30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 25: DAKAN (1997)

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DAY 25: DAKAN (DESTINY) (Muhammad Camara, Guinea/France, 1997)

Heralded as the first West African film to deal explicitly with the topic of homosexuality, whatever its actual quality Muhammad Camara’s debut automatically has an assured spot in the queer canon and film history in general. And while most reviews I’ve come across do tend to shrug it off as “important, but unexceptional” I thought that the familiar-seeming doomed romance premise had a tendency to keep wandering off into interesting, unexpected directions. The film boldly signals its intentions in the first scene with two men passionately exchanging kisses in a car—how many contemporary “out and proud” American films would dare do the same without first carefully priming its audience?—indeed, Dakan is actually a very “out” film in general, dispensing with most of the usual sexual coming-of-age tropes and within minutes we’re watching the two young men directly confronting their respective parents regarding their feelings for each other and intentions of going off to start their life together. As expected this does not at all go over well, and so the inevitable series of complications begin, and the parents plot to separate the men, calling into question both their loyalty to each other and as well as their understanding of themselves and who they are. One of their mother consults a local witch doctor for a “cure” and is willing to undergo anything necessary, while the other’s father, an ambitious local merchant, simply packs his son off to a faraway university.

From there things get interesting, as the film seems less interested in embarking on a specific story than observing series of events unfold, and the narrative grows increasingly elliptical and diffuse in favor of evoking sensations both emotional and physical in nature. Longtime actor—and, interestingly, heterosexual family man— Camara aligns himself with the kind of “tactile” cinema most closely identified with Claire Denis, exhibiting a sophisticated attunement to mood and nocturnal environments, with emphasis often placed on the surfaces of things and skin in particular. And then suddenly Cécile Bois, a spunky, charismatic young white woman bounces into the film and everything seems to pivot toward another direction entirely; in truth, despite the film ostensibly being about the two men they never become a whole lot more than sympathetic ciphers, and it is the female characters which are much more vividly rendered. Despite its relatively intimate scale, ultimately Dakan becomes a much more expansive consideration of how the men’s relationship affects a much larger web of family, friendship, and community. As far as I’m concerned a complicated if quiet little film lurks beneath the conferred mantle of Great Historical Importance.

[Watching Dakan on Fandor here.]

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30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 23: LA CAPTIVE (2000)

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Day 23: LA CAPTIVE (Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium, 2000)

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of Chantal Akerman’s untimely passing; it only seemed appropriate to salute the memory of the great filmmaker by watching one of her films. La Captive often comes up in discussion of great literary adaptations—it’s based on Proust’s La Prisonnière, the fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time—but sadly I can’t speak personally to that aspect of the film; no matter, as there are so many other embedded layers worthy of analysis. This is one of the great films on the act of watching, with much of the running time devoted to observing one man’s obsessive surveillance of a striking young woman; the exact nature of their relationship is one of the film’s central enigmas that is never quite resolved nor fully explained. Simon (Stanislas Merhar) stalks through art galleries, into hotels, and follows in his car to silently pursue Ariane (Sylvie Testud) as Rachmaninov’s brooding—and referentially resonant—symphonic poem “Isle of the Dead” throbs Herrmann-like on the soundtrack, revealing Vertigo to be just as significant a point of reference as Proust. The second half of La Captive abandons a sense of Hitchcockian mystery, however, opting instead to dramatize Simon’s increasingly frantic quest to understand the very nature of desire—and specifically the complex desires concealed by Ariane’s impassive face and vague but unfailingly acquiescent answers to his distressed questions.

