Iconography CAMILLE SEI & KAREN LE MAREC
In 1947, André Malraux conceptualised his own “imaginary” museum, where artworks acquire a new life through a confrontation game with other art objects from different cultures and eras. Today, his modernist collage continues to inspire art curators, film programmers and even web users who log into film-streaming services to compensate for this year’s closure of cultural sites. The death of cinema, Jean-Luc Godard had predicted it, in Histoire(s) du cinema (1988–1998), when blaming its commercial nature. Like a tidal wave, directors projected love, laughter, pain, desire and fear onto the earth, but never took their prophetic role seriously… class struggle, the rise of fascism, genocides, generally went through the net of representation, which privileged profitability over Revelation.
Oedipus Rex, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967
As a child, I was struck by the Spanish expression dar a luz – which literally means to bring to light, but technically refers to childbirth. This words association connoted the idea of a woman, plunged in darkness, bringing a little being of light into the world. In a flash, the latter would illuminate the room in a manner similar to cinema projectors. Whether it is a woman or cinema, both deliver stories after a development period – these make their own way through the world by travelling, becoming successes, fading into oblivion or even dying in fires. You might consider this metaphor a little too easy, yet I have noticed that it is only rarely mentioned. I would even go as far as to suggest that, in the history of female representation, men are mainly interested in everything that happens before and after delivery.
Take, for instance, one of the most celebrated films about womanhood: Lola Montès by Max Ophüls. It tells the story of a 19 th -century courtesan whose scandalous affairs with rich and famous men became both her greatest glory and most spectacular downfall. Whether she is presented as dolled up or exhausted, Lola’s life never belongs to her; first, her reputation is defined by the men who maintain her, and later, her survival depends on men willing to pay to touch her hand inside a circus cage. Needless to say, her children are nowhere to be seen. Like in the vast majority of films at the time, women like Lola were in a no-win situation; they were either condemned for being objects of desire or punished for no longer triggering desire. Evidently, such an equation made it hard for directors to move their camera lenses towards pregnant female bodies.
Junebug, Phil Morrison, 2005
And yet, cinema is the art form the most haunted by mothers: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex, Pedro Almodóvar’s All About my Mother, Bong Joon Ho’s Mother, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho… Haunted, since mothers rarely are the focal point; they are everywhere and nowhere all at once. Mothers originate every stories, every traumas, every personality disorders, every murderers. James Cagney’s hysterical reaction in White Heat (1949) when learning about the death of his “Ma” best illustrates the importance of mothers in movies seeking psychological depth. Actual pregnancy, involving the transformation of a woman’s body, is a theme that has either been cut and sanitised in the name of public morals and its sense of decency (or something around those lines), or superficially integrated within wider narratives. In most cases, the spectator is put before a fait accompli: the children are born, and if they are not, the pregnancy consists of a parenthesis within the storyline, almost like a character’s casual trip to the powder room.
Ironically, Greek mythology has shown us that humanity itself was made of a myriad of the most bizarre births we could possibly imagine: from Athena being born through Zeus’ head, to Pegasus springing from Medusa’s neck. Overall, these metamorphoses, which all lead to childbirth, remain overlooked, especially on behalf of cinema, the art form the most able to produce visible evidences of the relationship between external surfaces and inner lives. Of course, one could still argue that Ridley Scott, James Cameron and David Fincher explored the physical monstrosity of going into labour through bloody symbolism in the Alien franchise. But the fact that the female body, in such particular stage, has been largely relegated to the realm of horror, is telling of our society’s contradictory feelings of fascination and repulsion towards childbearing. There is indeed a world of difference between Éric Rohmer’s Die Marquise von O… (1976) and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968); one is dominated by the figure of the angel, the other by the devil itself.
Girls, Lena Dunham, 2016
It would be wrong, however, to assume that cinema continues to attribute a two-part act to women; some filmmakers have managed to transcend “the mother and the whore” dualism that even New Wave European directors struggled to let go. More critical narratives like The Match Factory Girl (1990), Junebug (2005), Hungry Hearts (2014) or Roma (2018) try to show the more complex impact of pregnancy on women’s minds and bodies, by highlighting their particularisms, rather than their common symptoms. Furthermore, contemporary female directors like Maïwenn, Theresa Traore Dahlberg, Léonor Serraille or Lena Dunham, are carrying Marguerite Duras, Chantal Akerman and Laura Mulvey’s legacies by deconstructing, in their own personal ways, the male gaze and the subsequent myth of the happy bourgeois family. Narratives exploring stillbirth, the choice of becoming a single mother or not becoming one at all meet and coexist, at long last, on our screens. One of the greatest evidences of positive and rapid change is that it took only three decades to successfully adapt Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale…
Therefore, Balzac’s cousin Bette, the stereotypical spinster filled with jealousy and resentment due to her childlessness, no longer has the same impact on the minds of 21 st -century readers. Instead, an increasingly powerful solidarity between women is being felt, heard and makes everyone tremble. Men no longer dictate Lola’s rise and fall. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), Céline Sciamma reveals that the lines between death and life; loss and gain; grief and celebration are much less clear than it appears in a woman’s life. The genuine happiness ensuing from the scene where an 18 th -century female painter immortalises on canvas Adèle Haenel posing as an “angel maker” terminating an unwanted pregnancy, brings comfort to women who have been taught, for centuries, that subordination is the precondition to their existence. Today, we have every reason to believe that we can be understood otherwise, beyond the paradigm of fullness and emptiness.
Portrait of a lady on fire, Céline Sciamma, 2019