Murderous Thoughts: Madame Beudet
Jeanne Dielman, and Iris
The reflection on violence and the spatialization of femininity—of being locked into an image and frozen out of time—was undertaken in two foundational films of the feminist canon: Dulac’s 1922 silent French film The Smiling Madame Beudet and Maya Deren’s 1943 Meshes of the Afternoon. While the differences in context and film form are important, these films both produce a homology between violence and the atemporal image; and for both, the mise-en-scene of the domestic sphere is used to signify menace and containment. Thus, these films can be understood as the origins of the feminist gothic in cinema. Where Deren’s experimentalism permits a series of image-concept relations to be directly reflected upon (the shattered mirror and the dead woman, the window as frame, the mirror shard and the shape of the knife, and so on), Dulac’s short narrative reflects on the atemporality of and in the domestic sphere at the level of narrative structure, making it particularly interesting for our purposes here.
Madame and Monsieur Beudet live in the provinces and, as the closing titles tell, are “joined by habit.” M Beudet relieves his boredom by taunting his wife with the possibility that he will shoot himself with the gun he repeatedly pulls from a desk drawer, flails around, and points to his temple, laughing uproariously (see fig. 21). Mme Beudet lives with her boredom by playing the piano and reading popular magazines from which she conjures dream lovers (see fig. 22). One evening M Beudet goes to the opera, locking his wife’s piano before leaving her at home. She spends the night reading and fantasizing about a young tennis player, whom she animates from the still images in the advertising pages of her magazine. However, these fantasies are repeatedly interrupted by phantasms of her ghoulish husband. So, before going to bed, she loads his gun and replaces it in his desk drawer. After a restless sleep in which she dreams about signs of confinement (domestic objects, the “House
Figure 22 Scene from The Smiling Madame Beudet, 1923 (with permission of M. Yann Beauvais).
of Detentions and Corrections," and nightmare images of her husband—all of which are structured around an intertitle “Always the same horizons…”), she is confronted in the morning with her husband’s rantings against women (“Women: do you know what is to be done with them?”) and his performances of violence: he crushes a doll’s head in his fist, pulls out the gun, aims it at his temple and then, before pulling the trigger, swings the aim toward her. The gun goes off, just missing her but shattering a vase of flowers. He interprets her attempted murder as intended suicide, for which he consoles her. The consolation is parodied by the appearance of puppets in the upper portion of the screen performing a melodramatic resolution. The film then ends as it began, with a dreary view of Chartres and a shot from behind the couple as they walk up a cobbled street, passing a priest on the way, with an iris-out (blackening out of the frame from circumference to centre) closing the screen to black. The opening title is repeated (“In the provinces.”) and added to with the words: “In the quiet streets, without horizon, under the heavy sky… Joined together by habit.” This leaves us with a sense of infinite repetition, suggestive of the entrapment of women not only in an array of social institutions but also within representation itself: a film loop through which her objective and subjective conditions are mediated, measured, and repeated.
The mise-en-scene and theme of menace and danger within the home can be followed through several other films in the canon to form a type of subgenre of the feminist gothic. Arguably, there is a politics of time within this subgenre, as is evident with Deren’s Meshes, Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979), Anne Wheeler’s Loyalties (1986), Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1990), and Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). Patricia Mellencamp (1995), Laleen Jayamanne (2001), and I (Lord 2006) have taken up the theme of the feminist gothic and its particularly colonial birth. For our purposes here, I need only point to the fact that the forms of violence, the intimations and acts of murder, are manifestations of the Heimlichkeit (familiarity, or homeliness) being a space of its opposite—the uncanny. The home (domestic and national) is viewed in these films as a place haunted by the violent history of silenced women and colonial others. Within these spaces and narratives we also find violence between mother and daughter (The Piano, Night Cries). These damaged dyads form the thematic centre of other films, such as Pam Tom’s Two Lies (1990).
Films dealing with sex work and/as domestic labour form another feminist subgenre central to the politics and aesthetics of the canon. One film that reflects directly on the violent imaginary and its particular temporal order is Broken Mirrors by Marlene Gorris. In this film Gorris uses a thriller format to explore two seemingly separate narratives. The first is of a man who kidnaps women, photographs them with a polaroid camera at each stage of their psychic disintegration and physical degeneration, and murders them. He affixes the photographs in sequential order to the wall of the room he uses to contain the women, leaving each series up for the subsequent woman to see as she is held captive. The second narrative thread is about a woman who becomes a prostitute and who, with her colleagues, frees herself from the brutality of being a sex worker. But the two stories mirror each other and eventually intersect: a john who turns out to be the killer is killed by the sex worker. Breaking the mirrors of “man-made” containments is the final victory (see fig. 23).
