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Cinema and Feminism

jeudi 6 avril 2017, par Marion Devauchelle

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 How can feminist film theories of the 1970s be seen to be appropriate to Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles ?

Avant-propos : cet article est tiré d’un essai réalisé dans le cadre d’un cours intitulé "Behind the camera : introduction to women’s cinema from the 1960s to the present", suivi lors d’un semestre d’étude à l’Université de Birmingham (Angleterre) en 2016.

The 1970s has witnessed the emergence of “second-wave” feminism, whose slogan was “women’s liberation” from the so called patriarchy, male dominance over women. On those times, the ideologies of this movement gradually spread all spheres of society. Film industry is not spared either : new theories about women’s place in cinema arise while more and more women product films. This essay focuses on how feminist film theories of the 1970s can be seen to be appropriate to Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, produced by Chantal Akerman in 1975. Even if Akerman claims that she did not product her film from a feminist perspective, Marion Schmid stresses, however, that it can be analyzed in this way because of several elements. Indeed, by evocating oppression women endure, turning women into subjects on the screen and exploring the relation a film sets up with spectators, Akerman’s work aligns with feminist film theories.

By exploring theme of oppression and presenting a woman as a main character, Akerman’s film tries to put an end to what 1970s feminist film theories present as ‘illusion of the reality’.
Regarding film industry, Laura Mulvey (1989, p.111-113) notes that women are more present in front of the camera than behind it. In general, if a woman appears in a film, it is in one produced by a man. This fact implicates that the female character is entirely determined by a male view in her gesture, behaviour as well as her manners of speaking. This women’s image determined by men’s views differs from how women perceive themselves in real life and how women are in real life. Mulvey and feminist film theorists affirm this wrong image is nothing more than an effect of the ‘illusion of the reality’ created and imposed by ‘traditional bourgeois and patriarchal societies’ (Schmid, 2010, p.46). This is face to this reality that Claire Johnston concludes on the absence of women on the screen (Rich in Women and film : a discussion of feminist aesthetics, p.116). In order to protest against this way imposed by ‘commercial cinema’ (Schmid, 2010, p.34) and society itself, Mulvey (1989, p.115) invites ‘to replace one female role-model by another, stronger and more independent. Or to find images of women that were realistic and relevant to women’s life experience’. It is exactly in what Akerman’s film emphasizes : this 3h15min film focuses on the routine of a woman, Jeanne. The spectator is led to observe her gestures, activities, and daily chores (like cutting potatoes, washing the dishes, and picking up the mail...) which are repeated daily and highlighted by static and long (about several minutes) shots. Therefore, by making a housewife the main character of her film and talking about her quotidian, Akerman digs up the alienating side of housekeeping, what society doesn’t recognize and remains confined in the shadow (Schmid, 2010, p.34).
More than giving to the women a new and more realistic place on the screen, Akerman’s film brings to light the oppression exercised by patriarchal society on them. On this topic, Johnston says that ‘the need for oppressed people to write their own history cannot be overstressed. Memory, an understanding of struggles of the past and a sense of one’s own history constitute a vital dynamic in any struggle’ (Mulvey, 1989, p.115). Mulvey (1989, p.118) reaffirms this need to ‘break with the past’ and therefore put an end to oppression and be aware. As Schmidt (2010, p.44) writes, repression is one of the main themes of the film. It appears first in the character of Jeanne itself. She is, according to Loader, the archetypal ‘outdated femininity’, ‘automaton’ and ‘victim of traditional bourgeois and patriarchal societies’ (Schmid, 2010, p.46). Some patriarchal codes can be read in her way to be dressed and general gestures. The most relevant example remains on the movement of her hands in clients scenes, which traduce a “relation between master and servant” (Schmid, 2010, p.35). Jeanne’s silence, constant expressionless face or inexpressive voices are also clues of struggle. To this emotional repression can be added social and sexual oppressions. The first one is illustrated in the sort of containment if it is not detachment from part of Jeanne in conversations she has with other characters. The second one appears through the sexual discussions Jeanne has with her son in which every time he wants to talk about sex with her, she refuses (Schmid, 2010, p.38).
But the aim of the film is also to show a woman trying to rebel against such repressions. At the end, it appears clearly that Jeanne becomes aware of her struggle and starts to fight against patriarchal oppression. When her son says ‘Well, if I were a woman, I could never make love with someone I wasn’t deeply in love with’, she answers ‘How could you know ? You’re not a woman’ and thus prevents a man (her son) from imagining what a woman should do or not, that is to say from giving a representation of the women from a male gaze. In this way, she is defending her gender, giving it a presence. Knowing that the main actress Delphine Seyrig was an active feminist, it seems even more evident that Jeanne is here defending women’s place in society. The final scene of the murder is certainly that one which better symbolizes the abolition of the repression exercised by patriarchal culture (Schmid, 2010, p.45). Loader wondered herself if the murder was or not a ‘part of desperate struggle to preserve the status quo in the face of forces that are threatening to change and overwhelm her ?’ Johnston also asked if it was ‘An act of liberation and revolution against patriarchal oppression ? The abolition of the phallus after a moment of jouissance ?’. Whatever would be the right answer, regarding to the idea announced by Akerman according what ‘c’est sa dernière liberté de ne pas jouir’ (Schmid, 2010, p.46), it seems clear that Jeanne’s act was a way to keep a part of freedom, to escape from the struggle caused by patriarchal society.
Nevertheless as Johnston analyzes, there is in the project of denouncing patriarchal society, fetishization and absence of the women on the screen, ‘The need to show not only the oppression of women but also interrogate the language of the cinema’ (Women and film : a discussion of feminist aesthetics, p.119). Criticizing patriarchal society and presenting women as subject instead of signifier is not sufficient. However, understanding how cinema impacts on spectator can lead to the conception of an (imaged and verbal) aesthetic which can wake up critical reactions to a film.