The pieces finally beginning to fall into place for both Simon and the viewer after he witnesses Ariane engaging a female neighbor in an impromptu rendition of a duet from Mozart’s Così fan tutte from their opposite courtyard balconies, and it feels just as incriminating as if he had stumbled across the objection of his affection in flagrante delicto (Melissa Anderson has characterized it as the most erotic scene of the film, and I unhesitatingly agree). Increasingly desperate, he pays a night visit to a young female couple played by Bérénice Bejo and Anna Mouglalis—how lovely to suddenly have two of my favorite French actresses suddenly, unexpectedly materialize together in the middle of a film!—who try to answer his questions on female sexuality, lesbian relationships, and emotional connection, but like two sibyls they can ultimately offer only further riddles. Not quite as austere as the towering Jeanne Dielman and some of her other films, La Captive displays the characteristic visual and technical rigor of Akerman’s signature minimalist, objective style—immaculately arranged mise-en-scène, an exquisite perception of space and to the passage of time, an incredibly precise attunement to the aural possibilities of cinema, an awareness of life’s unabashed weirdness—balanced by the gorgeous, quietly sumptuous cinematography of the great Sabine Lancelin (this is the second film lensed by her I’ve seen this last week—and both are two of the most visually magnificent films I’ve seen for this project). I’ve really only scratched the surface of Akerman’s oeuvre at this point; this undoubtedly is a situation that needs to change immediately.

[Watch La Captive on Fandor here.]

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in-flight shenanigans

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I wanted to enjoy I’m So Excited! (Los amantes pasajeros) (2013, Spain), Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, and so that’s exactly what I did. To be clear though: mileage will vary from viewer to viewer. This seems to be something of an attempt on the iconoclastic Spanish director’s part to fuse the scathingly humorous social and cultural subversiveness and critique that defined his earlier career with a more recent obsession with glossy and slick melodramatics that draw liberally from Sirk, Minnelli, and Latin telenovelas. The resulting film is a colorful feast for the eyes, though the plot–which is wafer-thin but heavy on dialogue–is broadly played, and a taste for camp seems pretty necessary, though the fact the cast is almost entirely made up of actors who have previously appeared in his films creates additional layers of fun self-reflexivity.

I found it all mostly amusing, my boyfriend found a lot of it rather tedious, and we are waiting to hear from friends who are fluent Spanish speakers to confirm (or refute) our suspicion that a lot of the nuance and humor becomes garbled in the translation to English. Film still from I'm So Excited by Pedro AlmodovarIt’s not a great achievement or anything–one gets the sense that if it was directed by anybody but Almodóvar there’s not a chance it would have procured an American release–but for me it made for a pleasant enough night at the movies (Theatrical Digital Projection).

his kind of… man?

“Because, as gays, we grew up isolated not only from our heterosexual peers but also from each other, we turned to the mass media for information and ideas about ourselves… we could use the film–especially those not directly offering us images of ourselves–as we chose.” -Richard Dyer, “Introduction to Gays and Film

As a young queer cinephile, I consider myself lucky to live in a time when it is not particularly difficult to find representations of my own experiences and desires depicted within films, television, and other types of media.  Just last night I had the opportunity to attend a screening at San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, the oldest LGBT film festival in existence, and beyond the (excellent) films itself, just the fact of taking part in watching a cinematic depiction of gay lives and relationships along with some 1,400 other individuals was itself an incredibly powerful and moving experience.

But on the other hand, I remain endlessly intrigued about times in the not-so-distant past when this type of situation could hardly be imagined, to say nothing about it actually being a reality. One of my favorite things is to sit and gab with two of my “uncles”–a gay couple now in their late 80’s and early 90’s respectively–and listen to their memories of films and stars from the Hollywood studio era, and, most especially, all the juicy gossip that circulated in gay circles (who cares if it was ever true or not?).  It always fascinates me how vibrant many of these stories and perceptions remain for them, and what shape that they take.  For me, these conversations serve as a vivid demonstration of what queer scholars have been writing about for decades–what Dyer describes in the groundbreaking collection of essays he edited Gays and Film as a kind of “queer bricolage.”  Taking the term directly from French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, he defines “bricolage” as “playing around with the elements available to us in such a way as to bend their meanings to our own purposes.”  Through this process “we could pilfer from straight society’s images on the screen such that would help us build up a subculture, or what Jack Babuscio calls a ‘gay sensibility.'”

