The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage stakes its claim to seriousness from the outset by foregrounding important themes, many of which were central to oppositional culture of the 1960s: the domination of nature and man’s (I specify gender advisedly) alienation from it; an obsession with possessions or, in the film’s scheme of things, collection; the exteriorization of inner life and a consequent radical split between inside and outside; and, finally, as a mode of relating to the world that encompasses all the above, colonization.
The film’s title, recalling Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), implies the first theme. Man’s dominion over the natural is revealed (along with the relevance of Hitchcock’s film) early on by rows and rows of stuffed birds in glass cabinets at the Fondazione Wilkinson, for whom the male protagonist Sam has written a manual on the preservation of rare birds. Later on, a race track and zoo prove important to the plot, as does the painter Consalvi, who keeps cats in cages in order to fatten them up and eat them. The motif of caging comes to encompass virtually all the urban imagery in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, including the high-rise apartment building in which Ranieri and Monica live, and Sam and Julia’s apartment. Moreover, caging seems virtually internalized within the film’s figures themselves. The crystal plumage (“like glass” we are told at one point) means that the bird of the film’s title is self – encased. And the two killers in the film, Monica and Ranieri, dress head-to – toe in patent leather, likewise caging (and effectively denying) their bodies in “plumage,” dissociating them not only from their world but also from themselves.
The fundamental alienation from nature implied in the motif of caging is perhaps most strikingly conveyed by Consalvi’s painting. Accurately described by the antique store owner as “naif but macabre,” it depicts a young girl being attacked by a man in a snowscape that is strangely distorted. It is as though the act of aggression has violated the natural order, rendering it grotesque, or as though, in the contemporary world, man can see nature only as “macabre.” Consalvi himself lives on a farm where he has managed to seal off all access except for a second-story window, from which he lowers a ladder if he so chooses. (As he puts it: “Nobody gets inside unless I want them to.”) The plumage of glass and patent leather or vinyl “skin” of the killers also seal off the figures they encase, while transforming the natural (skin) into something artificial and “macabre.”
Caging bespeaks collection, and in addition to ornithological foundations, zoos, and Consalvi, the film focuses on an antique store and, most centrally, an art gallery. The police obsessively collect and analyze information via the usual forensic apparatus, plus tape recorders and a hilarious computer data bank and information processor. Sam and Julia have littered their apartment with paintings, posters, busts, and other paraphernalia that are ultimately eclipsed by a photograph of Consalvi’s painting that Sam “collects” from the antique store. Julia, a model who does little but look pretty and lie around the apartment, is clearly a collectable for Sam; and Monica, who is many years younger and seems to have little in common with her husband Ranieri, is apparently there to fulfill his need (reflected in his career as an art gallery proprietor) for exquisite objects.
Of course, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is not an analysis of colonization per se; its allusions to historical instances tend principally to underscore a habitual mode of relating to the world (conquest, possession, projection of self onto other) that characterizes the present as well as the past. This colonizing relation is not only violent in and of itself within the film, it also evokes extreme alienation on the part of those living colonized lives (compartmentalized, objectified, split off from themselves). Consalvi is the clearest case in point, but indicative as well is Caucaso, the “bird with the crystal plumage”: “They have to keep it isolated. It can’t get along with the other animals. They’re going to have to move him… .He can’t even stand the smell of them.” It is this alienation that gives rise to the violence in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Moreover, the violence (as well as colonization) represents both a critique of masculinity and an analysis of women’s response and perpetually renewed oppression in the face of it.6
As may already be clear, there is an implicit critique of alienated masculinity in the film’s representation of Consalvi and Caucaso. Sam is both alienated and hollow, a classic American extravert come to Italy because he has lost his ability to write. His dependence on external stimulation is partly what draws him into the murder investigation, and his involvement in the investigation becomes a means of detaching himself from everything else, including Julia. Inspector Morosini is just as vacuous as Sam, focused entirely on the outer world of crimes and clues, with no life apart from his job, no home. When the case is “solved” and he has no more external stimulation, he falls asleep—on television, no less! Ranieri is aloof and unpleasant at best.
