It happened again, yesterday. It went like this. The occasion was the international premiere of the Dutch feature film Nadine (2007), which was opening the Internationales Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg. In Germany, they love talking about film. So every screening was followed by a discussion with the makers, in preparation for which the interviewer has quickly read the memoirs of Marcus Aurelius – because these are mentioned in passing at some point in the film. And the hastily counted forty grapes on the bunch lying in the fruit bowl on the table – not only as a symbol of vanity and fertility, but also (and not by chance) the precise age of the main character. The male chair of the discussion (fifty-plus, single, no children) said, by way of an introduction, that a young woman had approached him at breakfast and said she had felt embarrassed watching the film. She thought it was a typical male fantasy by someone who has come to the conclusion that he has no family.
If this text were a film, the previous paragraph would be the title sequence. Facts, intriguing details, seemingly irrelevant trivia, embarrassing details, associative images and cliff-hangers follow one another in quick succession. It is a filmmaker’s trick. The entire film in a nutshell. If this essay were to take the form of a film, every trick in the book could justifiably be used to convince the viewer: borrowed images and contrasting images, text, voice-over, music, editing. Film, after all, is a spatial/temporal experience. It all has to happen then and there, within those ninety minutes, in the darkened room. There is no time to leaf back, re-read, put the meaning of the words to one side for a moment and allow their sounds to resonate in your head.
It is here and now.
There is a woman driving through a sunny landscape in an open-topped car, or into a tunnel, windscreen wipers working overtime – we instantly know that the sun is a smile, the rain tears and the tunnel a (re)birth. Town, country, traffic, suburbs, colours, sunglasses, lipstick, suitcase on the roof rack, briefcase on the passenger seat. Inside of one minute, we know everything about her.
And, as we can assume that the filmmakers take us seriously, we can also justifiably assume that this is what is meant. That this female protagonist is partly reduced to her properties. This is what she is. As well as a few things we will find out about her during the next hour and a half, which we will recognise – or not – in ourselves. And then all the things a good actress will add – without us noticing – to give her character an air of mystery. That she’s actually an international jewel thief, although this romantic comedy is about a nursery school teacher and a successful record producer. Oh no, how stereotypical. OK, how about a headstrong world traveller and a Canadian guitarist? Or is that still too much of a romantic cliché? Do we have to go for a female Prime Minister and her passionate love affair with a corner shop owner – and they lived happily ever after – or is that just Cinderella in drag? (If this were a film, these tumbling sentences would be the impossible shot – an endless, rolling long take, a visual stream of consciousness.)
Let’s go back to Mannheim.
No, let’s almost go back to Mannheim. Let’s just pause on the way to remind ourselves what Nadine is about.
Nadine is the story of a successful advertising woman who increasingly feels – tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock – her biological clock catching up with her. She is the one left behind when Bridget Jones and the girls from Sex and the City are all happily married at last. She wants a baby so badly, she decides to steal one. What director Erik de Bruyn is in fact saying is: here we have a character whose natural urge to reproduce is so much stronger than all her social/cultural achievements. Together with screenwriter Gwen Eckhaus, he based Nadine on a number of women in their social sphere.
The point here is not to state that there are, of course, women who are not at all like Nadine; that there is surely more to it than her inability – or plain bad luck – in trying to bond with the right man as a father for her children (and, by the way, what a bunch of good-for-nothings the men in Nadine are!); neither is it about blaming a feminism-gone-mad that has alienated women from their own nature during Operation Assimilation. Nor is it about the economic usefulness of women working; or also seeing bringing up children as a form of work.
What it’s all about is that Nadine – in the very first sentence spoken in the introduction by the chair of the discussion – is characterised as a ‘male fantasy’, in the reported speech of a woman immediately fictionalised by her absence. Granting the man a convenient immunity for the rest of the discussion.
If there is one thing that is really not done, that is looking at films without putting yourself on the line. Film is all about – among other things – engaging the audience’s sympathy, empathy, antipathy; we must be able, while watching, to laugh, cry, squirm; we must fall in love, say goodbye, be led down new pathways, have old insights confirmed. Film sharpens up thought through emotion. Film is: I look, therefore I am. If it is not, then it is a senseless, dry intellectual exercise.
I am assuming that the anecdote told by the chair of the discussion was based on a real event. But even if this is the case, it still gives rise to more problems than it resolves. What, in this context, is a ‘male fantasy’? A fantasy, seen from the perspective of a man, and which is shared by and recognisable to many other men? But does Nadine then reflect a male fantasy?
