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Rebellious Alice

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Writer and critic Darragh O’Donoghue examines representations of Alice in Claude Chabrol’s Alice ou la Dernière Fugue and Stephen Dwoskin’s The Silent Cry

Lewis Carroll’s Alice revolts against the volatile world of Wonderland by literally bringing the whole house of cards down. Not only does she go on a dangerous journey, she also returns to tell the tale. If Alice is punished for her revolt, it is in the book’s extraordinary, heartbreaking coda that foretells the inevitable reduction in her physical and intellectual mobility that awaits her adult self.

Two 1977 European films deal with Alice’s revolt - and revolt in Alice – in very different ways: Claude Chabrol’s Alice ou la Dernière Fugue (Alice or the Last Escapade) and Stephen Dwoskin’s The Silent Cry. These films demonstrate alternative responses by men to female subjectivity during the peak of second-generation feminism. Chabrol ultimately punishes Alice for rebelling and reinscribes patriarchal norms upset by its deceptively deviating narrative. Dwoskin’s heroine may not break free, but The Silent Cry remains faithful to her experience and its subjectivity offers new and potentially liberating pathways within and outside of narrative cinema itself.

The posters for Alice ou la Dernière Fugue and The Silent Cry

For André Breton and the Surrealists, Alice was a figure of revolt, a challenge to the disguised oppressions of the everyday.[1] Initially, Chabrol’s film appears to be part of this Surrealist tradition, presenting Alice Carroll (Sylvia Kristel) as a rebel. Her first words are ‘non, merci’, and her first action is to leave her husband. Caught in a storm as she drives away, she takes refuge in a country house off the highway, seemingly populated by the lord of the manor and his valet. As for Carroll’s heroine, logic of place, plot and character soon break down. Trapped in this ‘wonderland’, ordered by sadistic old men, unhelpful and ungallant young men and an unseen but surveilling and oratorical Big Brother figure, Alice responds with silence – a refusal to engage with a discourse that defines, delimits and ultimately destroys her. Unlike Carroll’s heroine, however, this Alice is punished. This Alice dies.

Why is Alice punished? For leaving her husband? Is he the only one she abandons? It is not clear whether the couple have children, but after Alice has escaped the labyrinthine estate, a garage owner tells her that his wife abandoned him with his androgynous child, who walks away as if offended when Alice fails to recognise her/him. Are these dream representations of her own family? Perhaps she is punished for her snobbery. Just as Carroll’s Alice betrays a recurring fear of downward class mobility, there is a class element to Alice’s dysfunctional marriage: her husband lounges around watching TV quizzes while she listens to classical music. Or is she simply that classic stereotype of the misogynistic 1970s comedian – the bad woman driver?

The fateful title, Alice ou la Dernière Fugue, hints at the film’s eventual denouement, but ‘fugue’ here is usually translated as ‘escapade’. A fugue is a musical form that imitates and develops a given theme. Despite the film’s surface lack of humour, Chabrol plays all sorts of variations on Lewis Carroll and his adaptors. Characters and situations in the books are often wittily transposed. The first reel of the film replicates the first reels of Che? (What?, Roman Polanski, 1972), while, most winningly, Céline and Julie’s ‘film’-viewing in a taxi in Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie Vont en Bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating, 1974) becomes Alice’s projection of flashbacks onto her soon-to-be-broken windscreen.

Alice sits as the old man welcomes him into her home while a valet stands nearby with a towel

On a second viewing, it becomes clear that Chabrol’s Wonderland is not Carroll’s site of play and experimentation, but an ideological testing ground, an existential gateway, a limbo or purgatory, a space between life and death, heaven and hell. Here, Alice is a liminal figure. She is first seen at a doorway, poised between her husband and their domestic milieu and the exit through which she will leave. This is the first of many thresholds or portals that Alice crosses, or that block her progress, or through which she is framed by others. Alice herself is caught in that intermediate space between the old life she is leaving and the new one that is yet to materialise. Much of the film is shot in the silvery twilight of dawn or dusk, and the film’s point of view shifts unnervingly from Alice’s subjectivity to the unattributed gaze that subjects her to its unfathomable control.

Such liminality is appropriate to a narrative centred on a seven-year-old girl about to reach puberty, with all the physical and emotional transformations that implies. It seems less so for a story about a presumably sexually mature woman. The decade preceding Chabrol’s Alice is remarkable for the number of films inspired by Lewis Carroll made by major auteurs based in Europe – among them, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967), Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967), Jabberwocky (Jan Švankmajer, 1971), What?, Black Moon (Louis Malle, 1975), Le Fond de l’Air Est Rouge (Chris Marker, 1977) and The Silent Cry (Stephen Dwoskin, 1977). What is equally remarkable – and somewhat troubling – is how many of them replace the source’s child heroine with adult women. Could this be a kneejerk, paternalistic reaction to the emergent and vocal feminism of the period?

Alice (a brown-haired adult) stands in a doorway wearing a bright red dress

In the case of Polanski’s repellent What? – which subjects its ditzy heroine to an attempted gang rape and a perpetual state of undress – the answer certainly seems yes. But when even Jonathan Rosenbaum, the most thoughtful and progressive of all film critics, continually and thoughtlessly refers to Rivette’s Céline and Julie (played by actresses in their mid-twenties and thirties) as ‘girls’, we intuit the period’s sense of masculine crisis.[2]

Several of these films, perhaps inspired by the tyrannical authority figures ruling Wonderland and the Looking-Glass worlds, invoke a sense of violent political upheaval: the breakdown of bourgeois society and emergent revolutionary violence in Weekend, the civil war through which Lily drives in Black Moon, and the collapse of the 1960s leftist promise in Le Fond de l’Air Est Rouge. All of them engage to greater or lesser extent with aspects of the Alice books – the formal, narrative and visual play of Švankmajer, the Surrealist engagement with ‘reality’ of Buñuel, or the political focus on an embattled woman and privileging of female subjectivity. Chabrol’s Alice is probably the most derivative; it ultimately repeats and dilutes the procedures of earlier Alice adapters such as Buñuel, Polanski and Malle.

