD. Don’t just turn on the camera, leave them emote and expect the audience to be as fascinated by the results as the people doing the acting! That would make for a dull Avengers 2 and it certainly makes for a dull Wish You Were Here.
It is interesting that positive reviews of this film tend to point to the central performances of Joel Edgerton and Felicity Price as while both do well and are accorded a good deal of time and space, neither character is particularly complex or engaging. They’re just vaguely unhappy middle-class people who can’t talk about their problems. In truth, I’m not convinced that either performance was really all that worthy of commentary, though I do think that Darcy-Smith made their performances the focus of the film.
The world of art house film has become a tediously reverential place. Raised on auteur theory and acutely aware that it lacks both the cash and cachet of commercial cinema, the people who write about art film are prone to treating its institutions as temples and its practitioners as living saints. Once filled with experimentation, transgression, provocation and very human failures, the cultural spaces of art house film are now given over to callow hagiography and propping up the careers of once great talents. As one might expect of a milieu that looks upon dissent as an act of economic sabotage, there is a tendency to treat the recipients of major festival awards as worthy regardless of whether their films are any good. Thus, to say that Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour is the most controversial winner of the Palme D’Or in decades is actually a good thing… turns out that there might be some life in the old dog yet.
While the controversy has many heads, the one with the longest teeth erupted prior to the announcement of the Palme D’Or when the New York Times’ senior film critic Manohla Dargis wrote about the film in what she would later describe as “399 words dissenting words”:
It’s disappointing that Mr. Kechiche, whose movies include “The Secret of the Grain” and “Black Venus” (another voyeuristic exercise), seems so unaware or maybe just uninterested in the tough questions about the representation of the female body that feminists have engaged for decades. However sympathetic are the characters and Ms. Exarchopoulos, who produces prodigious amounts of tears and phlegm along with some poignant moments, Mr. Kechiche registers as oblivious to real women. He’s as bad as the male character who prattles on about “mystical” female orgasms and art without evident awareness of the barriers female artists faced or why those barriers might help explain the kind of art, including centuries of writhing female nudes, that was produced.
“Men look at women,” the art critic John Berger observed in 1972. “Women watch themselves being looked at.” Plus ça change….
When people voiced their disagreement, Dargis took the bait and expanded her ideas in an essay that draws on a blog post made by the creator of the graphic novel that inspired the film. Writing in French but translated for Anglophonic consumption, Julie Marot praised the style and vision of the film whilst not only distancing it from her book but also from the real-life experiences of actual LGBT women:
I don’t know the sources of information for the director and the actresses (who are all straight, unless proven otherwise) and I was never consulted upstream. Maybe there was someone there to awkwardly imitate the possible positions with their hands, and/or to show them some porn of so-called “lesbians” (unfortunately it’s hardly ever actually for a lesbian audience). Because — except for a few passages — this is all that it brings to my mind: a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and me feel very ill at ease. Especially when, in the middle of a movie theater, everyone was giggling. The heteronormative laughed because they don’t understand it and find the scene ridiculous. The gay and queer people laughed because it’s not convincing, and found it ridiculous. And among the only people we didn’t hear giggling were the potential guys too busy feasting their eyes on an incarnation of their fantasies on screen.
In other words, the 2013 Cannes Film Festival jury gave the most prestigious award in world cinema to a piece of grotesque cultural appropriation; a film that took an original graphic novel by a gay woman and filtered it through the beliefs and proclivities of a straight man resulting in a series of needlessly explicit and exploitative sex scenes that owe a good deal more to the tropes and techniques of pornography than to the emotional contours of LGBT life.