Nadine is about a woman who has a massive biological clock ticking in her head. My impression was that De Bruyn and Eckhaus were taking their protagonist’s desire for a baby pretty seriously. They tended to take a more ‘female’ perspective in the film. Furthermore, they chose not to give the character they created everything on a plate. She has quite a lot to deal with: if she hadn’t been so obsessed by her career, she would have had time for children – after all, her colleagues have managed to cope with work and pregnancy. She is finally, then, given a chance of redemption: following her adventures, a good man is waiting for her, as a reward. This seems to me more like a typical girls’ fantasy – the celebrated Prince Charming.
The more I think about it, the more I am inclined to believe that the anecdote about the woman at breakfast was a ‘typical male fantasy’. Imagine for a moment that the chair of the discussion wasn’t sure what to do with all that overly female longing for motherhood. I didn’t describe him, in my introduction, like in a police report, as ‘fifty-plus, single, no children’ for nothing. In this case, the ‘counter-shot’ by a woman who doesn’t understand the film, or rejects it, is very convenient for him. It allows him, as it were, to retain his own enlightened view.
What our discussion chair didn’t know was that I had just had a meeting with his director, who told me that Mr Chair had sent him an e-mail, not long after the film had been selected, on a completely different topic, and which started with the sentence: ‘As my unborn children will confirm …’. The Director (also fifty-plus, married to a career woman, four children) had then asked me how old I was and whether I had children, in reply to which I was able to play the coquettish girl, whereupon he commented – something in the manner of the famous Dutch football player Johan Cruijff – that it was only possible to understand this film in the way you happen to understand this film. Men differently from women, women with children differently from women who want children – although he was not able to understand the latter, as we don’t ask ourselves whether we do or do not want other things that are essential to the continued existence of the human race, such as eating or sleeping. That’s what he said.
And, of course, he was right. About only being able to see what we see. With a wish for a child or without. With your own prejudices, advantages and disadvantages. Nevertheless, as a film critic, it is possible to train the way you see – the elasticity of your view – at the weekly press screenings, and then in the evenings with a stack of DVDs. Our Cruijffs are called Orson Welles or Jean-Luc Godard. Have I already said that cinema lovers are funny people? That, if they could, they would like nothing better than to watch films all day long? It would be easy to think up more clichés about cinema lovers than women, and they’d all be true.
Intervention by the narrator.
At this point in my argument, a lot of you are probably bursting to enter into a discussion with the Director – but we are talking about film here, so let’s leave the biological-Darwinian questions to one side for now. What the Director did is to unintentionally touch on what has become a very important point in what has become known as feminist film theory – although feminist is a problematic term in an academic sense, as it is an ideologically loaded term, like Marxist film theory or Lacanian film theory.
This is the simple question: is there a female way of looking at film, and does this lead to a fundamentally different conclusion about film, distinct from those made on the basis of personal interests and sensibilities? Film critics should – no, must – allow the latter two into their work, while at the same time neutralising them. They must, in any event, be acutely aware of these, as film criticism can never, ever even pretend – like science – to be objective; although it must strive for a form of objectivity. This is why it is vastly important that film critics at least ask themselves whether they are looking as a man or as a woman, as a mother or as a childless person, as a fan of horror films or romantic comedies or both – and whether this is relevant. I happen to believe that this is, realistically, the maximum achievable. If you want to really think about film, you must master not only the art of objectifying, but also the logic of emotion and poetic justification. But then again: how do you know that you are looking as a man or as a woman, except through the accidental combination of circumstances that has made you the one or the other?
Personally, I don’t spend much time worrying about this, as it would get in the way of the filmic experience.
These were, however, issues examined in feminist film theory, particularly in the 1980s. Attempts were made to analyse the female gaze of the viewer and the male gaze of the filmmaker, as well as to describe and explain the various roles and stereotypes within which women appeared in films. Among the conclusions reached was that women watching films did not necessarily identify with the generally passive female perspectives in a film, but more often with the active, male roles.
As film is a distorting mirror of social grimaces, it should come as no surprise that another conclusion reached was that the position of women in film was not good. So something had to be done. Academe became activism. Feminist theoreticians climbed onto the barricades. The result was greater awareness of the subordinated position of women in film, and of female filmmakers. And it helped. Feminist films emerged, as did normal films about women; and more and more women started making films. But still not enough. As shown by the number of films directed by a woman screening at a festival like Mannheim – maybe three, in total. It’s a man’s game, little girl. Heavy cameras and all that.