Black and White image of Stephen Dwoskin standing on crutches

Stephen Dwoskin, director of 'The Silent Cry' contracted polio at age nine. 

Only one film does justice to Carroll’s multiple layers, while retaining the singular aesthetic of its maker: American director Stephen Dwoskin’s The Silent Cry (1977), made for West Germany’s ZDF. The Silent Cry embodies the physical and emotional depredations of an anorexic woman. It is based on the experiences and writings of its star Bobby Gill, who devised the work with Dwoskin and also served as art director.[3] Dwoskin – a major experimental, anti-narrative filmmaker who emerged in the early 1960s – explodes conventional narrative structures and procedures, and accesses ideas from contemporary film theory by the likes of Thomas Elsaesser, Laura Mulvey, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Paul Willemen. Drawing on psychiatric and psychoanalytical concepts surrounding the ‘hysterical body’, these critics argued that the women-centred melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s articulated the unspoken emotional traumas of their protagonists in the forms of the films, by an excess of colour and music, or the use of violent editing and off-balance camera angles.

The Silent Cry both invokes and fractures classical narrative orientation in its treatment of the protagonist and her relationship to camera space, location and plot development. The classical suture of sound and image is frequently unstitched; chronology is radically disrupted without the usual signifiers that make such interruptions coherent (e.g. flashbacks, explanatory titles); reaction and motivation are obscured. Disoriented by the physical and psychic damage wrought by her anorexia, The Silent Cry presents an Alice who is truly lost in a not-so-wonderful Wonderland. The good intentions of her family and friends are as oppressive and bewildering as the bullying and self-centred creatures Carroll’s heroine encounters, but without the benefit of the latter’s Victorian good sense. Unlike Chabrol, however, Dwoskin remains faithful to his heroine’s subjectivity and does not graft an overarching, explanatory or ‘rational’ framework onto it. Despite the apparent gloom of the film’s subject, it is this possibility of representing marginal experience outside the usual narrative norms that makes the film so liberating.

An illustration by John Tenniel of an overgrown Alice stuck in the White Rabbit's House

Dwoskin’s lifetime engagement with the Alice books was not simply artistic, intellectual or temperamental.[4] The Silent Cry was a female counterpart to his earlier masterpiece, Behindert (Hindered, 1974), a diary-like account of Dwoskin’s own disability. At nine years of age, Dwoskin was permanently disabled with polio. He knew all about physical incapacitation and transformation – akin to the changes in size, the experience of confinement, and the consciousness of others’ gaze Alice experiences in Wonderland. Indeed, one of Tenniel’s famous illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – an oversized Alice paralysed in the White Rabbit’s house – is alluded to in many of Dwoskin’s autobiographical films. A treatment for an unrealised film Dwoskin hoped to make with MS sufferer Roland Humphrey suggests an analogue with the changes undergone by Carroll’s heroine:

The film attempts to look at the world, life and perception of this one person’s life, enveloping the processes of having to live with what MS is and what it does to the body, and to this man’s life. MS is all the more problematic because it is one of the few disorders about which very little is known with regard to its cause or its ‘cure’. The condition has a seemingly arbitrary nature in that it does not follow a particular pattern – each case is individual to each person, affecting people marginally differently each time. It is a disorder which also has stages of remission, leaving a more questionable and doubtful position upon those afflicted. In this sense there is no conclusion, as the disorder’s development is haphazard and random.[5]

This is very close to the world of Alice, but the passage describes lived and felt experience, not something fantastical or analogical. It is this urgent level of personal investment that makes Dwoskin’s The Silent Cry so original, harrowing and necessary. In comparison, Chabrol’s Alice seems derivative, frivolous and academic.

- Darragh O’Donoghue

 


[1] A Breton, ‘Lewis Carroll’, in Breton (ed.), Anthology of Black Humour, Telegram, London et al, 2009, pp. 138–139 (first published in French in 1940). For the extended Surrealist engagement with the Alice books, see CB Schulz, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole and into the Museum: Alice and the Visual Arts’, in G Delahunty & CB Schulz (eds.), Alice in Wonderland Through the Visual Arts, Tate, Liverpool, 2011, pp. 14–17. The year after Alice, Chabrol would make Violette Nozière, about the murderer revered by the Surrealists as an ‘Ange noir’, and defended in poetry and prose by Breton.

[2] J Rosenbaum, ‘Work and play in the house of fiction: on Jacques Rivette’, in Placing movies: the practice of film criticism, University of California Press, Berkeley et al, 1995, pp. 142–152. First published in Sight and sound, Autumn 1974.

[3] Will Fowler warns that the creative participation of its female lead in The Silent Cry does not override the male Dwoskin’s ultimate control of the film as metteur-en-scène and editor. W Fowler, ‘Multiple voices: The silent cry and artists’ moving image in the 1970s’, in Paul Newland (Ed.), Don’t look now: British cinema in the 1970s, Intellect, Bristol & Chicago, 2010, pp. 73–77.

[4] Dwoskin’s Alice-inspired films include C-Film (1970), Times For (1970) – based on the Carrollian ‘Nighttown’ chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses – and Shadows from Light: The Photography of Bill Brandt (1983).

[5] R Humphrey with S Dwoskin, draft scenario for Something evil this way comes, unpublished transcript, ‘Something evil/A captive spirit/Invisible by daylight’ file, MS 5502, Stephen Dwoskin Archive, University of Reading, p. 1.