Even with increased queer visibility and representation in contemporary cinema and culture, this process hasn’t entirely disappeared, but has now largely takes the form of looking back and attempting to decipher and read the queer coding embedded in the films of the past, often wittily recasting these films in our own image.  Christianne over at Krell Labs provided one of my favorite examples of this in her thoughts regarding the last shots of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, stating that she prefers to think that Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell aren’t in fact marrying their rather dull male suitors, but each other.  Posting an image where Monroe and Russell exchange a meaningful glance as visual demonstration, it’s a marvelous re-reading–and queering–of these image(s).

In this spirit, I wish to offer up my own bricolaged interpretation of a classic film I dearly love.  And funny enough, it also stars Jane Russell–the 1951 pseudo-noir His Kind of Woman (John Farrow, USA, 1951).  Russell co-stars with Robert Mitchum, and this is the first of two films in which she was paired with Mitchum, with the second, Joseph von Sternberg’s Macao from the following year the one most usually remembered (despite being overall the lesser film).  I had never heard of His Kind of Woman before when I checked out the DVD from my local library on a whim, and was immediately charmed by it–Russell and Mitchum make one of my very favorite screen pairings (now there’s a man that’s Russell’s equal!), their banter is bright and witty, the mood and black and white photography is appropriately atmospheric, and there’s the’s one amazing, bravura tracking shot through a vintage 1950’s resort lounge that ranks with the best of Ophüls.  People often cite Vincent Price’s comic relief as one of the film’s chief attributes as well, but I can’t say I’m not particularly fond of it myself.

I had also been disappointed with the unexpected tonal shift the film takes in the final third, with the sly detective yarn transforming into a rather serious action film, involving a villainous Raymond Burr.  But upon writing about the film in honor of Jane Russell’s passing last year, what I had found is that memories of the film had taken a weird turn.  While I couldn’t recall any of the plot details, what had stuck with me was the fact that Mitchum had been captured by a group of thugs, stripped of his shirt, brutally tied up in various positions and whipped, and then the rest of the film involving a barechested Mitchum running around a boat with a gun.  In other words, in my memory the last third of His Kind of Woman became something akin to a gay S&M video.  And judging from some of the original promotional material, I might not be the only one:

[It can’t just be me–there is something a bit visually odd about an exclamatory “His Kind of Woman!” seeming to caption an image of a shirtless and supine Mitchum, right?]

For this blogathon I decided to revisit the film to see if my memories held up; I’m not sure if I’m exactly surprised to find it’s ever gayer than I remembered.  So what I present below is a series of images that represents the queerly bricolaged memory version of His Kind of Woman–an aggressively heterosexual title that methinks doth protest a bit too much!

His Kind of… Man? 

Starring:

Jane: “Do you have something to tell me?”

Robert: …

Cut.

Jane: “How about now?”

Robert: …

Cut.

Vincent: “This coat?  Yes, isn’t it fabulous?  By the way, I have some friends you should meet.”

Cut.

Robert: “Err, this isn’t exactly the type of party I had in mind.”

Raymond: “Can’t I at least get a kiss?”

Mitchum: …

Robert: “That’s a big… gun you have.”

“This isn’t exactly what I signed up for.”

Fade out.

Jane: “So did you have a good time last night?

Robert: “You don’t even want to know.”

Swelling music and final fadeout.

THE END.

Make sure to check out Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrr for all of the other blogathon posts–there’s lots of great stuff to read!

june is queer cinema month!

Who needs Pride when June is shaping up to be a non-stop celebration of all things queer cinema?  Not only is there an LGBT blogathon happening now over at YAM Magazine, but one starts next week over at Garbo Laughs, and as of today Fandor is hosting its own LGBT “festival” that I put together!