But does a woman who watches film, and who writes about film, busy herself with such considerations? Does she want to do so? Must she? I prefer to belie my gender and just watch film. I have been trained to ignore all of my individual traits in the quest for the Holy Grail of film analysis: personal objectivity. I have been drilled to identify with male protagonists. To the extreme degree that I, like them, can be irritated by their female antagonists: girls who want to tame them, princesses on beds that are far too soft (but without a pea under the mattress), treacherous mothers and – last but not least – whores. And saints. But then, film saints are always fallen women in disguise.
What’s more: I don’t really like films that want to think for me, as a wealthy Western woman. I like films that make me think. I like to identify with the unexpected. To wander in strange film worlds.
This story actually begins before the beginning. So we have to go further back in time. Godard said that’s OK. A film, he said, has a beginning, a middle and an ending, but not necessarily in that order. So here we go. Off to another film festival. Cannes. The films that premiere there can confidently be said to set the agenda for the rest of the film season and, owing to the slow arrival of films in Dutch cinemas, for a while longer here. The selection made there has nothing to do with coincidence.
I was confused by the whole fuss surrounding Nadine in Mannheim, because I had already been angered by a similar situation. At the Cannes Film Festival 2007, I had decided to become a feminist. Brought up as I was by three generations of strong women, for me emancipation was always so self-evident it was never really an issue. But in Cannes, I saw a number of films that evoked a kind of revulsion in me, which I could only express in terms of man/woman. With hindsight, this could probably best be compared to the reaction by the woman at breakfast in the hotel in Mannheim. I saw films about which I could say with much greater conviction: Bah. A male wet dream.
I also considered them to be fascinating and important films, because these can go together. But: Bah. It’s nice to be able to give such a gut response every now and then.
I have seen thousands of films in which men behave just as predictably as women, but that offered far more interesting perspectives than emancipation. It’s just a fact that films work with archetypes and stereotypes.
The immediate cause of my brief flirtation with feminism was a film called Silent Light (Luz silenciosa, 2007), in which Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas tells a story of marital infidelity within a Mennonite community in the north of Mexico. A great starting point. To begin with, you have the ultimate isolated subculture. Voilà! Here is your film laboratory. Mennonites are an extremely pacifist order who base their beliefs on the teachings of Frisian Reformation theologian Menno Simons (1496-1561). Some 100,000 Mennonites live in Mexico, in relatively autonomous areas with their own laws, schools, without electricity and modern medical care and, most important of all, unified by their own language, Plautdietsch, a medieval Germanic dialect related to Dutch.
In this, his third film, Reygadas (who studied the law of war and worked for the Mexican diplomatic service before going on to make films) is interested principally in the extreme pacifism of the Mennonites. How do they resolve a forbidden love that ‘transgresses the laws of God and man’? How can you remain forbearing while your heart is breaking? For the sake of convenience, we have to assume the latter, as the director instructed his amateur actors (real Mennonites, who pretty much play themselves) to show as little emotion as possible in front of the camera. His choice of characters is a traditional one: two women and one man. A ratio that is seldom reversed in a film. In this film, it is striking because it is rather too ostentatiously obscured by a dazzling aesthetic that is intended to free all events of value judgements.
To make matters even more complicated, Reygadas chose to make the two women in the main character Johan’s life (exhibit A: male perspective) as good as interchangeable. They look alike. Blonde. Little-House-on-the-Prairie-dress. Headscarf to keep their hair in place. Penetrating gaze. No, not penetrating – anaesthetised. As if the religious peace that drives them also makes them puppets of their own convictions. Blonde farmers in dungarees. The Netherlands as shown in the Open Air Museum. But the Plautdietsch sounds like a made-up secret language. Do you look at this film differently if you don’t speak the language? Do you then pay attention to what is really being said?
Looking again at the press kit handed out to members of the press on the occasion of such a world premiere, I suddenly wondered whether there were really two women – although they were both listed in the credits. But there was a photo of only one of them. The mistress. Or is the other woman, the wife, the woman we only see from behind? Her face left in the shadows. Does she (still) exist, now that her husband’s love has left her?
Love. Maybe that’s the only thing that matters in the cinema. All the rest: war, voyages of discovery, crazy adventures and irresistible laughter, are just distractions. And are also love. And film is the only arena (with the exception of the kitchen floor) where the battle of the sexes is fought – day in, day out – with ever newer, more inventive weapons (but never decided).
Reygadas is the kind of filmmaker that makes his shots so long that the viewer has oceans of time to reflect while watching. He gives us few images, few handles, so everything can be just as rich and important as you yourself choose. Film-phenomenological explorations through fields of grain and rain showers, with only the sun rising and setting in the eternal distance. Shards of meaning.
