Welcome to Auteuse Theory

Welcome to Auteuse Theory. The purpose of this blog is to allow us to think about and write about a range of films made by women, from silent re-discoveries to the latest releases, from activist documentaries to mainstream Hollywood features, taking in examples from across the globe, whether famous or obscure. We have no desire to force ham-fisted links between very different films and very different filmmakers, to insist that they fit some pre-designated template of women’s cinema. Quite the opposite; we want to explore the diversity of forms taken by women’s filmmaking across different nations and eras. So why focus on women as a separate category at all? Why isolate their films from those of their male peers and think about them as some kind of exceptional or special case? Well, there’s still the matter of persistent inequality of opportunity within certain key authorial roles in the film industries. We all know the stats: even now, post-Bigelow Oscar win, women only constitute 10% of directors globally, and 15% of screenwriters. This is an improvement on previous years but it’s still (obviously!) a very minor proportion of the whole. As the British director Lynne Ramsay has commented, it’s ‘a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice. It really does matter.’ And although we are very reluctant to make simple equations between the fact of there being a woman being at the helm of a film and that film offering a more complex picture of femininity (there have always been battalions of male directors who are very good at telling female-focussed stories), there is nonetheless plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often true.

Our main subject is film but we will inevitably make forays into television and other media from time to time. We will be focussing predominantly on films directed by women, but we’re also interested in including films which demonstrate female authorship in other ways (writing, producing or performance). And we won’t be thinking about those films solely as women’s films. We don’t want to ghettoise them, so we’ll be connecting them to the time and place of their production, or their place within a genre or a movement, as much as we connect them to each other. There will be no rhyme or reason to the films that we discuss or the order in which they appear, instead we’ll be hoping for serendipitous connections, unexpected correspondences, sharp contrasts, strange juxtapositions; in other words, a blog that aims to be perpetually different and surprising. Most of the writing will be undertaken by the two main authors but interspersed with guest reviews from others who will each bring a fresh perspective.

And, finally, why the title Auteuse Theory? We were scouting around for a name that indicated a response to the old-fashioned auteur theory, and its insistence on ‘virility’ as a marker of directorial quality (all that Hawks and Ford worship). Women hadn’t only been marginalised in the making of films but the select few who had managed to break through were often given short shrift in the founding critical histories of film (with the exception of the highly problematic case of Leni Riefenstahl), until feminist scholars put Arzner, Weber, Guy-Blache, Lupino and Varda back into the picture. And this work of excavation and rediscovery continues – see the Women Film Pioneers and Women and Silent British Cinema websites for ongoing examples. We are aware of the problems of using the French feminised form of a professional name, drawing a gendered distinction between male and female practitioners (just as some publications reject the word actress in favour of actor for both men and women), but in the spirit of subversion, we wanted to occupy and feminise a word - auteur - which still sits at the heart of so much film scholarship and film appreciation. And although the blog is called Auteuse Theory, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of 'theories', the more intellectually generous plural form. These are some theories and thoughts and ideas arising from watching these films made by women. We hope you enjoy reading them…

Monday, 9 February 2015

Le Petit Prince a dit (Christine Pascal, 1992)


When I first saw Christine Pascal’s Le Petit Prince a dit (1992) some twenty years ago at my local arts cinema, I was so moved that I missed its next (and final) showing because its poignancy was still resonating so powerfully in my mind. I’ll catch up with it again later, I thought. I’m still waiting. On my list of favourite movies awaiting a proper dvd and blu-ray release, this has occupied top spot for some time.
The subject-matter could hardly be less enticing, concerning a ten-year-old girl who is diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumour and only a short time to live. Yet Pascal’s handling of it is faultless. All dangers of mawkishness or morbidity are scrupulously avoided. For one thing, father (Richard Berry) and mother (Anemone) are not happily married but happily divorced, which is a piquant complication. Also the girl, Violette (Marie Kleiber) is not cuddly cute but plump and petulant i.e. real and believable. And the handling of the revelation of her illness is satisfyingly oblique rather than overtly sentimental. Her scientist father  accidentally discovers it through an overheard conversation  and his scrutiny of a scanner screen in a cold hospital room. Her actress mother learns about it midway through rehearsing an opera in Milan. Life has a way of cutting the rug from under your feet when you are least expecting it. When the father has to explain her illness to the girl, he does it by diagram and behind dark glasses: evasion takes a while to give way to emotion. He will eventually snatch her from the examining table and take her to visit her mother in Milan and then to their family home in Provence, believing that prolonging the child’s life for two more years of painful surgery will be less beneficial  than a joyful holiday break and perhaps the illusion that father and mother have been reunited.
The midsection of the film makes superb use of its locations. The off-season hotels and the open roads, with their deceptive promise of release and freedom, gather a momentum of gentle melancholy. During the final scenes a stray dog that Violette has adopted on their travels goes missing; the father is distracted as he eases Violette’s stepmother out of their cottage so the parents can be together for what could be the girl’s final hours; the mother adopts a tone of strenuous cheerfulness; Violette becomes a bit exasperating. Everything builds to the concluding moments where the girl is about to fall asleep, with her head hurting terribly. The father grips her pillow so tightly that his knuckles show. A mercy killing, if not enacted, is surely being contemplated, at which point the film mercifully stops.
The performances are all superb, and Bruno Coulais’s lovely score put me in mind of  Ravel at his most gravely beautiful. One particular image has stayed with me: the moment when a butterfly lands almost caressingly on Violette’s forehead whilst she is asleep in the country and then flies away. It is as if Nature has come to bless a departing spirit.
Two years or so after seeing the film, I read with deep sadness and shock that Christine Pascal had committed suicide at the age of 42 by throwing herself out of the window of a private hospital near Paris where she was being treated for severe depression. ( Her psychiatrist was later fined and imprisoned for ignoring the danger signs and not ensuring her safety and protection.) Not having seen her other films as writer/director, I remember her mostly though her career as an actress, particularly in five fine films she did for Bertrand Tavernier; and I think of her as someone who, like her one-time flat mates, Isabelle Huppert and Isabelle Adjani, could have become a leading light of post-1970s French cinema. She is extraordinary as one of the sisters in Andrzej Wajda’s  exquisite Young Ladies of Wilko (1979). Her superb acting of the young woman’s breakdown when the hero departs seems to pierce further than mere romantic disappointment: it is more suggestive of someone sustaining an emotional wound that a lifetime will not heal. That kind of hypersensitivity permeates Le Petit Prince a dit, which for me belongs with Rene Clement’s Jeux Interdits and Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants as one of the great French films about childhood and about the unforeseen tragedies that can befall children. Yet as with Christine Pascal, so with the film: it is the beauty that lingers in the memory more than the sadness. What is sad is that a dvd copy of the film is still so hard to obtain. The film should surely be part of a full, widely available retrospective set that commemorates and celebrates the acting and directing career of this remarkably talented artist. I am ready for my second viewing now.
[first published in Sight and Sound, January 2015]