Frameline Film Festival, the longest running LGBT film festival kicks off today here in San Francisco, and to coincide I was asked by Keyframe: the Fandor Blog to curate my own queer film “festival” out of films from their archive.  I specifically set the goal of seeking out films beyond the site’s genre tag and of finding ways to include not only a wide variety of film types (features, shorts, documentaries, etc) but to demonstrate my firm belief that “queer cinema” can and does involve much more than the simple inclusion of a prominent LGBT character or storyline.  It turned out to be an intensely pleasurable experience, and I’m very happy with how it all came out.  It gave me a both chance to revisit some old favorites (Happy Together, And Then There Were None) and make some really wonderful new discoveries (Mike Kuchar’s The Secret of Wendel Samson, Doris Wishman’s Let Me Die a Woman).  Please check it out!  And if you’re not already familiar with Fandor and its streaming services, you can try it out a no-obligations free trial for two weeks.  But don’t just take my word for it–let Roger Ebert tell you what a great service it is!

And as my submission to the YAM Magazine LGBT Blogathon, I include (and expand upon) the notes of a Mark Rappaport double bill that ended up getting cut from the Keyframe article.

RE-ROUTE OF THE PAST: A MARK RAPPAPORT DOUBLE BILL

In an insightful interview with filmmaker and scholar Mark Rappaport, Jonathan Rosenbaum claims that Rappaport “virtually invented a new form of film criticism” with his witty and erudite documentaries Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (USA, 1992) and The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (USA, 1997).  Indeed, both films serve as wickedly clever and irreverent re-readings of orthodox–and resolutely heteronormative–film histories.  The aim of these two films is to reveal the queer resonances subtly (or often not-so-subtly) embedded within classic cinema.  In the wake of Rock Hudson’s very public coming out and death from AIDs in 1985, Rappaport scans back through the actor’s extensive filmography, and begins to reveal that far from being some unknown secret, Hudson’s closeted sexuality seems to manifest itself in countless ways throughout his decades-spanning filmography.  “It’s not like it wasn’t up there on the screen,” narrator Eric Farr intones in the introduction of the film, “if you watched the films carefully.”  The was vividly re-confirmed for me at a screening of Sirk’s glorious Written on the Wind at the Castro Theatre just last week: early on in the film, Hudson sullenly looks on Robert Stack courts Lauren Bacall, and Stack suddenly commands “go look in the closet!”  The audience spontaneously erupted in affectionate laughter and applause.  The situation reoccurred several times throughout the evening.

The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender is more ambitious in its scope, unmasking the queerness in a diverse array of Hollywood and European films made before 1970 or so (I’ll always love it for introducing me to the whacky little gem Desert Fury–as I wrote, the film has to be seen to be believed!).  The film also details the sexually ambiguous screen personas of a diverse array of actors, ranging from matinee idols–and rumored lovers–Cary Grant and Randolph Scott to comedians like Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, and Danny Kaye, and on to supporting characters such as Walter Brennan and the “sissies” of 1930’s Hollywood cinema such as Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton.  Of course there’s quite a bit of taking clips and quips out of context, and much of the effect comes from the narrator’s coy lead-ons that color the viewer’s perception, but that’s a great part of the charm and campy fun of it all.  But it’s Rappaport’s consistent daring to go there is what makes his films so illuminating and, sometimes, truly profound.

Rappaport’s presentation of the material has proved to be a stumbling block for some–the flat, uncharismatic Farr featured in Home Movies is widely reviled, and I’ve read dismissals of the lo-fi, home video aspect films.  But the lo-fi quality is exactly what I find most endearing about Rappaport’s entire enterprise–it’s like partaking in the obsessions of a slightly mad but brilliant cinephile nestled in their darkened bedroom, poring over stacks of VHS and dupes taped off of TCM (or AMC, back in the day) and then scanning and rescanning through beloved old films until they seem to be revealing their long-held secrets.  As a queer viewer myself, I view these films as dazzling displays of queer bricolage, of cobbling together disparite elements that reveal and/or create new narratives to serve our own purposes, and manipulate them until they begin tell our own stories and mirror our own desires and dreams.  And as Rappaport reveals, it wasn’t all that difficult to do–the latent queer impulses were always there, we just had to be on the lookout for them.
 