The film’s critique of masculinity extends far beyond mere character deficiencies. Most important is Monica’s assault by a man when she was a young girl. Male violence against women is the original sin, the fall from grace, with the Biblical overtones underscored by Consalvi’s edenic (albeit “macabre”) rendering of the attack. Moreover, this event is just the most blatant one in which men substitute violence for intimacy. Morosini and his profession are an obvious case in point, but so is Sam. The first time we see Julia and Sam together (she has returned from a modelling trip and he from witnessing an apparent attack on Monica at the art gallery), he keeps ignoring her affectionate invitations to bed. He then “dreams” of Monica, covered in blood, once Julia finally persuades him to make love. This is only one of a number of occasions in which Sam shows little or no interest in lovemaking or in reciprocating Julia’s affection, obsessing instead on Monica, the painting of her assault, and the serial killings.
This, in turn, is part of a more profound disregard for Julia on the part of Sam, Morosini, the police, and Sam’s friend Carlo, which can only be interpreted as systemic misogyny. As Morosini drags Sam deeper into the investigation, he blatantly ignores Julia’s passionate and justified objections. Far
worse is the treatment of Julia when Sam receives a phone call that threatens not only him but also her. The phone call is taped and, five times thereafter, is replayed, three times by the police and twice by Sam for Carlo. Morosini shows no interest whatsoever in the threat made to Julia, and in fact he and his colleagues fail to even replay that part of the conversation. Sam does replay it, but he and Carlo ignore it. (Argento insistently juxtaposes the words relating to Julia with the utterly indifferent expressions on the faces of the men.) Consistent with this, Sam goes off to visit Consalvi (a fitting union of two self-absorbed males) and leaves Julia alone in the apartment, where she ends up under terrifying siege. Julia’s fundamental lack of significance for Sam is underscored in Monica’s study near the end, as Julia lies bound, gagged, and barely conscious on the floor. Sam remains oblivious to her presence throughout the lengthy scene.
Julia’s subjection to chronic disregard is a milder, more subtle version of the assault on Monica. Both derive from being female in a male world. Monica responds to her abuse with rage and becomes a serial killer. Julia responds to hers with frustration and, at a couple of points, even anger, However, her anger remains contained, female, even “cute,” while Monica’s rage is lethal, male-identified, and thoroughly threatening to a world in which violence is a male prerogative. It is for this reason that Julia is allowed to continue at large in a male world (her insignificance, or “trivialness,” is her greatest asset), while Monica is ultimately incarcerated and explained away with facile psychological analysis (doubly “caged”).
While the psychiatrist’s explanation contributes to the film’s unmasking of masculinity and misogyny in its ultimate effacement of Monica, it also allows the film to make some interesting moves regarding her (i. e., women’s) agency. We are told: (1) that Monica was assaulted as a young girl; (2) that the effects of this traumatic event remained repressed for ten years, until by chance she saw Consalvi’s painting; and (3) that “strangely she did not identify herself with the victim but with her attacker,” turning her awakened rage against women rather than men. First of all, this account historicizes Monica, placing her experience and, more important, her experience of male sexual violence, at the source of the film’s action. I want to emphasize this in contradistinction to critics such as Creed and Clover who, I feel, dehistoricize by addressing films and their female characters in universalizing Freudian and post-Freudian terms, which make representation only and always the reproduction of patriarchy/masculinity without the possibility of also being about women experiencing violence. Second, it allows Monica to choose a position of empowerment in response to her victimization. Third, it implies (and here
I do dovetail with Clover) that women can only be empowered by becoming male identified. In this respect, it also reproduces women’s victimization in the female objects of Monica’s awakened rage: but we will see that this gets addressed in the final scenes of the film in a manner that the psychiatrist, quite symptomatically, refuses to acknowledge.