Monday, 26 January 2015

Marleen Gorris and Antonia's Line (1995)


Antonia’s Line won the Oscar for the best foreign language film of 1995, the first film by a female director ever to accomplish this feat. The woman in question was the Dutch film-maker, Marleen Gorris, who had sprung to prominence with her sensational debut film, A Question of Silence (1982). Under the guise of a thriller about the seemingly motiveless murder of a male boutique owner by three women previously unknown to each other, the film was an audacious feminist polemic that stormed the citadels of oppressive patriarchy. Made almost as a kind of avant-garde movie which therefore pulled no punches, the film’s uncompromising originality propelled it into the mainstream, where it became hugely controversial.  Rather like the legal figures at the end of the film who fail to see that the huge explosion of derisive female laughter is directed at them, hypersensitive male critics missed the film’s mode of black comedy and were offended by its seeming proposition that the solution to patriarchy might be murder. (It was not proposing that, any more than cannibalism was being seriously offered as a solution to poverty and starvation in Jonathan Swift’s political pamphlet, A Modest Proposal: both satirists were taking up an extreme position and suggesting a metaphor that highlighted the horror of a particular social situation in the hope that the oppressors might feel some guilt and shame.) Possibly goaded by the angry accusations of an anti-male bias that bordered on hatred, Gorris’s second film was the even more ferocious Broken Mirrors (1984), whose main setting is a brothel in a city where a serial killer is on the loose.  1They’re all bastards,’ says the  proprietor about the clientele of her Happy House brothel to a new girl, who, significantly, has become a prostitute out of economic necessity. ‘Even the nice ones aren’t nice.’  Ironically, the only sympathetic male character in the film is literally a dirty old man,  a harmless,  unseen hermit who is befriended by the brothel-keeper, but who ,to her dismay, is expelled from his hideaway because he is not ‘normal’, the implication being that the ‘normal’ male is much more of a threat.


The vehemence of Gorris’s feminism in her first two films even discomfited some feminists, who accused her of being not so much provocative as paranoid. (See, for example, Pam Cook’s review of Broken Mirrors in Monthly Film Bulletin, April, 1985: 114) Nevertheless, The Last Island (1990) continued in much the same vein, being a feminine Lord of the Flies for grown-ups, in which a motley group of men and women are shipwrecked on an island, fall out, turn violent, and where only the women survive. Still, the characterisation of the men is more complex than before; and this strain is continued in Antonia’s Line, which is mellower and even upbeat in effect and allows some males to exhibit such hitherto unacknowledged characteristics as kindness, unselfishness and compassion. Here the nice ones stay nice. Admittedly, the narrative is still unashamedly female-driven and dominated, and the most sympathetic man is a philosophical recluse who would make even  Schopenhauer look cheerful by comparison. Yet there is a greater generosity of spirit to all humankind, and an exuberant relish for life’s variety that sweeps up everything in its path. When it was shown at the Toronto Festival, the film was given a standing ovation.


The story is told in flashback by Antonia (a superb performance from Willeke  van Ammelrooy), remembering her past on what she has decided is to be the last day of her life; and also by a narrator who only at the end reveals herself to be Antonia’s great-granddaughter, Sarah. The point of view is important, for, whereas at the beginning  it is said of their community that “ men’s noise rode roughshod over {a woman’s] silence”, the women  will gradually be given a voice; will insist on making themselves heard; and will  assume power over their own lives and, crucially, their own sexuality. When Antonia and her daughter Danielle  (Els Dottermans) have first returned to Antonia’s home village just after the war to attend to her dying mother and take over the family farm, they have walked past a wall which has the sign ‘Welcome To Our Liberators’ scrawled over it. It no doubt refers to the Allied soldiers who have liberated the village after the war, but, in retrospect, it will apply equally to Antonia and Danielle, who will go some way towards liberating the community from its chauvinism, prejudice and conformity.