Ha! A tasty treat for the film critics. Now they can really let go for once, without having the message dictated to them by overproduced films. Messages belong on your mobile phone.
Once I get into the flow of writing like this, it’s difficult to be cross with Reygadas for long. His film still challenges me to think. Why is Johan the only character in the film who is allowed to take action? Why do both women simply wait for his decision? A decision that is no decision, as divorce is out of the question. No one judges, no one acts. I suspect that Reygadas is giving us a sketch of heaven. I feel lost in hell.
And, by the way: do the characters really accept their fate? Reygadas saves himself – and them – from the impasse by having one of the two women die and getting the other one to bring her back to life. Thanks to this amazing deus ex machina – which would have brought a blush even to accustomed ancient Greek cheeks – a kind of resolution is achieved. A sacrifice and a miracle restore the natural balance. All’s well that ends well.
But now, my blood is boiling again. Reygadas’ film is probably both feminist (in the sense that he makes us think about the emancipated or otherwise position of the two women) and misogynist. He depicts the women as rag dolls without free will who – and here is the wet dream part – have more pity for one another than for themselves, and therefore forgive Johan. That’s nice, isn’t it? The man gets to commit adultery and then – without taking the emotions of the women into account for a moment – to even profit from it as, thanks to the filmmaker, the two women are big enough to forgive one another. How many films are made in which a woman gets what she wants? And in which, furthermore, no miraculous power has to be invoked to justify it all? Grrr. We simply can’t go on like this. Something has to be done. Should I, like my film sisters in the ‘80s, take to the streets? And then?
The film is perfect. The content repulsive. I don’t mind identifying with Jennifer Aniston, if I have to. Or with some other giggling starlet. But this? These women are not women. They are not even human – they are docile subjects. The Mennonites have an extreme belief in predestination. So the miracle, the deus ex machina, is only necessary to make Johan realise something, and give the audience a little emotional kick after two and a half hours of restraint. Because, miracle or no miracle, in a predestined world, what must happen will happen. Yes, there are parallels between the Filmmaker and God.
Which leaves me with these women. Did I become a feminist because I empathised with their fate? Was I already a feminist because I believe that it is the job of a critic not only to describe and assess films, but also to explain them and reveal their hidden assumptions? And oh boy! How often does this involve how men and women deal with one another.
But Silent Light did more. It is one of those rare films that actually prompts action. There are moments when you simply want to jump up out of your seat and drag the characters down from the screen and say to them: come with me, leave that man to stew in his own juice – you deserve better, find a job, stand up for yourself! Above all, the last part: do it yourself. The passivity of the women in this film serves no other purpose than to soothe the man’s conscience. At the end of the day, the only question the film asks is whether it is possible to resolve a conflict without acting. The only answer the film gives to this question is: yes, if you just stay true to yourself. The conclusion drawn is ultimately that Johan will continue to live happily ever after with his two women. Don’t get me wrong: even if he lives with three women, or four, that doesn’t bother me. The point is that the female characters in this film have lost their freedom of action. And that is going too far.
I experience similar emotions when seeing little Korean girls being pursued by scary monsters, war wounds bleeding so severely that they are just begging to be dressed, and above all in the case of some long-anticipated kindred spirit who always neglect to kiss the heroine – and when they finally do clumsily embrace her, o help! I instantly forget all my feminism, my environmental consciousness and my political commitment. My heart is still beating faster now.
That has nothing to do with being a woman, with feminism, with female thinking. That’s just your normal (or ‘normal’) seduction and power of film.
And it’s just beautiful when it works.
Whether in Mannheim, Cannes, Berlin, Vienna, Rotterdam, Brooklyn or Montreal.
Once upon a time there was a man – in fact, he was the editor-in-chief of a serious English film magazine – who thought that women could be more easily enchanted in this way than men, because women have learned throughout their lives to empathise with the feelings of others. He was, therefore, not at all surprised at the relatively large number of women working as professional film critics in the Netherlands. The British, really.
Then there was someone else who said that a love of film is a boy’s thing. It’s got to do with one-upmanship and making lists and collecting things.
And how does she think about it now?
She’s back from Suffragette City.
Now she’s just a woman again.
And I’m just me.
This essay was originally published in Manon Duintjer (ed.), Zij denk dus zij bestaat. Over vrouwen, mannen en denken (She Thinks, Therefore She Is: On Women, Men and Thought, AMBO, 2008), a collection of texts by female Dutch philosophers. Translated from the Dutch by Mark Baker.
© Dana Linssen 2008
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.