In fact, the complex linkage between Monica’s agency and masculinity complicates the issue of gender in ways that promote productive critique. The film pushes Monica’s male identification to the point where she possesses the male gaze: ogling young women, taking their photographs, spying them through binoculars, and so on.7 On the one hand, this is a clever giallo trick, aligning our gaze with what appears to be a man’s and thus fooling us into making gender assumptions about the killer. On the other hand, it contributes to the distinction between Monica’s “unacceptable” ability as a woman to assert her identity while and by remaining unseen (i. e., to exist beyond representation) and Julia’s, who as a model repeatedly shot passively in close-ups, occupies the classic “acceptable” female role of object-of-the-gaze. (As we have seen, this classic form of visibility is, paradoxically, a form of invisibility in its reduction of women to profound insignificance.) Moreover, by resituating the gaze, the film encourages us to question our own tendency to make knee – jerk gender assumptions.
When the principal male characters make such assumptions, it can be read as an ideologically induced misreading of the situation. Sam assumes from the start that what he saw at the art gallery was a man attacking Monica. (We are told at the end it was the reverse.) Morosini and his band of assistants blithely assume that they are looking for a male killer. In light of the film’s representation of men and its juxtaposition of Monica and Julia as the unacceptable versus the acceptable woman, it makes sense to read this not just as a failure to see what is really there but also as an inability to acknowledge women’s rage because to do so would be to accept women as genuinely other. This, I would argue, is the crux of the matter in terms of a gender rereading of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
This reading becomes particularly tempting in light of the insistent elimination of women’s anger and acting out in the film’s final scenes. Even Julia gets “disciplined” for her aforementioned moments of anger that, though far more cute than menacing, are still not to be tolerated. In fact, she ends up thoroughly neutralized in the first scene in which she appears after having thrown flowers and a vase at Sam as he yet again renounces intimacy for his now largely private murder investigation. In her next appearance, she is, for the only time in the film, wearing black, the colour identified with Monica’s rage.8 (It is Monica who chooses to adorn herself in black for her killing sprees, though Ranieri, we are told, comes to appropriate her garb as well as her violence.) Moreover, the “Black Power” poster that has been visible on the wall in earlier scenes takes on prominence as a commentary on Julia’s anger. However, it also becomes a reflection of the impossibility of that anger. For in this scene, as Julia is under siege, the poster is repeatedly juxtaposed with her terror, not her “power.” Moreover, though she resists and even wields a knife at one point, suggesting Monica-like power and rage, she ends up traumatized. She collapses on the floor, pulls herself up weakly onto a table calling out “Sam,” then collapses again. (Sam’s arrival has scared off the assailant, thus saving Julia.) The next morning she is in bed, restored to whiteness (mostly naked, with some sheeting gathered around her), extremely fearful as she looks around her and again calls out “Sam.”
While Julia’s ultimate helplessness is central to the film’s critique of classic gender logic, her extreme distress is also significant, helping prepare for an extraordinary moment that briefly unsettles this logic. As the film reaches its crisis point and Sam enters Monica’s dark study (ignorant of where he is and who he is about to encounter), we can hear on the soundtrack a subtle but unmistakable series of sighs and moans, connoting extreme dis-ease, angst, and desperation. The sounds are clearly female, and most important, they are extra-diagetic. We might want to assume they originate only from Julia, bound and gagged on the floor. However, the first time we see her, she is unconscious and silent. Moreover, the sound echoes in a way that emphasizes that it is nonambient. Nonetheless, it certainly speaks in part to her experience of being attacked and traumatized, now twice within some twelve minutes of film time. But it can also be identified with Monica since it functions as the “soundtrack” for her study, the place where we have seen her carefully preparing for her acts of violence. In fact, through its lack of differentiation and, even more so its narrative excess, I would argue that the sound makes the study the space of women’s (not just one woman’s) angst, and grounds what has emanated and is about to emanate from the study in that pain, giving it exceptional credibility. This credibility is heightened by the fact that the sound does not exist at the beginning of the scene, a shot from within the study with Sam still outside. It only begins upon Sam’s entry, suggesting that women’s pain is inaugurated by man’s “penetration.”