Over a number of years Antonia’s farm will become a kind of benevolent matriarchy, a haven for the misfits and the maltreated of the village.  These include the retarded Deedee (Marina de Graaf), who, in an early scene reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, has been offered up for sale by her brutish father. When she is being sexually abused in a barn by her brother, Pitte, Danielle leaps to her defence by impaling Pitte with a pitchfork and taking her back to the farm. Deedee will bond with Loony Lips, who has been taken under her wing by Antonia when he is being persecuted by the sons of  Farmer Bas (Jan Decleir), a relative newcomer to the village (he has only been there twenty years). Bas will be impressed by Antonia’s humanity and courage and will propose marriage. ‘The sons need a mother,’ he says. ‘But I don’t need your sons,’ says Antonia, who will refuse his offer but will later enter into a relationship with him of deep mutual affection. In the meantime, the growing Danielle decides she wants a baby. ‘And what about a husband to go with it?’ asks Antonia. ‘I don’t think so,’ she replies. Danielle will have a daughter, Therese (Veerle van Overloop), who will turn out to be a mathematical genius. Danielle herself will become a gifted painter and fall in love at first sight with Therese’s teacher, a moment signalled when Danielle, who has always had a vivid imagination,   immediately transforms her in her mind’s eye into a vision of Botticelli’s Venus.


And so it goes on. A friend, who has helped Antonia find a suitable young man to father Danielle’s child, turns up at the farm and immediately falls for a curate,  who has just left the church because he found it too constricting for his innate sense of happiness; and together they will produce twelve children. If all this sounds impossibly idyllic, one should add that the film is not blind to the darker sides of life. Although a kindly and much loved tutor to Antonia’s offspring, the hermit Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers) can never shake himself free from his conviction of the fundamental cruelty and futility of existence, and he will commit suicide. Loony Lips will die in an accident and Deedeee will be inconsolable, until reminded that ‘life wants to live’ and she must carry on. In the most disturbing section of the film, Deedee’s contemptible brother, Pitte returns to the village and, in retaliation for Danielle’s attack on him all those years before, pays her back by raping (offscreen) her daughter, Therese. All out for revenge, Antonia will arm herself with a shotgun, but, on confronting the rapist, she curses rather than kills him, saying that killing is not in her nature. Women give life, not take it; to do the latter would be fighting a monster like him with the very weapons they deplore. Curiously, though, the curse  casts its spell. Later that night, Pitte is to be beaten up by the sons of Farmer Bas; and when he returns home, he is murdered by his brother, who has always hated him.


The fulfilment of Antonia’s curse seems like an element in a fairy-tale, and is an example of the film’s narrative and stylistic fluidity. Although grounded mainly in earthy naturalism, paying particular attention to collective enterprise and the women’s domestic labour on the farm, the film also has whimsical flights of fantasy and surrealism. Antonia’s mother sits up in her coffin to sing ‘My Blue Heaven’ at her own funeral ; a statue of Mary suddenly smiles; a stone angel uses its wing to clobber an unholy priest who has refused the last rites to a man who sheltered Jews during the war. This rich stew of disparate elements- magical realism, bucolic revelry, Europeanised gloom- was not to everyone’s taste; and even an admirer of the film like Robin Wood thought that the film’s Utopian fantasy, ‘miraculously exempt from the incursions of corporate capitalism’ was inconsistent with other details of the film, such as the fact that this village, which seems removed from most of the trappings of modern civilisation, is nevertheless situated in close proximity to a large modern university. ‘We need empowering utopian fantasies,’ he wrote, but added that ‘they must take into account the conditions within which we actually today exist and struggle, for how can we strive to reach a utopia in which it is impossible to believe?’ (Wood: 316-17) However, it is possible to take the film as essentially as a folk-tale or matriarchal fable with, in the words of a Sight and Sound review (May, 1997: 59) “all the magic of a Chagall painting.” Certainly the film is less concerned with social realism and evolution  than with the eternal life-cycle of birth and death. This is  nicely conveyed in the circling camera movement as Therese’s new-born baby girl is handed from villager to villager in an act of communal blessing; and also suggested in the narrator’s summation that ‘as this long chronicle draws to a conclusion, nothing has ended.’


Since Antonia’s Line, Gorris has moved from filming her own original screenplays and tended to specialise more in heavyweight literary adaptations. She crafted a fine cinematic interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s feminist classic, Mrs Dalloway (1997), starring Vanessa Redgrave; and an interesting version of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Luzhin Project (2000), with John Turturro and Emily Watson. With Emily Watson again, she also made a compelling adaptation of Eugenia Ginzburg’s harrowing but ultimately heroic personal memoir as a literary professor in the Stalinist era sentenced to ten years hard labour in Siberia, Within the Whirlwind (2009), which has had only a limited worldwide release. Recently she has directed a television mini-series about the life of Rembrandt. Antonia’s Line remains her biggest international success thus far, with audiences relishing its warm vitality, lusty femininity and gutsy resilience in the face of patriarchal prejudice and pressure, though, in my view, Robin Wood is right in suggesting  that A Question of Silence still stands as ‘her finest achievement to date’ (Wood: 317)  In that film, the women’s laughter in the courtroom that concludes the trial, undermining the confidence and certainty of arrogant male authority, is as liberating as  Ibsen’s notorious and resonant slammed door that concludes A Doll’s House. A Question of Suilence alone will ensure that Gorris remains a permanent icon of feminist film at its most powerful,  provocative and pertinent.


Suggested Reading


Pam Cook             ‘Review: Broken Mirrors,’ Monthly Film Bulletin,

          April, 1985,p.114.

Maggie Humm      ‘Author/Auteur: Feminist Literary Theory and Feminist

         Film’ in Feminism and Film, Edinburgh University Press,1999, pp.90-111.

Barbara Koenig Quart  Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema,

          New York: Praeger, 1988.

Neil Sinyard            ‘A Question of Gorris’, Dutch Crossing, Winter,1997,


Tom Tunney and

Geoffrey McNab      ‘Review: Antonia’s Line’, Sight and Sound, May, 1997,p.59.

Robin Wood              Sexual Politics and Narrative Film, Columbia University Press,

         1998, pp.315-17. 