This overt and heavy-handed use of symbols of confinement and emancipation has a more subtle and complex reflection in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman—a film that is foundational to the last three decades of feminist media and that is of particular relevance to the issues of time, technology, and the body. The film makes use of elements that register the cinematic and social conditions of women’s suffering: domestic containment, social fantasies of woman as automaton and as prostitute, the scenarios of melodramatic time, and boredom. For 198 minutes we observe three sequential days of Jeanne’s almost obsessional routine of making beds, cooking, eating, having sex with a john, stabbing the john, cleaning, and so on. Slowly, the melodramatic sense of “bad timing” enters the frame, with inert objects seemingly animated by some external force. And with the melodramatic, the uncanny and the unfamiliar slip into and defamiliarize and denaturalize the most mundane of gestures.
Figure 23 Scene from Broken Mirrors, 1984, directed by Marlene Gorris.
Jeanne performs the murder as if it were one more necessary action within a series of routine timed gestures. Redesigning drama, Akerman purposefully skips the representation of causes. For motives she substitutes a series of automatic, alienated gestures, all with a similar effect. (Margulies 1996, 93)
Akerman tropes on the sublime machine of the modern feminine-automaton, making of and through Jeanne a fold or question in time and timing: teleological accumulation and inertia, temporal sequence and suspension, selfdetermined and moved by external forces.
Ivone Margulies, in her book Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, argues that, in the “hyper reality” of Akerman’s films, a “corporeal weight” is derived through duration, repetition, and the seriality of simplified forms to the effect of bleeding the temporal register of the filmic into the viewers’ experience of watching the film.4 And while it is certainly true that in Jeanne Dielman the repetitive, automaton-like acts of the female “character” have a political content (representing the work of prostitution and domestic chores in real time, for instance), the little “disasters,” the minimalist accumulation of change, also register boredom as “constitutive of impatience and anguish” (Margulies) and illuminate the fragility of order.
The temporality of her films works within the conditions of modernity’s order of time in order to turn it back on itself, to make it examinable by the
viewer as a condition shared by women in Western culture. In the film, time is nearly stilled in order that the space of containment within the screen and the mise-en-scene can be read: the physiognomy of women’s spaces (kitchens and bedrooms) and the singular texture of everyday life. However, this everyday life and these spaces are rendered strange, unfamiliar, almost uncanny through small inversions of banality as well as through temporal strategies that blur animate/inanimate, motion/stillness. Of major importance, then, are the non-events: the long takes, the camera that hardly moves, the cuts that rarely occur, and so on. These are techniques by which the “action” is expressed. That action is boredom—Akerman did, after all, choose “sloth” as her sin in the omnibus film Seven Women, Seven Sins.
In her essay “Historical Ennui, Feminist Boredom,” Patrice Petro (1996,197) makes the following argument for boredom:
It is perhaps not surprising…that so much feminist work over the past decades…has involved an aesthetics as well as a phenomenology of boredom: a temporality of duration, relentless in its repetition, and a stance of active waiting, which, at least in their feminist formulations, allow for redefinition, resistance, and change. For women modernists, aesthetic and phenomenological boredom provide a homeopathic cure for the banality of the present—a restless self-consciousness. very different from the ideal of disinterestedness.
In Akerman’s work boredom and repetition are companions that, through the use of long takes and real time, bring difference into existence. Real time dominates but, due to the habits developed in viewing conventional films, there is no time that moves more slowly. The time it takes to watch Jeanne wait, for instance, can become a time endured or a time for scrutiny and reflection on hidden forms of violence of everyday life—or both.
In this final section I turn to the 1990s and to the discourses of violence in terms of time, through aging and medicalization, by considering a film wherein the aging female body meets medical technology as a chronological enforcer. Toronto filmmaker Kim Derko’s The Book of Knives provides a time and, thus, a desire for the aging body, a body generally abandoned to abject spaces. The Book of Knives is a short experimental-narrative comprising seven chapters, or case studies, that chronicle episodes in the history of women’s treatment by psychiatric medical experiments. And while a lobotomy and an electroshock treatment are among the medical experiments depicted, the use of technologies of mechanical reproducibility are understood as being fundamental aspects of the treatment and are themselves under constant interrogation by the film. The present tense of the film concerns a woman in her thirties, Iris Campbell, who is undergoing psychiatric evaluation as a result of
Figure 24 Scene from The Book of Knives, 1996 (with permission of Kim Derko).
her having murdered a plastic surgeon. She appears as the patient in each of the seven case studies in the chronicle, beginning in 1905 with Walter Gree – nough Chase’s (a doctor who made early medical films) epilepsy biographies, and ending in 1995 (the year the film was made) with a yet-to-be written chapter of Iris Campbell’s treatment by a Dr. Shaw—a fictional female psychiatrist whose book of case studies are the textual double of the filmic episodes. Significantly, Iris commits suicide in one of the cases. I suggest that much of the affective and connotative value in the film emerges from the crisis undergone by the time of the lived-bodies when they confront the chronometry of the medical gaze, diagnosis, and treatment. This order of time, the view of history from which it emerges, and the role played by commodification is a nexus that abhors and makes abject the aging female body.