The study sequence reflects Sam’s utter and comic incompetence, while his inability to sense Julia’s presence reveals his utter lack of connectedness to his environment. At the same time, the sequence highlights Monica’s “black power.” (She appears in her vinyl/leather garb towards the end of the sequence.)
Though an extremely thin and fragile figure, she has managed single- handedly to capture Julia and Carlo, bind and gag the former, and kill off the latter. Moreover, apropos of her links to a gallery, her power expresses itself as art. She has propped Carlo in a chair, thus staging his death and confirming her status (evident earlier in her photography) as not just a killer but as an artist of death. She thus combines the physical violence of her original assailant with the violent aestheticism of Consalvi.
Most important, in terms of the film’s representation of women’s rage, this sequence marks a radical turning point in Monica’s behaviour and one that exceeds dramatically the bounds placed on her by the psychiatrist’s ensuing analysis. Despite his claim that Monica has identified (only) with her assailant, turning her aggression against other women, Monica here clearly shifts her focus. She does not kill Julia, just incapacitates her. In fact, Monica has now aligned her rage with its appropriate object: men. Having killed off Carlo in literally spectacular fashion, she focuses her impressive powers of creative mayhem on Sam. She lures him into the art gallery, where again she seeks to turn murder into spectacle or, perhaps more accurately, installation art. She seeks to make the invisible visible, turning on the bright gallery lights (she, not Sam, is the true finder of the light in these scenes). And she seeks to make visual art of the best kind—that is, aesthetically powerful, culturally significant images. With extraordinary dexterity and timing she loosens the ropes on a huge piece of sculpture, at the same time she turns on the lights, so that the sculpture lands and clamps down on Sam. Possessing numerous sharp protruding blades, the sculpture is a massive vagina dentata, around and upon which Monica dances, poking a knife at Sam’s nose and gleefully imaging castration, as she prepares to do him in. She thus reenacts the primal scene underlying the film: the substitution of sexual aggression for intimacy. However, she does so from a woman’s point of view, swallowing up, with her vaginal instrument of revenge, Sam-the-prick. No option here to disengage from “lovemaking”!
Clearly, seen in the context of the narrative specifics of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the vagina dentata is not only a manifestation of male anxiety in a male-directed film within patriarchy, as Barbara Creed might argue, but also an instrument of women’s self-assertion and empowerment. However, taking into consideration the fact that Monica only employs, rather than fashions, this sculpture, and speculating that it may indeed be the work of a male, we could see Monica-the-artist bodying forth for us yet another cultural truth: the restriction of women to appropriation rather than creation in a male world. She thus visualizes for us the real limits to women’s self-assertion and empowerment, prophesying her downfall. To the extent that this sculpture might be, in Creedian fashion, a purely male construct, we could also see Monica visualizing for us ground zero of male sexuality: a puny dissociated head grafted onto a body that is, in fact, only a projection of that puny little head. In other words, masculinity/patriarchy is men just fucking themselves.
Unfortunately, from a feminist perspective, Sam does not truly get fucked. Two men arrive to “ejaculate” him from the vagina dentata, as Monica, who has been pounded on the head, makes moaning sounds that seem clearly to voice the sado-sexual frustration of murder interruptus (sounds that recall the distressful moans in Monica’s study but without the pure desperation and angst of the latter). Instead of Monica’s poetically just payback/copulation, we get Sam and Morosini hugging next to the prematurely evacuated fanged womb, with Morosini making the sexually suggestive comment: “I’ll help you up.”9
Ultimately, then, women’s rage, or the expression of that rage as a factor signifying individuation or autonomy, is impossible in a male world. The final sequence of the film presents the normalization and exteriorizing of the institutional world as it seeks to eliminate all traces of women’s rage, women’s selfrepresentation, and women-centred meaning. The sequence begins in a television studio where a commentator and a psychiatrist undertake to “explain” all that has occurred. Their words reward close analysis:
The final curtain has fallen at last on this tragic affair, which has kept the whole city in a state of shock. Monica Ranieri, hopelessly insane, is in custody at the psychiatric hospital. Her husband, who loved her not wisely but too well, lost his life in a last attempt to turn suspicion away from his wife.