Friday, 21 November 2014

Cold and Hungry: Discourses of anorexic femininity in Frozen (2013)

Su Holmes

On the 14th November, 2014, I had my first McDonalds. As I was driving home I leant forward and instinctively clicked on song no.22: ‘Let it Go’. Purchased for my 3 year old daughter, this was not a song that I usually listened to alone. It was normally the context for a rousing duet, belted out between us in the car (even whilst I am instructed, at regular intervals, to ‘stop singing Mummy!’). But as I listened and sang, the words began to get stuck in my throat and I felt hot tears streaming down my face. What was going on? I had listened to this song at least 100 times before. I mulled over the experience for a couple of days before typing the words ‘Elsa/ anorexia/ Frozen’ into Google, and felt a mixture of fear, surprise and recognition as the search returned a sizeable number of results. What had felt like a deeply personal or even ‘crazy’ reading was suddenly made real and given social validation. As one blogger wrote, ‘I’m glad it wasn’t just me who saw it’, whilst another stated, ‘To me, the whole story seemed to accurately parallel the path I and many others have taken to suffering and recovering from an eating disorder’. I’m not sure about ‘accurate parallel’ (and as someone who lectures on and writes about the media, I’m aware of a heightened and pre-disposed cynicism toward the Disney films, particularly with regard to the representation of the female leads). But I do know that having suffered from anorexia for 20 years, and after being fully recovered for five (it just took me a while to tackle a McDonalds),  I felt a personal connection with Frozen’s lead song and then, as I thought more, with the symbolism of its characters and narrative possibilities.

‘Well, now they know…’
Given Frozen’s unprecedented popularity (and it is also the first film to be (co) directed by a woman to gross over one billion dollars), it will no doubt become the focus of considerable academic research. So far, however, it has been popularly deconstructed in blogs, reviews, fan forums, fan fiction, and social media, clearly questioning the idea that Disney ‘successfully invites mass audiences to set aside their critical faculties’ (Bell et al, 1995: 4). Commentators have variously debated its apparent status as Disney’s first real venture into feminism, its potential for a ‘queering’ of the Disney fairytale, its problematic status as quite literally, Disney’s whitest film, and the extent to which it can be read as a narrative about mental illness and the social stigma, struggles and isolation which sufferers may endure.

Some bloggers have offered quite detailed comparisons of how Elsa’s narrative of repression, secrecy, loneliness and ‘othering’ can be read in relation to the plight of anorexia, with comparisons made to their own experiences. Others have created fan-fiction in which Elsa is literally anorexic, whilst others still have simply wanted to share interpretations and to stimulate debate. As one pro-ana blogger asked, ‘Don't you think Elsa, from Frozen, is the stereotypical anorexic girl?’, whilst a male viewer confided: ‘When my wife and I saw Frozen for the first time with the kids a few months back we left the theater overwhelmed with the eating disorder connection. No one we talked to saw the symbolism’. Critics and fans were also quick to point out that the second version of  ‘Let it Go’ was released by Demi Lovato, ‘whose struggle with eating disorders and triumphant public reemergence has uncanny parallels with Elsa's plight: Substitute rehab for an ice castle and you can fill in the details yourself…' There has even been the suggestion that the message of the film, and ‘Let it Go’ in particular, offers helpful discourses on recovery, with one American clinic even using its symbolism and lyrics in eating disorder therapy.

Women in the Disney animation films have been regularly lambasted for their perpetuation of extreme and unrealistic images of the slender ideal and Frozen, which has drawn its female leads with exaggerated eyes wider than their waists and ‘lollipop’ heads, has generated particular concern in this regard. As such, the suggestion that Frozen may have something to say about the potentially fatal misery of anorexia, as well as the possibility of conquering it, is surely worth some thought.

Female Sexuality: ‘Conceal it, don’t feel it…’
If considered in relation to the abundant feminist work on eating disorders and anorexia in particular, these readings of Frozen are simply offering particular interpretations of femininity in the film – a topic which has been unsurprisingly prominent in debates about the Disney princess films (Bell, et al, 1995, Davis, 2007). This is because much feminist work on anorexia has argued that the problem is an extreme manifestation of the oppressions, struggles and contradictions involved in inhabiting a female identity in Western patriarchal society. The early authors, writing just after Second Wave feminism and in a culture that was apparently witnessing a considerable rise in eating disorders, linked the problem to the consequences of the Women’s Movement, and the resulting contradictions and pressures surrounding the female role (see Houston Grey, 2011). Some authors invoked the importance of the mother-daughter relationship (Chernin, 1985, Orbach, 1986), emphasising the anorexic’s fear of assuming a traditional, domestic and maternal role. Desire was also seen as particularly central here, in so far as anorexia was seen as the ‘solution’ to a culture in which, despite a process of socialisation intended to curtail the woman’s needs, she continued to feel ‘her own needs and desires intensely’ (Orbach, 1986: xvii). In this respect, starvation was theorised as a means of controlling, containing or even eradicating female desire. Yet feminists also see the political connotations of anorexia as contradictory. So whilst the anorexic body might be seen as taking the patriarchal slender ideal to extremes, it can also be seen as a form of resistance through the body  - the rejection of traditionally female subjectivity and sexuality, and an escape into a childlike, boyish or defeminised form (Bordo, 1993).