Make sure to click on the banner above to check out a number of posts on a wide, fascinating array of queer-related topics!

dodging definitions

Though overall I didn’t respond to By Hook or By Crook (Harry Dodge and Silas Howard, USA, 2001) nearly as much as I was hoping or expecting to, it’s indeed an important film in its own way and just about the only film I can think of that allows the main characters not only occupy an ambiguous space in regards to both gender and sexuality, but also has a narrative that shows no interest in forcing or demanding distinctions be made.  Which on paper it may not sound particularly notable, but experiencing it through the film often feels nothing less than radical.  One need only think of the other films dealing with transgender characters, such as Boys Don’t Cry, whose “big reveal” to substantiate biological gender for other characters and the audience serve as climactic moments.  By Hook or By Crook interests lie decidedly elsewhere, and the film is all the more interesting because of it.

Also adding to the charm, for me, was its local production which showcases sides of the city that don’t often get glimpsed on film, particularly the Mission District (depicted as some kind of genderqueer oasis) and the Lex (that is, the Lexington Club, the city’s most famous lesbian bar) with nary a glimpse of the stereotypical SF–the Golden Gate Bridge, a streetcar, the Seven Sisters–to be found.  But not only is it an alternative view of the city but practically an alternative universe in and of itself—one of the most insightful observations of the film I’ve come across is how within the film it’s the non-queer world that is depicted as skewed and bizarrely unnatural.

The film is clearly a labor of love for Silas Howard and Harry Dodge, the non-filmmakers who wrote, directed, raised the funds for and then starred in the film, and represents a kind of post-New Queer Cinema return to no-budget independent filmmaking, and it’s ramshackle, “do it yourself” quality is certainly a massive part of its power and its charm.

worrisome, weird feelings

Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, USA, 1936) is usually cited as an early—albeit heavily coded—depiction of lesbianism in American cinema, and the striking, rather handsome Gloria Holden’s vampiric seduction of the tremulous Nan Grey certainly has a certain sexual charge and narrative prominence that is matched by nothing else in the film.  As if to underline the point, the tagline of the film, emblazoned across all original posters for the film, provocatively screams “she gives you that WEIRD FEELING” while others promise that “she’s more sensational than her unforgettable father!”

And in a sense, I agree.  As I’ve written elsewhere, one of my main critiques of the Dracula mythology, first in Bram Stoker’s infamous novel and then the film variations that followed, is that it becomes a point of closure for the rich homoerotic undertones that had imbued earlier vampire lore (I’m thinking in particular of the lesbianism of Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla and, even earlier, Polidori’s undoubtedly queer The Vampyre).  What Stoker instituted instead, as I wrote, “establish[ed] precedents that are comparatively dull in their clean, unambiguous delineations (undead=evil, strict heterosexuality, etc).”  As such, Dracula’s Daughter serves a step away from Stoker and back towards the sexually ambiguous possibilities hinted out by le Fanu and others.  At least in theory.

But whether or not one cares to interpret it as a cinematic site of coded lesbian desire, it’s unfortunately just about the only thing to recommend the film—the rest of the narrative is rather tired and lackluster (and clocking in at barely 70 minutes, still manages to be feel both padded and extremely rushed).  Opportunities for moments of genuine eeriness and fright appear frequently but are generally squandered.  Frankly, the film doesn’t deserve Holden, whose patrician presence allows her to kind of cut through the rest of the film like some kind of knife, imperiously slicing through the bumbling stock characters and rote plot points surrounding her.