The discursive, historical, and technical construction of aging can explain a great deal about why such bodies are situated as a ruin of representation and, thus, why abjection seems to be the only discursive field to contain such bodies. But the constructionist approach gives us little means by which to understand the desire and temporal self-understanding of its subjects. Given that the medical treatments undergone by the subjects in the film effect most evidently the surface of the body (its morphology and its skin), the attempt to represent aging here is also an attempt to produce an image of sentience—that aspect of being to which the knowledge of life (the science, technology, and
Figure 25 Scene from The Book of Knives, 1996 (with permission of Kim Derko).
economy) is inimical. In other words, by giving temporal priority to the complex experience of aging and medicalization, the specular body—as scientific object and as the cultural scene of abjection and disuse—is subordinated by the felt body. What Kathleen Woodward (1991) describes as a phantasm of the felt body as the immobile/companion, empty, or fragmenting body is relevant here as well. The felt body in the film is, thereby, not a fullness or completion. And the disunity is not merely reflective of the fact that the film deals with multiple issues or offers multiple time zones for such issues; rather, the two terms—aging and medicalization—become incompatible in the same time, indicating that, for the female subject, these experiences are radically inconsistent with her coextensive assignment by medical discourse and treatment. One ghosts the other. And that incompatibility is expressed as violence.
The Book of Knives initially appears not to be about aging because the central character is young. But the issue of aging is pervasive—Iris Campbell as a medical subject is not permitted to age, she is static, a record, frozen in the chronometric space of medical imaging. The film also contains—in the double sense—a tremendous violence: discursive, symbolic, and physical violence done to and embodied by the women, and a moment when the psychic mechanism of interring trauma breaks apart. Iris’s murder of the plastic surgeon is, on the one hand, a heavy-handed symbolic act; on the other hand, it is the only act that frees her into time.
Doubled violence is discussed by Vivian Sobchack (1994) in her article “The Revenge of the Leech Woman: On the Dread of Aging in the Low- Budget Horror Film." While she is clearly working with quite a different cinema, her discussion is illuminating nonetheless. The aging woman is, according to Sobchack, scared and scary: “Subjectively felt, she is an excess woman— desperately afraid of invisibility, uselessness, lovelessness, sexual and social isolation and abandonment, but also deeply furious at.. .the double standard of aging in a patriarchal culture” (Sobchack 1994, 82). She goes on to modify Kristeva’s (1982) theorization of abjection, which comes from within (pregnancy and cancer), to argue that the proliferation and splitting of cells, the changes in volume, the indomitable growth of the Other within the body causes the bodily changes of the figures in these horror films. “Within the transformed, monstrous, and visible bodies of these women divided against themselves in desperation, anger, and self-loathing, there is indeed an ‘other.’” By working the popular cultural image through a phenomenological perspective on the felt body, she formulates that “we often experience the changes of aging as somehow alien to us, as if the ‘real self’ is frozen in time, imprisoned somewhere within the aging body” (85). The films thaw or animate this “time of the other.”
The device of using the same actress/character suggests two interwoven points: it serves as a critical commentary on the medical standardization of women, a standardization homologous to commodification—the always-the – same in countless number and the ever-new. And, extending from this point, the standard of the medicalized female functions representationally as a form of cryogenics: frozen in the discursive and pictorial spaces as the medical commodity, Iris has no time. Present-day Iris, having had botched plastic surgery, embodies this history of the yoked ideals of youth and beauty as female, but the containment of such ideals breaks apart and she becomes the “scary” woman Sobchack refers to. Unlike Sobchack’s Leech Woman, however, Iris’s morphology is unchanged—she doesn’t physically age or become physically monstrous—although the first shot of Iris is post-operative, stitched, and swollen. In fact, she remains well-composed and taut throughout—her skin as unsagging as her discourse as she interrogates the psychiatrist. Those previous generations of Iris documented in Dr. Shaw’s medical history text are animated by Iris as she reads agency into the subjects of those case studies; in turn, these other Irises become companion bodies that temporalize Iris’s own subjectivity.
In Derko’s film the priority given to the temporality of the aging body has the effect of “unnaturalizing” the historical and chronometric laws that underwrite scientific and cultural value. And with the three films focused upon here—The Smiling Madame Beudet, Jeanne Dielman, and The Book of Knives— the critique is accompanied by an alternative: the felt body, as desiring not just more time but a different time, an other time, is given a representational complexity and a reflexive mode for temporal self-understanding through acts of violence. As with Madame Beudet and Jeanne, Iris’s aging body’s incompatibility with the ideologies of femininity and the commodification of the female body produces a moment for reflection upon the dominion of a technologic of time and the forms of violence that the confrontation with this form of time engenders for women. Through the production of counter-images and counter-temporalities in the feminist public sphere, this confrontation is expressible as a cultural engagement rather than as private suffering. As I have attempted to do here, feminist media can thus be analyzed as a form for and an externalization of the violent imaginary embodied by women in their negotiations with or refusals of the narratives, images, and time zones of modernity.