Ten years ago, Monica Ranieri, who had already evident paranoid tendencies, was brutally attacked and suffered severe trauma. Nevertheless, she recovered sufficiently to return to a normal life. Her mental disturbance remained dormant for ten years until she came across the painting which depicted the horrible scene of which she had been the protagonist. Her latent madness came to light, violent and irresistible. Strangely she did not identify herself with the victim but with her attacker. In order to explain the behaviour of her husband, who attempted murder on various occasions to protect his wife, we must assume he suffered from an induced psychosis. He was influenced by his paranoid wife to the point of becoming homicidally psychotic himself.
Both the commentator and Rinaldi trivialize Monica’s experience by turning it into theatre and, more specifically, into the consummate genre of disavowal— melodrama (“the final curtain has fallen on this tragic affair,” “the horrible scene of which she had been the protagonist”). The commentator dismisses Monica as “hopelessly insane” while he elevates Ranieri to the status of hero, even though he has presumably committed the exact same kinds of crimes, copycatting in order to “protect” her. Rinaldi effaces all sociological causes and of course all gender analysis as “severe trauma,” “mental disturbance,” and “latent madness” stand in for male aggression and the oppression of women. In short, Monica’s justified rage against men is replaced by insanity, and he even undercuts the importance of her having been attacked by prefacing his reference to the attack with the claim that she “had already evident paranoid tendencies.” His unwillingness to acknowledge her rage is implicit in his claiming only that she identifies with her assailant and in his failure to see that her violence ends up thoroughly reoriented towards men. He also ignores corollaries to his theory that might threaten male centricity, such as the fact that Monica’s presumed identification with her assailant raises the possibility of her attraction to women and makes her violence quite possibly a suppression of lesbianism. (In fact, Sam is told by the antique owner that Monica’s first victim was “said [to have] preferred women.”)
Not only does Rinaldi minimize the effects of male violence on Monica, but he also makes Monica the cause of male violence with the preposterous notion that Ranieri “suffered from an induced psychosis.. .[and] was influenced by his paranoid wife to the point of becoming homicidally psychotic himself.” Moreover, the exoneration of Ranieri on the part of both the commentator and Rinaldi flies in the face of what we do and don’t see in the film. For one thing, in the two scenes in which we see Ranieri and Monica struggling with the knife, there is no conclusive evidence that Monica is attacking him. What we do know, however, from the police investigation is that, during the first scene, Monica receives a wound attributable to a left-handed person—and we soon discover that Ranieri is left-handed.10 Perhaps most telling, during that scene we see a black glove-clad hand, undoubtedly that of Rainieri, pushing the button that cages Sam between two glass doors, preventing him from seeking out assistance for the seriously injured Monica. Why would Ranieri do this if he were merely the victim, as the police psychiatrist maintains, ever seeking to protect his wife?
More important, we see a left-hander—that is, Ranieri—killing the young woman who had been targeted at the race track, in a highly skilled and sexu – alized act. He is not just some haplessly devoted husband clumsily or perfunctorily trying to kill women in protective imitation of his wife. Moreover, prior to the “kill,” we see him brandishing his knife and taking his inspiration from the same painting in the study that has presumably set Monica on her path to violence. In other words, he kills with premeditation as well as relish. If we couple this with his general unpleasantness and weirdness we are forced to question (1) whether his involvement in murder was solely to protect Monica or, rather, to satisfy his own sadistic sexual desires, and (2) whether he has not, in fact, been trying to kill Monica as well as other women. It is clear at the very least that he has appropriated Monica’s rage for ends very different from hers—a kind of violence or at least violation in and of itself— and that he is far from the innocent victim and saviour Rinaldi would have us believe him to be.