If anorexia is about female sexuality, so is the narrative and symbolism in Frozen. Frozen is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, and in in fairy tales, magic is often linked to sexuality.It is thus not a huge leap to read Elsa’s magic abilities as a metaphor for powerful female sexuality, and as one critic notes, her powers ‘are connected to her emotions and mature with age’.   Furthermore, the mantra of ‘conceal it, don’t feel it’, is handed down via the patriarchal lineage of her father (and her mother, in contrast, plays no significant narrative role). What is presented as a great responsibility clearly weighs heavily on young Elsa, and the rules she must follow require her to remain sequestered in the private sphere. Anna emerges here as the confused younger sister, bewildered about what is wrong with her older sibling, compared, in some readings, to the extent to which siblings are often misguidedly shielded from the realities of an eating disorder and any ‘talk of the illness’ within the family. Anna’s repeated pleas to engage in playful activities – as articulated through the keyhole in Elsa’s door - offer an evocative image of a childhood lost to anorexia. Elsa’s incarceration, and the repeated shots of Anna knocking at her door, also fit neatly and visibly with feminist writer Marilyn Lawrence’s description of anorexia as living ‘behind the walls of your own solution… [Anorexia] is in a real sense a “No Entry” sign (1984: 21). Elsa, like the anorexic, represents a walled self, someone who is ‘closed up’ and ‘not receptive, nor there for others’ (Ibid: 94) (‘Go away Anna’). As Lawrence expands, self-denial in our culture is often regard as a ‘good thing’ from a moral point of view, but this is especially the case for women who are seen as ‘more inherently prone to ‘badness and moral weakness’ (Ibid :95).
To be sure, Elsa’s incarceration can be read as a metaphor for queer sexuality which must be shut away for fear that it will influence or ‘infect’ her younger sister. In fact, it is important to note here that the queer and anorexic readings need not be seen as oppositional or separate. The feminist (and certainly the psychiatric) work on anorexia has historically pivoted on an assumed heterosexuality. But more recent empirical research has shown how, with regard to lesbian girls/ women, anorexia can indeed develop as a means of repressing or evacuating the feelings of ‘forbidden’ lesbian desire,  whilst offering a means of ‘looking straight’ by taking to extremes the thin, heterosexual ideal (see Jones and Malson, 2013 ).
But the moral and social restrictions placed upon Elsa can just as easily be read a hyperbolic dramatisation of the condition of femininity, to which many feminists read anorexia as a response: if Elsa’s magic powers stand in for female sexuality, she is effectively being warned by her father of the appropriate sexual conduct of a woman befitting her royal (class-defined) status - instructed to live a cold and solitary life disconnected from her own desires. As Cassandra Stover observes, the newer Disney princess films from the early 1990s onwards tend to dramatise seemingly more liberated heroines who are trapped in the worlds created for them, yearning to escape (2012: 4). In positioning the women in what are effectively pre-feminist worlds (trapped by ‘marriage pressure or royal status’), this enables their feisty spirit and ‘breakout’ strategies to offer an illusion of post-feminist autonomy. Frozen might well be seen as fitting this trajectory given that Elsa’s enforced incarceration appears very far from ‘modern’ – later enabling the great ‘breakout’ sentiment of ‘I’m free’ - and her royal status and magic powers can be read as effectively a cover story for a ‘general discomfort around sexuality in all its forms’.

‘You look beautifuller’: Eating desire
Yet what is clearly Anna’s budding and growing sexuality appears to cause no such consternation or trouble. Anna is not only warm, vibrant and funny, all the things that Elsa is apparently not, but we also see evidence of literal, and not just sexual, appetite. As she leaps exuberantly around the corridors on coronation day singing ‘For the first time in forever’, she tells with yearning of the things the day may bring, including a potential male partner.  Overcome with excitement and anticipation, she sings:

I suddenly see him standing there,

A beautiful stranger tall and fair [shot of a male bust made of chocolate].

I want to stuff some chocolate in my facccccccccccceeeeeee

The last line is muffled as she gorges on handfuls of chocolates – although she notably partially hides her face behind her fan which offers a more delicate and traditionally ‘feminine’ signifier than eating.  Anna then picks up the chocolate bust and throws it, with the sculpture landing with a ‘plop’ on top of an elaborate cake. The equation of eating / sexual appetite is explicit here: her imaginary suitor is made of chocolate, and the mountain of chocolates appears as an ‘answer’ to her desire (she has not met him yet). This equation between food and desire is also apparent in ‘Love is an Open Door’, when Anna completes Prince Hans’ line ‘We finish each other’s’ with the word ‘sandwiches!’.  In comparison, witness the exchange between the two sisters when they meet for the first time in years at the coronation dance:

Elsa: You look beautiful

Anna: Thank you – you look beautifuller… I mean not fuller. You don’t look fuller, but… more, more beautiful

Elsa: What is that amazing smell?

Elsa/ Anna (in unison): Chocolate!

Not only does Anna’s comment make clear that to be full in figure or stomach is not to be beautiful, but her stuttering anxiety about how to refer to Elsa’s physical appearance is comparable to the minefield of how (or whether) to refer to an anorexic’s physicality. (Don’t say ‘you look well’, ‘you look better’, and definitely don’t say ‘you look fuller’). Their giggly celebration of ‘chocolate!’ - which immediately brings them together in both speech and movement - also seems to represent a throwback to childhood: it recalls a playful time when they were together, before responsibility, repression and restriction got in the way. 

But in comparison with Elsa, Anna, it seems, shows just the right level of desire. Although she is chastised in the narrative for being too hasty and ‘desperate’ in her search for a male suitor (she nearly dies at the hands of the uncaring and exploitative Prince Hans whom she agrees to marry after one day), her desire is acceptable because it is channelled into heterosexual courtship and ultimately, we assume - with regard to her relationship with Kristoff - marriage. (The narrative rejection of Hans for Kristoff also emphasises the importance of a more egalitarian and ‘modern’ relationship).  This differing treatment of the two female leads may further support a queer reading, and Elsa is certainly horrified when Anna’s announces that she is eager to cement her status as a heterosexual bride and marry Prince Hans. But the really interesting point about Elsa is that she is constructed as essentially asexual. This is not so much at the level of physicality: although stick thin, the women have hourglass figures, and Elsa is sexualised during the transformation sequence in ‘Let it Go’, which is complete with falling tresses and a ‘come hither’ glance over her shoulder. But she is represented as asexual in the clear absence of human-directed desire which, as suggested, is symbolised by her magic powers. This indeed seems to be a departure for Disney, and can again be read in relation to discourses of anorexia. The anorexic is often read in terms of asexuality, whether this is interpreted as a retreat from (or resistance to) adult femininity, or an ‘excessive’ attempt to emulate the unattainable slender ideal. 