[These and many more striking poster images for this film can be found here.]

furious queerness

Desert Fury (Lewis Allen, 1947) is the type of film that has to be seen to be believed–it’s one of the weirdest, queerest films I’ve ever seen, which is why it’s so interesting that it came out of the Hollywood studio system.  It’s essentially an odd, introverted B-film Paramount inexplicably plumped up with A-list trappings such as its use of “blazing Technicolor” (so screamed the poster taglines) and an absurd number of swanky Edith Head outfits for Lizabeth Scott to parade about in.  Curiously though the same amount of attention wasn’t given to the script, and thank goodness–a whole lot of truly bizarre character dynamics remain that would like have likely been erased if more attention had been paid to it.

Where to start?  All of the film’s publicity would make one think that the film features a torrid romance between Scott and strapping young Burt Lancaster, but that is actually far from the case–all of the other characters seem so involved with each other that they barely seem to notice poor Burt.  Mary Astor plays Scott’s mother, but with Astor stomping about in slacks, barking orders, and endlessly calling Scott “Baby,” I have to agree with one of the reviewers on the film’s IMDb page that their dialogue instead “suggests an older Lesbian and her young, restless companion,” particularly after a long scene where Scott begs to start working at her mother’s successful casino/bar, the Purple Sage(?!).

But that’s just the start: the real doozy is the obsessive relationship between John Hodiak and Wendell Corey, the latter in his screen debut–after Scott takes a shining to Hodiak and starts inviting herself to the men’s ranch, Corey flies into eye-clawing mode, followed by a  set of dramatic hissy fits.  The queer pièce de résistance, however, is when Hodiak describes to Scott how he met Corey: wandering around a deserted Times Square in the middle of the night, Corey bought the down-on-his-luck Hodiak a sandwich, took him back to his place for the night, and they’ve “been together ever since.”  All of these bizarre character dynamics play out against picturesque desert scenery so oversaturated that it begins to feel as artificial as a studio set, further heightening the overall sensation of overripe surreality.  Oh, not very good film at all, but it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed one quite so much.

Memories of a Movie:

early, honorable failure

Novel Cover

Thoughts on Flesh is Heir: An Historical Romance by Lincoln Kirstein

To say Lincoln Kirstein was a man of many talents is a massive understatement, but it seems pretty clear from his single published novel that creative fiction cannot be counted as one of them. Written when Kirstein was in his mere twenties and drawn heavily from his own life experiences, it is primarily of interest for what it reveals about its author than as any kind of satisfying reading experience. Kirstein, gutted by the patronizingly lukewarm (at best) reaction he received upon publication, gave up his aspirations to be a novelist and decided instead to devote his considerable energies to a seemingly harebrained idea of establishing a ballet company in America to rival Europe and Russia’s best.

The rest, as they say, is history. So maybe all good balletomanes, and fans of the vast amount of erudite scholarly writing on art Kirstein subsequently wrote, owe a debt of gratitude to this apparently “lost” and forgotten novel. Because without its failure, who knows what young Kirstein would have decided to do instead?

As for the novel itself: quite frankly, it is deathly dull (or at least what I managed to get through was). The prose is characteristically elegant but utterly lifeless—I dutifully plodded through the first chapter, an extended vignette set in an upper-class New England boarding school, and admitted defeat (afterwards I focused solely on several chapters pertinent to something I was researching). Really, the idea of this novel is more interesting than its actuality—it is fascinating to consider that its author, the brilliant upstart editor of Hound & Horn and considered to be at the forefront of literary modernism and all things new and avant-garde, would himself write a novel that could, at best, be charitably described as amiably antiquated. Really, it’s essentially of the quality that would have been expected of a bright, artistic but relatively unexceptional young man of a certain means during the second half of the 19th century. But in the 1930’s? This sad little book didn’t have a chance.

But it is, ultimately, this dissonance that intrigues me, and it does serve as an early indicatation one of the great contradictions that would mark all of Kirstein’s subsequent work: a man whose taste in art and aesthetics was essentially neoclassic, and yet who defended adamantly and often brilliantly to a generally skeptical American public all that was modern and experimental and new. As Flesh is Heir makes abundantly clear, this seemingly incongruous dynamic was there right from the very beginning.