The final sequence also undercuts Rinaldi’s efforts to normalize matters by crosscutting his words with the departure of Julia and Sam from Italy. We seem to have the classic happy ending as the “good” couple are reunited, the horror now surmounted, and are on their way “home” (to his, though, not hers). However, the shots of the airport and airplane emphasize only disjunction and dissociation. Julia and Sam are emphatically “getting out”—thor – oughly rejecting all that has gone on “inside” Italy. Moreover, the film ends not with the plane arriving at its destination “home” in the United States but, rather, leaving the ground and, in the final seconds, breaking the frame in mid-air. Sam and Julia end up lost in space. Moreover, as Rinaldi begins to declaim upon Monica’s supposed madness, his words are intercut with joltingly disconnected shots of the airport runway: fragmented images of different types of planes from different airlines whirling about in different directions violating the “180-degree rule” of consistent screen direction. This whirling outside world of the runway becomes increasingly and again joltingly intercut with the calm inner world of the plane’s cabin, of Sam and Julia’s safe space. In short, “normalization” is actually blindness to chaos achieved through retreat into what is probably the most confining and isolating human “cage” in the film.
The suggestion that normalcy has not triumphed is further implied as the crosscuts from the tv studio move from outside to inside the plane and create more gender-specific implications. On the one hand, Julia seems to represent the perfectly contained “ideal” female in male society—demure, placid, passive, and happy. Gone are all signs of black as she is dressed in white and, even more “reassuringly,” pink. However, she first appears in juxtaposition with the Rinaldi’s words: “her latent madness came to light, violent and irresistible.” She appears again as he says, “strangely she did not identify herself with the victim but with her attacker,” and for the third time as he says, “in order to explain the behaviour of her husband….” Then, Sam appears in juxtaposition with the words “who attempted murder on various occasions.” Moreover, on the phrase “induced psychosis” there is a cut from Julia looking up, to Sam moving quite unnaturally in her direction, creating a sense of unease if not menace. And as Rinaldi says “to the point of becoming homicidally psychotic himself,” there is a cut to Sam appearing from behind a partition, again moving towards Julia. In short, the story of Monica and Ranieri gets reenacted with Julia and Sam becoming its protagonists, by association, implying strongly that underneath the seeming normalcy of their relationship lies the potential for the same homicidal violence that characterized the other couple.
There is even a wonderfully suggestive return of women’s “black power” during the closing moments in the figure of a nun, in her habit, seated across from Julia. While this seems to represent the consummate containment and institutionalization of women (much like Julia-in-pink), it might also be read as the inevitable “effect of blackness” generated by women’s containment. At the very least, it suggests that the power of blackness has not disappeared entirely. We can perhaps hope, particularly given the superimposition of the Monica-Ranieri story on Julia and Sam, that Julia may one day awaken within her patriarchal cage and bring her own “latent madness” to light in a revolution in consciousness and action far more effective than Monica’s.
In sum, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage requires us to evaluate very carefully what we are told in light of what we are or are not shown. Though much of what we see remains inconclusive,11 this very inconclusiveness lends itself to far more gender-critical assumptions and conclusions than those provided by the television show. The film suggests, among other things, that the only “evolution” that has occurred within the male world of the film is from blindness in the face of women’s rage and its origins to acute misrecognition of that rage as “insanity.” This of course mirrors society’s reaction to the women’s movement and the rise of feminism, which were so often dismissed as hysterical overreactions with no real basis (i. e., contradictorily, as “reactions” to “nothing”). As far as Monica’s “evident paranoid tendencies” are concerned, I find them a sign of extraordinary mental health for any woman caught in the world of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.