It is important to note, however, that one of the most obvious triggers for anorexic readings of Frozen, and ‘Let it Go’ in particular, is found in Elsa’s references to the ‘good’ and ‘perfect girl’ (‘Be the good girl you always have to be’/ ‘That perfect girl is gone!’). When one blogger asks ‘Don't you think Elsa, from Frozen, is the stereotypical anorexic girl?’, her reference to the word ‘stereotype’ attests to the fact that the post-war stereotype of the white, middle-class girl with perfectionist tendencies (who is terrified of not living up to parental expectations) still holds a certain currency. The American psychotherapist Steven Levenkron who treated Karen Carpenter, for example, wrote a popular book on anorexia entitled The Best little Girl in the World [1978] (Saukko, 2008: 63). Yet again, although specifically highlighted in relation to anorexia, this can be read as merely a hyperbolic dramatisation of the expectations surrounding femininity as socially pleasing, reflecting the early feminist arguments that anorexia speaks to women’s wider troubles relating to self-determination and entitlement. Feminist work has seen the idea of thin and frail femininity for example, as exemplifying the extent to which women are supposed to take up less physical and social space. In comparison, ‘‘Fat’ is the external sign of voracious appetite; it intrudes into masculine space’ (MacSween, 1995: 249). Indeed, in a critique of how the female characters in Frozen have ‘eyes larger than their wrists’, it was reported in a Daily Mail article how the Disney characters’ diminutive features send the troubling message that to be loveable, it’s best to take up almost no space at all…’

‘No right, no wrong, no rules for me’?
If drawing on my personal experience, there is little doubt that ‘Let it Go’ blasts out a triumphant and rousing sentiment that is evocative of recovery from anorexia, or from an eating disorder more generally.  The suggestion that:

It's funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me

Can't get to me at all!

offers a powerful reminder of what is it like – once recovered – to look with incredulity at the rules, restrictions and punishments you have faithfully followed for so long. The suggestion that ‘It's time to see what I can do/ To test the limits and break through’ also conjures up the feeling of what it was like to try to restart my life after 20 years, waiting to embrace the opportunities of life which suddenly seemed so plentiful, so open and so endless. I was free.

Yet this sentiment, as well as the promise of ‘Let it Go’, is also somewhat utopian. In ‘Let it Go’, Elsa equates society, and social rules, with the suppression and repression of her true self. But as her self-incarceration in the beautiful but isolated ice castle shows, it is not possible to live outside of society and its expectations and ‘rules’. (Plus, as any anorexic knows, the cold is actually a killer). After all, she realises in ‘For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)’,  ‘I’m such a fool I can’t be free! (no escape from the storm inside)’. This is not to suggest that full recovery from anorexia isn’t possible. It is, I’ve done it: food no longer invades my every waking minute and dominates the structure of each day. But if, as the feminist work argues, ‘troubles relating to self-determination and gender identity affect all women in sexist societies, with anorexics simply representing the gravest end of the continuum [my emphasis] (Saukko, 2008: 5), then even in recovery, there is no utopian space ‘outside’ of the female social self. In a culture which foregrounds dieting and calorimetry as normal preoccupations for women, the female self (often reduced to body) will always be judged and surveilled, seen as the most important indicator of her being.  ‘Let it Go’ is powerful because it offers an impossible, or at least only temporary, fantasy that it is possible to be live outside of social norms. Returning a considerably tempered Elsa to Arendelle - she will only use her powers in what appear to be ‘de-fanged’ and insignificant ways - Frozen is in fact realistic about the impossibility of living in a world in which the subject is entirely autonomous and self-governing.

To be sure, there are certainly limitations to the feminist work on anorexia. It fails to account, for example, for why not all women suffer from anorexia, and why some (like Elsa), are the chosen ones. But it nevertheless provides a compelling account of the ways in which anorexia is inextricably linked to the condition of femininity in patriarchal society, and why anorexia should be positioned on a continuum with ‘normal’ femininity. Frozen invokes connotations of anorexia because the film is about the repressions and restraints of being female.

But whatever its meanings, and for whomever, ‘Let it Go’ is a beautiful and powerful song. Now, when we play the song in the car, I listen to my daughter sing along, missing out words as she eagerly waits for the chorus. I hope every day that she will find an easier route to growing up female than Elsa, or me. Maybe one day I will tell her about my journey, and why her Mum more than shared her fascination with Frozen. But for now, I just enjoy the musical pleasure we share. I click on the song, put the car into gear, and I smile.


Bell, E, Haas, L and Sells, L (eds) (1995) From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Bordo, S (1993) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. London: University of California Press.