And, truth be told, I do expect to return and read the whole thing someday. Only this time with properly adjusted expectations and a bountiful reserve of patience, of course.

Review of Novel from Vintage Newspaper

Crossposted at Goodreads

boarding school erotics: “olivia” and “mädchen in uniform”

This post is a contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon, hosted by Garbo Laughs.

During the last few months I have had the opportunity to see two films rather striking in their many similarities.  Both Mädchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan, Germany, 1931) and Olivia (The Pit of Loneliness) (Jacqueline Audry, France, 1951) are films set in the all-female world of exclusive boarding schools and feature emotionally charged teacher/student pairings with unmistakable erotic dimensions.  Also notable is that both are directed by female directors, a rarity in both Germany and France at the time.  And, unfortunately, they have also suffered similar fates: both have been difficult to find on home viewing formats in the United States, as those who have held the American rights to both films have resisted the lesbian element of the films and for many years refused to allow them to be shown in the context of female and/or queer film festivals. Aside from making what are interesting and important films difficult to see, the historical repression of both of these films have the lamentable effect of making the cinematic representation of lesbianism and lesbian desire in the past appear even more marginal than it already does.

 

Of the two films, Mädchen is the more recognizable, remaining a generally well-known film despite being relatively little-seen—no history of queer film is complete without establishing the influence of Sagan’s ground-breaking film.  Helping matters is that it is a cinematic masterpiece and has generally been considered from the very beginning (the film is included, for example, in Lotte Eisner’s seminal The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema).  As such, I will primarily focus the rest of this post on Audry’s Olivia, and use Mädchen as a more well-known point of reference and comparison (for those interested in reading more on the film, I recommend two other posts on the film that have been included in this Blogathon—see them here and here).

I got the opportunity to see Olivia, released in America under the inexplicable title The Pit of Loneliness recently as part of a series hosted by San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, the longest running and largest LGBT film festival in the world (it concluded its 35th festival yesterday).  Sponsored by the library system, it featured free screenings of several films from the organization’s archives.  It was, unfortunately, a less-than-ideal circumstance: though Frameline owns a supposedly gorgeous 35mm print of the film that was acquired when it was given a retrospective screening at the festival a number of years ago, what we saw was a DVD dupe made from a VHS dupe of the film, and it did the sumptuous black and white cinematography no favors.  And between the sparse white-on-white subtitles, less-than-ideal audio quality and my elementary grasp on conversational French I’m sure that I missed a number of nuances and subtleties (especially as it’s one of those French chamber pieces where everyone talks and talks and talks…).

That said, a rare screening of a rare film is always something to treasure, and I’ll just hope I get to see the film again someday under more ideal circumstances.  Because what I did see and was able to catch was fascinating, not only in its similarities to Mädchen, which it very much resembles in a very general sense, but in the many differences between the two films.  In some ways the two films could be considered the flipside of the same coin, each serving as a counterpoint of sorts for the other.  It is this dynamic I’d like to tease out in the rest of this post.

As previously mentioned, director Jacqueline Audry is probably the most well-known of the several female directors who made films in France after the heady avant-garde years of the 1920’s and Agnès Varda appeared on the film scene in the late 50’s.  She is most remembered for the three Colette adaptations she directed in the 1940’s and 50’s, particularly the non-musical first version of Gigi (1949).  Though it is commonly assumed that Olivia is also Colette adaptation, as pointed out by queer film historian and Frameline’s curator Jenni Olson, the film is actually an adaptation of a novel by Audry’s sister Colette Audry, a well-known writer in her own right, and the enterprising American distributor simply lopped off the author’s last name to try and capitalize on the director’s previous association with the eminent French Modernist writer (ingenious from a marketing standpoint, but confusing!).  The story, which is believed to have some autobiographical resonances, revolves around the titular character arriving at a French all-girls finishing school run by two elegant headmistresses, Mlle. Julie (played by celebrated French stage actress Edwige Feuillère) and Mlle. Clara (Simone Simon, famous for films made on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly Cat People).  As Olivia is almost immediately informed by one of her classmates, the student body is divided into two camps: those devoted to Mlle. Julie  and those to Mlle. Clara.