Though in and of itself disappointing, the jury’s decision is made infinitely worse by the fact that Cannes Film Festival has an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to the representation of women in general and LGBT women in particular: Since the Palme D’Or assumed its current form in 1975, the award has had only one female winner (Jane Campion). In the year that Blue is the Warmest Colour won the Palme D’Or, there was only one female director in competition and the previous year saw none at all. While the slightly more edgy Un Certain Regard prize has a much better track record of allowing women to compete, men still dominate the list of winners. The problem is not just that the Cannes jury gave its most prestigious award to a straight man’s vision of a lesbian relationship, it’s that it chose to give that film an award despite having completely ignored all the films made by actual LGBT women including Chantal Akerman, Andrea Weiss, Ulrike Ottinger, Barbara Hammer, Lana Wachowski, Monika Treut and Lisa Cholodenko. It is almost as though the Cannes Film Festival only discovered the concept of a non-straight woman when a straight man decided to film a couple of straight women pretending to go down on each other. Given that art house film likes to present itself as being interested in different ways of seeing the world, this addiction to the straight male gaze is complacent, corrosive, wasteful and so completely unacceptable that every passing year brings nothing but shame to an institution already in urgent need of reform.
FilmJuice have my review of Bill Forsyth’s unimpeachably wonderful Romantic Comedy Gregory’s Girl.
I have seen Gregory’s Girl a number of times and each time I return to it, I am struck by another wonderful little moment. Set in urban Scotland in the early 1980s, the film takes place in a surprisingly well-mannered state school peopled with a variety of wonderful and colourful characters including the passionate chef, the diminutive football coach, the furtively light hearted head master and, of course, the charmingly naive Gregory. Tall and somewhat gangly, Gregory loses his place on the football team to a particularly athletic young woman:
One of the most striking things about Gregory’s Girl is the thoroughly progressive manner in which Forsyth handles Gregory’s growing obsession with Dorothy. These days, even relatively benign high school movies such as Easy A and Mean Girls go out of their way to sexualise their young female characters in a way that not only turns the audience into voyeurs but also speaks to Hollywood’s lack of confidence in an audience’s ability to empathise with female characters. A remade Gregory’s Girl would linger on Dorothy’s shorts and marvel at her thighs but Forsyth uses Dorothy’s athletic prowess as little more than the distinguishing characteristic that brings her to Gregory’s attention. Before Dorothy, Gregory viewed women as fantasy objects but losing his place on the football team to a girl means that he is suddenly able to relate to that girl as a real person and so falls hopelessly in love with her.
The reason I stress the important of the supporting characters is that Forsyth makes wonderful use of them as a means of providing a sense of emotional scale to what Gregory is undergoing. For example, the film opens with Gregory and his mates peeping at a nurse getting undressed but while Gregory’s realisation that girls can play football allows him to realise that women are people rather than sex objects, two of Gregory’s friends remain stuck in a state of adolescent sexuality and so spend the entire film talking about Caracas where the women reportedly outnumber the men. Also wonderful is the way that the film’s female characters usher Gregory into adulthood by urging him first to look after himself and then to realise that there are plenty of women in the world who are people despite the fact that they do not play football. Without the people around him, Gregory would not be anywhere near as memorable a character. Without the people around him, Gregory would have struggled to grow up.
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.
Often spoken of as a ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House is more rewardingly read as a portrait of a fragile mind under intense pressure. Scarred by decades of servitude to a sick and deranged mother, Eleanor Vance is a woman who carries her reality with her like a snail carries its shell. While the novel’s melody is dominated by Hugh Crain’s house and the miseries that befell his family, the harmony is all about the way that Eleanor picks things up and uses them to fashion a world more comforting and endurable than absolute reality. Everyone needs a little cup of stars.
One of the great joys of Jackson’s novel is the way that she manages to blur the boundaries of the real, the supernatural and the outright hallucinatory without ever bothering to draw attention to the lack of subjective difference between these different categories. For Jackson, this uncertainty is so universal that it simply does not merit commentary… it’s all one big sordid mess. Many films and books have been drawn to this ambiguity but while great works such Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl add their own ingredients to the ambiguous brew, most works that use these tropes yearn for clear dividing lines between the metaphorical and the concrete, the material and the fantastical, the sane and the insane, the true and the false. This is why you are more likely to encounter the carefully nested realities of films like Inception and Jacob’s Ladder than you are the happy ambiguities of a film like Total Recall or The Descent. Though definitely a film with a clear dividing line between reality and fantasy, Francois Ozon’s Sous le Sableis a film that is intensely relaxed about the ambiguities of madness.