Chernin, K (1985) The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity. New York: Harper Collins.
Davis, Amy (2007) Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation, London: John Libbey.
Jones, R, Malson, H (2013) A critical exploration of lesbian perspectives on eating disorders. Psychology and Sexuality 4 (1): 62-74.
Lawrence, M (1984) The Anorexic Experience. London: The Women’s Press.
MacSween, M (1995) Anorexic Bodies: A Feminist and Sociological Perspective on Anorexia Nervosa. London: Routledge.
Orbach, S (1986), Hunger Strike: the Anorectic’s Struggle as a Metaphor for Our Age. London: Faber & Faber.
Saukko, P (2008) The Anorexic Self: A personal and Political Analysis of a Diagnostic Discourse. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Stover, C (2012) ‘Damsels and Heroines: The Conundrum of the Post-Feminist Disney Princess’, A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and Research from Claremont Graduate University, Volume 2, http://scholarship.claremont.edu/lux/

Monday, 17 November 2014

A new cinema, a new interest – women’s issues and new Romanian cinema


For the past decade, Romanian cinema has seen a prosperous period, gaining positive critical and public reception. Previously unknown to critics and scholars, Romanian cinema secured itself a leading role in world cinema. Considered by many a new wave, the filmmakers themselves have preferred the term of ‘new generation’ instead, putting similarities on account of their common upbringing.  An interest for same thematic platforms, realism, and similar stylistic choices are just some of the common traits which have enabled films scholars to place the majority of Romanian films under the same umbrella. One of these aspects is represented by the interest in women’s issues and female characters. Telling stories with and about women has never been a major line for Romanian cinema; films made during communism until the inception of the new wave have been limited to displaying stereotypical female characters, life situations and experiences. This has been changed by the new generation, and an important share of the films made in the past ten years have been interested in women’s issues or presenting life situations from feminine perspectives.
 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007), Ryna (Ruxandra Zenide, 2005), First of all, Felicia (Melissa de Raaf, Razvan Radulescu, 2009) and The Happiest Girl in the World (Radu Jude, 2009) are just some of the latest productions which deal with women’s issues. The new modes of women representations by the new Romanian cinema are not limited to these films, instead are to be found in various forms throughout the works of the new generation. The alternative modes of representing women proposed by latest Romanian films can be seen as a medium of dealing with women’s issues, female character and femininity in cinema. The filmmakers do not express any feminist agenda, the products are not explicitly women cinema, but they hint at possible ways of empowering female characters and displaying women’s experiences on film.

1.4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days         2.Tuesday, After Christmas

Most of the characters are still placed in patriarchal embedded situations and are positioned in domestic areas; however, they do not tend to be dependent on the men around them, they are not being defined only through their relationship with men or their gender. A very important new aspect brought in by Romanian cinema is represented by realist characters; the women are not labelled in boxes or objectified, they are constructed as human beings, active and outspoken, with flaws and aspirations, having professional life and families. They are frustrated, irritated or dreary with the patriarchal modus operandi, and the inability of men to understand and appropriately communicate with them. The female characters seem to be more prone to change and action, even when they cannot change things, they voice their complaints. This energetic process of character development, completed with a predisposition towards women’s issues and feminine subjectivity can be interpreted as a search for identity of most women represented in the new Romanian cinema. The variety of female characters and women experiences found in the new generation of films proves more feminist than the display itself, acknowledging the diversity of women and the manifold implications of being a woman. The films offer a great range of characters - from prostitutes to middle class students and high end overprotective mothers, a variety of situations past and present which have taken their toll on women. Completing the narrative techniques, the visual style, cinematography and editing choices are working towards the centrality of female characters and women’s issues. The cinematography of films such as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Francesca or The Happiest Girl in the World is based on the centrality of female characters, with the shots are constructed around the women, with the character placed in the centre of the image. The shooting angles and editing techniques are allowing a greater space for women to perform and present their realities.

3.The Happiest Girl in the World   4.Child’s Pose
A different cinematic agenda (the new generation of filmmakers have been exploring alternative narratives in their quest to distance themselves from previous Romanian cinema), or a formula for international success are all possible explanations or, at least points of discussions for the interest new Romanian cinema has in women’s issues.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Female authorship and the rape-revenge narrative: Ida Lupino’s 'Outrage' (1950)


The present review focuses on Ida Lupino’s film Outrage starring Mala Powers as Ann Walton, the victim of a brutal sexual assault. As a pre-1970s rape-revenge film it barely foreshadows the developments that were to surface with the arrival of second-wave feminism. Yet its feminist potential has been largely undervalued due to the tendency in the narrative to pathologise the rape victim and her reliance on Rev. Bruce Ferguson (Todd Andrews) to defend her in front of the authorities as well as to ensure her social rehabilitation.

However, Pam Cook’s statement that the film “seems to embody the fluctuating, unsettled nature of th[e] boundary” between classicism and post-classicism in Hollywood (156) hints at the film’s ideological ambiguity, which was also detected by Claire Johnston in relation to Lupino’s oeuvre (38). Having this as a starting point I would like to provide a brief analysis of the way the rape-revenge narrative functions in Outrage to destabilize, even if temporarily, the wider patriarchal ideological context.

The title sequence of the film starts with a high angle shot of a street at night and a woman running, trying to escape an unknown as yet to the audience threat. The film’s title enlarges on screen while the image of the woman staggering is still in the background. This poignant opening leaves no room for doubt as to the certainty of the crime and the film’s condemning attitude towards it.

Subsequently, the narrative resumes a conventional chronological sequence by introducing Ann’s character, running to the canteen outside her work. The man working at the canteen flirts with her but she does not respond. She goes to meet her boyfriend and he announces his promotion and asks her to marry him. He tells her that she can now quit her job since he will be able to support her. She happily accepts and they make plans for announcing their decision to her parents. It is important to note that until this point the couple seems to be on an equal plane in terms of the power hierarchies in their relationship and the rape follows Ann’s relinquishment of her independence. Generally women in films at the time are usually punished for transgressing the traditional norms that prescribe their place in the domestic sphere. It is therefore noteworthy that the moment Ann loses that equality with her partner she is immediately afterwards sexually assaulted, which results in a literal violation of her subjectivity and effectively undermines her place in society.