The particular aesthetic of Jeanne Dielmann (based on a new language and a fight against voyeurism) reflects Mulvey’s theory about the need to challenge spectator’s place.
‘The impression of reality in the cinema is [...] due [...] to the complex process of the basic cinema apparatus itself, which in its totally includes the spectator’ (Camera Obscura in Mulvey, 1989, p.121). It means that the ‘illusion of the reality’ has a real impact on spectators : it invites them to identify with the characters they watch on the screen. Thus, a female spectator (watching a film produced by a man) tends to identify herself with the image of the female character created from a male gaze (Taylor -Women and film : a discussion of feminist aesthetics, p.116-117). Hence the absence of women in the audience defined by Mulvey (Rich in Women and film : a discussion of feminist aesthetics, p.116) : the women’s image is created by men for men. According to her, the solution to this issue remains in ‘splitting open the closed space between screen and spectator’ (Mulvey, 1989, p.119). Find a new language is a first step : ‘The next step would, from a feminist point of view, have to move from women unspeaking to [...] a point women can speak themselves, [...] to a poetic language made also by women and their understanding’ (Mulvey, 1989, p.121). This language ‘must [has] a collective existence, penetrating any intuitive rapport between spectator and creator’ (Mulvey, 1989, p.118). In her film, Akerman develops such a new verbal expression. As mentioned above, dialogues are almost inexistent and the few times Jeanne expresses herself, she does it with a certain detachment. Actually, this way of unemotional or none expression remains on an ‘anti-illusionist’ strategy (Schmid, 2010, p.40) which alerts spectators to the artificiality of the scene (like in Jeanne’s reading letter scene), makes a distant between them and the characters and thus puts an end to the ‘illusion of the reality’.
The second step in challenging spectators is to eliminate voyeurism and visual pleasure. Women’s image has long been resulted of ‘exploitation as sexual object on the screen’ (Mulvey, 1989, p.113). On this topic, Mulvay (1989, p.122) refers to Freud by writing ‘the image of women in patriarchal representation refers primarily on connotations within the male unconscious, to its fear and fantasies’ and quotes Jonhston : ‘She represents [...] the distant memory of maternal plenitude and the fetishized object of his fantasy of castration [absence of penis]’. By relying on these studies, Mulvay claims that as ‘voyeuristic pleasure is built into the way a spectator reads film’, it is necessary to abolish these ‘Conventions of narrative cinema [...] tailored to dominant masculine desire’. In Jeanne Dielman some strategies which enforce Mulvay’s ideas can be distinguished. First, in scenes of nudity, the framing (and even static takes) prevents the camera from enjoying woman’s body. According to Schmidt (2010, p.36), ‘immobile camera and long takes’ also draws a new cinematic narrative which contrasts with the traditional one and ‘maintain a distance between the viewer and the characters’. These processes really reflect what Mulvey (1989, p.119) says by ‘splitting open the closed space between screen and spectator’, ‘challenging the spectator’s place in cinema’ and put an end to ‘visual pleasure’. But the relationship between this film and spectators goes beyond challenging them. De Lauertis (1987, p.132) says : ‘I recognize in those unusual film images, in those movements, those silences and those looks, the way of an experience all but unrepresented, previously unseen in film’. Here, the ‘three looks in mainstream narrative cinema’ (Hayward, 2002, p.123) defined by Mulvey, that is to say, the camera’s look, the look of the characters and the spectator’s look, are all perceived from a female gaze and not from a male one. Nevertheless, it is not only because the director and the main character are women nor because the gaze from which the film has been created is a female one and consequently because a female looking is proposed to spectators that make this film ‘the way of an experience all [...] previously unseen in film’. It is not either due to the interaction between what De Lauretis (1987, p.132) calls the “two modes of the feminine” (character, image and femininity determined by director, camera and feminism) which characterize Akerman’s film. It is not just because this film is created by women for women that it is singular. It is because it “addresses its spectator as a woman regardless the gender of the viewers” (De Lauretis, 1987, p.133).

To conclude, in Jeanne Dielman, Akerman proposes ’the possibility of a new feminine language in the cinema’ (Schmid, 2010, p.47) also researched by feminist film theorists of the 1970s. It particularly joins them about the necessity to denounce repression from patriarchal societies and turn the woman character into subject. To succeed in this challenge, Akerman breaks the codes of traditional narratives by adopting what Mulvay would have called semiotics and psychoanalysis strategies. That is to say by having taken into account the relation shared by spectators with the character on the screen and by proposing a new aesthetic. By opting for unusual takes, dialogues and character’s behaviours, Akerman succeeds in putting an end to ‘illusion of reality’ and voyeurism which belong to patriarchal society and ‘bourgeois ideology’ (Schmid, 2010, p.36 / Mulvey, 1989, p.120). But it is important to remind that for Akerman, the aesthetic chosen in this film is only one feminist/ feminine aesthetic among many others.

Rédaction et publication : Marion Devauchelle

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