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Lady, Beware: Female Gothic Variations

 image from meshes of the afternoon
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

By Adrian Martin

The Lady Beware season is a portrait-gallery of faces of women in peril. Some are very famous faces: Nicole Kidman, bewildered, faced with a boy claiming to be the reincarnation of her dead dearly beloved husband in Jonathan Glazer's Birth (2004); Mia Farrow, anemic and prone to hallucination, trying to figure out whether she has been impregnated by the Devil in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968); Gene Tierney mad with possessive jealousy, driven to murder and self-injury in John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven (1945); Jane Fonda as a smart prostitute, sensing the approach of a serial killer in Alan J. Pakula's Klute (1971) ... And some are not at all famous, like the housewife in Andy Anderson's Texan indie film Positive I.D. (1987), played by Stephanie Rascoe, who makes herself over into a whole new woman in the wake of a trauma visited upon her.

Other faces, no less indelible, have a different kind of iconic aura: whether the supermodel-style looks of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, used to recreate the genre of film noir in Femme Fatale (2001); or the forever-imitated pose of Maya Deren, High Priestess of the Avant-Garde, sublimely trapped behind the window of a home in her classic short Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) ...

We can start to track a particularly vivid tradition in film history with another unforgettable face in fright: Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944). This movie - a sturdy Victorian melodrama glamourised but not compromised in its Hollywood re-telling - later came to be seen as a crucial part of a strange and potent cycle. Dana Polan called it "the Female Gothic film, in which a woman wonders about the designs upon her of the man in her life - does he love her, does he hate her, does he wish to do her harm?"

 image from perfect strangers
Perfect Strangers (2003)

The Female Gothic has taken many forms in cinema since Gaslight, and this season tracks some its liveliest variations. What connects Marco Bellocchio's account of the terrorist kidnapping of Aldo Moro in Good Morning, Night (2003), the good-and-evil sisters of Juraj Herz's phantasmagorical Morgiana (1971), the morbid 'Mr Wrong' parable of Gaylene Preston's Perfect Strangers (2003) and the gritty rape-revenge terror of Abel Ferrara's Ms .45 (1981)? A particular web of elements define contemporary Female Gothic; individual films do not fit a tidy generic template (few interesting, inventive films ever do) but mix-and-match these Female Gothic elements with other forms and style, from documentary-type realism to full-blown Surrealism.

All the films chosen for this season centre on women's experience. The entire terrain of the Female Gothic is devoted to expressing, from the inside as it were, what it is like for women to live in a male-dominated world. What is Gothic about such stories is precisely the fact that this experience is more than likely to be characterised by a feeling of menace and threat - leading, inevitably, to states of catatonic fear or intense (and often quite justified) paranoia. Yet Female Gothic is not only about victims. Just as significant, and driving, is the matter of women's desire. And hence the great, enabling, ever-fascinating paradox of this form: what a woman most desires is what may kill her ... and in fact it may be this very frisson of on-the-edge, risky transgression that she most desires.

Female Gothic stories are always symbolic, metaphoric, allegorical - often grandly so. They are not content to be about an individual woman, her personal fears, and particular everyday problems she encounters within the circle of her own, private existence. These films are about Woman and Man - often the man as walking dream or demon lover - and they are about a social system that sets up, from the moment of birth, a minefield of internalized inequalities and projected gender fantasies.

 image from birth
Birth (2004)

Female Gothic offers us one of the richest intersections (in popular and high art culture alike) of the often-divided realms of the personal and the political. For the women in these movies, the two can never be separated, however much they try to sort them out and keep them apart. The unconscious is a bottomless pit where the social dramas of desire, romance and death-drive play themselves out relentlessly, obsessively. Hitchcock's sometimes-blonde heroine in Marnie (1964) can swap her identity (like many a Gothic female) skillfully, but she cannot halt the compulsive, symptomatic behaviours, Freudian slips and sudden trances that a traumatic past has burdened her with. The central terrorist in Good Morning, Night cannot gaze upon Moro without falling into strange dreams about her own father and his political history; the possessed little girl in The Exorcist (1973) cannot help but blasphemously bring to the surface every repressed wish inside the Men of God who tend to her - and indeed the whole system of Church and State that oppresses her.

It is easy, when speaking about Gothic strains in film, to mentally picture mainly history-based, costume movies, redolent with the repression that comes with an elaborate system of old-fashioned manners, strict class divisions and often brutal power relations between husband and wife, master and servant, scientist and guinea pig ... The cinema's many adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe, for instance, are often pure Female Gothic: Roger Corman's The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), for example, seems today as if it were taking the nightmare of Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) back to its origin in Poe's story.  And the haunted settings of such films - dark castles, labyrinthine mansions - also evoke another seminal '40s classic, Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie (1943), which is a secret horror-makeover of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. And let's not forget Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)!

 image from in the  cut
In the Cut (2003)

The classical, costumed version of the Female Gothic has not disappeared from cinema, in fact it has even undergone something of a revival via Jane Campion's influential The Piano (1993), Stephen Frears' Jekyll & Hyde re-take Mary Reilly (1996) and Kathryn Bigelow's remarkable but little-seen The Weight of Water (2002). But what is significant in much contemporary cinema are the subtle allusions to and echoes of the classic Female Gothic elements in otherwise seemingly realistic stories and settings: Campion's depiction of New York as a labyrinthine, dark castle of danger and desire in In the Cut (2003), or the explosion of a catastrophic medieval-style masquerade ball for the finale of Ms .45. The present day, urban world in these films is forever haunted by the unresolved traces of Gothic traumas - like in the Canadian Ginger Snaps series, which progressively tracks back (over its three installments) from the alienated, grungey teenagers of current suburbia to the historic origins of female vampirism ...

In this selection of films that enter the fascinating inferno Female Gothic, the essential ingredients are always lurking on or near the surface: the woman who must choose between two men; the immersion in a menacing dreamscape - and the disturbed space of the domestic heart and home. Annette Kuhn once wrote: "The home, besides representing that combination of safe haven and prison that marriage can be for a woman, takes on the fearful qualities of a potentially uncontrollable sexuality." No matter how far-flung the adventures of desire or the gauntlets of the dreamscape take these heroines, it all comes back home: to a bathtub in Femme Fatale or Birth, to a make-up mirror in Ms. 45 or Positive I.D., to the closets, antechambers and bedrooms of Ginger Snaps, Rosemary's Baby or Good Morning, Night. Truly desperate housewives, one and all ...

© Adrian Martin, March 2005

 
 
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