The actual rape, in accordance with censorship restrictions, is not shown. Yet the scene leading up to it successfully conveys the heroine’s psychological turmoil. It starts with an intercutting of shots of Ann leaving the office and the canteen owner closing up, a technique that gradually increases psychological tension and creates suspense. A close-up shot of the man reveals a scar on his neck, a key feature in the identification of the rapist. The camera then cuts to Ann coming out of the building skipping on her way home after her last day at work. The man shuts his canteen and follows her shouting “Hey beautiful!” to which she does not respond. He persists, lurking in a predatory manner, trying to call her over repeatedly. The pace quickens and eventually Ann reaches a parking lot and tries to call for attention by pressing the horn of a lorry. Her last effort to evade her pursuer is unsuccessful as she stumbles and falls in a semi-conscious state. Through a point of view shot of the man his face remains hidden. However, his scar is visible and as he approaches, the image gets increasingly blurry indicating Ann’s loss of consciousness. The camera moves quickly away and upwards revealing a neighbor coming to check out the noise. Failing to see anything, he goes back in and the camera fades to black.

In the next shot, Ann is seen staggering to her house and the non-diegetic solemn music accentuates the tragic incident that has just occurred. The whole scene of Ann’s pursuit and the off-screen rape starts 9 minutes into the film and lasts for about 5 minutes. The remaining 60 minutes of the film deal with the aftermath and the process of Ann’s recuperation and re-integration in society. She arrives home in deep shock, unable to respond to her mother’s worried inquiries. In the next scene the police come to speak to her and she has a nervous breakdown. Ann’s father says to the policeman: “Tonight my daughter was brutally attacked. Why don’t you do something about preventing crimes like this?” and he adds: “Is this why you raise a daughter? Is this what you love and sacrifice for? What kind of times are these that such things can happen? Only this morning she was carefree and happy and now…”. This poignant speech shows his devastation as he comments on the larger social issue of the threat women face. It also expresses the gravity of the issue even if it remains unspoken, as the word rape is never mentioned throughout the film. Simultaneously it foreshadows the difficulty in overcoming this trauma, which usually involved killing the perpetrator after the victim was already dead.

Therefore the importance of this film lies in focusing on the process of surviving this traumatic experience. Shortly after her rape, Ann tries to resume her normal routine but she quickly perceives that the way other people see her has changed drastically and she is primarily defined as the victim of a sexual crime. Jim provides a solution to move away and start a new life, but she rejects his proposal and breaks off the engagement. In order to restore her violated subjectivity she runs away so as to be around people that do not know anything about her, which is achieved in the small farming community she finds refuge. Also the rejection of her father’s and her fiancé’s protection and assistance in her recovery indicates her need to regain agency and take control.

Bruce plays a huge part in Ann’s recuperation firstly due to his discreet attitude. He gradually gains her trust, which is highlighted in the scene at the countryside where he tells her about his past. He says, “We all go through dark times” explaining that after the war he lost his faith. It is possible to detect a potential parallel that is created here between the traumatic experiences of war and rape. Both characters have had a profound identity shock, which puts them on an equal plane and allows them to connect. The insinuation regarding the similarity of their experience further emphasizes the severity of rape as a crime or as an act of “political terrorism” (Morgan 135), which is of course equally applicable to war.
Yet I would argue that the revenge part of the narrative is the most ideologically transgressive aspect in the film. It is a case of “displaced revenge” since the heroine takes her revenge on another man and not the actual rapist (Read 95). 54 minutes into the film, and after Ann has slowly begun the process of recuperation, there is the scene of the dance during which Frank (Jerry Paris), approaches her romantically. When she refuses his advances he becomes even more determined to woo her. She repeatedly tells him to leave her alone but he ignores this adding that he doesn’t want to hurt her but only to kiss her. When she runs off once more, he grabs her and she falls back. As he approaches and continues talking to her, there is a close-up on his mouth and neck. At this point there is a short sequence of alternating point of view shots between Frank’s and the rapist’s necks. The camera then cuts to Ann’s terrified face as she reaches out, grabs a wrench and hits Frank over the head. Here the film offers the most usefully ambiguous for a feminist reading opportunity, since it is insinuated that there is a thin line between an overly keen suitor and a rapist. Therefore the film creates, even if temporarily, an uncomfortable equation between a sociopath and an otherwise ‘innocent’ man.

However, the aftermath of Ann’s ‘revenge’ functions to re-establish the shaken patriarchal values in the film, since Ann is apprehended for the attack on Frank and she is only exonerated after Bruce says that her act was caused by “temporary insanity”. She is examined by a psychiatrist and is subsequently put under Bruce’s supervision to ensure she rehabilitates in society. Moreover, the characterization of the rapist as “a neurotic” not only eliminates responsibility for his action, but it also creates a safe distinction between him and other male characters. Thus any subversive elements in the ideological fabric of the film are safely ironed out in the end, but their inclusion, in view of the film’s production context in post-war America, is important nonetheless.

Consequently, even if Outrage may not explicitly set out to tell a feminist story (Read 77), there are a number of elements inserted into the film, which make a feminist reading possible. This review emphasizes its uniqueness as a female-authored pre-1970s rape-revenge film in presenting the possibility for such a feminist reading.


Cook, Pam. “No fixed address: the women’s picture from Outrage to Blue Steel.” Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema. London: Routledge, 2005. 146-64.
Johnston, Claire. “Women's Cinema As Counter-Cinema.” Notes on Women's Cinema. Screen (Pamphlet 2): 24-31.
Morgan, Robin. “Theory and Practice: Pornography and Rape.” Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. Ed. Laura Lederer. New York: William Morrow, 1980. 134-40.
Read, Jacinda. The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity and the Rape-revenge Cycle. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000.