Olivia at first becomes enamored with the former after aiding in a number of nighttime rituals including combing her hair, fanning her tenderly, etc (“keep making a fuss of me, I love it!” she purrs to the clearly adoring young girls).

The seductive if playful undertone to Mlle. Clara’s voice is the first indication of what exactly the affection of the student body might entail.  But after being moved by one of the nightly recitations of a Racine play, Olivia catches her instructor’s eye and she quickly establishes herself as Mlle. Julie’s favorite pupil.  The admiration quickly begins to take on a more amorous dimension, which becomes obvious after Laura, Julie’s past favorite, reappears at the school.  Despite befriending Laura, Olivia can’t help but feel competitive for their teacher’s attention, and Olivia even attempts to ask Laura to help her define her feelings for Mlle. Julie.  “Do you love her?” she asks Laura, who doesn’t seem to catch the true nature of the question, and responds that she owes everything to the headmistress.  Olivia tries again: “doesn’t your heart beat when she’s with you, or stand still when she touches your hand?”  Laura, seeming now to comprehend, definitively says no, stating “I just love her.  There is nothing else,” and promptly leaves the room.

The plot thickens as it becomes clear that beneath the antagonism of the two headmistresses is a once-intimate relationship of an unspecified nature between the two that at some point soured.  It all comes to a head during the annual Christmas party—complete with Mädchen-style male drag by the students—that Mlle. Julie promises to stop by her room later that night(!).  At this point it is made explicit that this is not merely some one-sided schoolgirl infatuation of Olivia’s but that there are some kind of mutual feelings involved, which is emphasized by Mlle. Julie’s unexpected decision to leave the school, as it is the “best thing to do.”

This underscores one of the major differences between Olivia and Mädchen: though there are many parallels to draw between the relationship that springs up between student and teacher, there’s a very profound difference in the fact that it is not just one of the teachers, but the headmistress—that is, the person in charge—that is experiencing these feelings.  Instead of the antagonistic dynamic of Mädchen which creates a “they just don’t understand the nature of our love!,” us-versus-them storyline, Olivia becomes more about the walls of the boarding school potentially functioning as a haven-like space for lesbian feelings and desires apart from the world, something Mlle. Julie sternly warns Olivia of in the climatic sequence.  Mlle. Julie seems aware that there might be potential for sustaining a lesbian relationships in this cloistered, isolated setting—as it might have indeed done for Mlles. Julie and Clara at one point—but the reality is that the world outside brutally refuses such things (“and what if you are defeated, Olivia?” Mlle. Julie evocatively but elusively muses at the end of the film, not specifying as to what exactly she is speaking of).

The entire mise-en-scène of the film seems to underline this crucial different between Olivia and Mädchen—where the boarding school of the latter is composed of harsh, hard angles to visually emphasize the militaristic, almost tyrannical nature of the school, the boarding school of the former is soft, embracing and marked by graceful curves echoed by the languid camera pans.  This is seen most prominently in the staircases that feature prominently in both films: where Mädchen‘s central staircase is composed of sharp right angles and tightly tiered like the nightmarish staircase straight out of Vertigo, the central staircase in Olivia serves not only as a central meeting place for the school, but the showcase for its elegant headmistress, who is introduced in the film as ascending from upstairs into a twittering nest of fawning students.

Clearly, both Olivia and Mädchen in Uniform are incredibly important films that deserve to be more widely released and seen, and taken together, function as two complimentary but in many ways different takes on the possibility of love and desire between women in pre-Stonewall cinema.

This post is in contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon, June 2011.