Corinne Marchand in Cléo de 5 à 7

Referring to classical Hollywood cinema, a number of film critics and filmmakers have consistently drawn attention to the fact that the visual apparatus and the techniques of female subject formation are deeply flawed: Laura Mulvey criticised the construction of woman as “to-be-looked-at-ness”, Mary Ann Doane  deplored the representation of woman as “hystericised subject”, and even much earlier, Eisenstein raised concerns about the fact that the screen is gendered e.g. the horizontal frame being regarded as too “passive”, a quality that he associated with the “feminine” (Ramanathan 2006: 1). The fact that the composition of the frame is already marked culturally with reference to masculinity and femininity poses significant problems for women filmmakers. This essay will discuss in detail the various strategies that  Agnès Varda and Jane Campion employed in conveying women’s subjectivity in their films Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and The Portrait of a Lady (1996) respectively.

Subjectivity can be defined in relation to Benveniste’s concept of enunciation which combines linguistics and psychoanalysis in order to account for the production of texts. If enunciation refers to the process of production and more specifically to the position from which statements proceed, the category of subjectivity refers to the subject’s place in language, the sum total of extralinguistic determinants (social, psychological, unconscious) that are fundamental to the production of all human discursive exchange (Benveniste 1974:85). Applied to film, enunciation refers to the entire cinematic process, the way in which filmmakers organise the image flow, the various narrative strategies, editing techniques and point-of-view structures employed (Metz 1982:7). Thus, the way vision and enunciation are structured and organised in the construction of cinematic discourse impacts on the representation of the characters’ subjectivities.

In this respect, one of the main problems with mainstream films is the superficiality and exteriority of female representations, women being often presented in essentialist ways that deny the possibility of any nuanced comment on their roles and psychology. According to Bellour, the defining characteristic of the classical model of cinematic apparatus is the inscription of sexual difference (Bergstrom 1979:98) in the sense that the subject of desire is almost without exception a masculine subject, the female figure being represented according to masculine logic as an object of desire. Even in women’s films, the conditions of representability are restricted to what is permitted in patriarchal culture due to the fact that patriarchy has the power to limit and define the feminine, both socially and cinematically.

The reasons for women’s difficult relation to the processes of representation and self-representation can be accounted for in terms of woman being situated by patriarchy “as lack, non-male, no-one”, as having “no separate unity which could ground an identity […] no autonomous symbolic representation” (Irigaray 1987:15-16). In contrast to the male infant who is made in his father’s image and carries his father’s name, the female has no means of relating herself to her maternal origin, there is a lack of cultural symbols that would enable her to do this. The idea that women lack a feminine symbolic provides a reason for the paucity of specifically female cinematic imagery (Bolton 2011: 43).

Thus, the challenge for women filmmakers is to avoid the pitfalls of “tropes” or “abstractions” of the feminine by exploring alternative ways of enabling female characters to appear more multi-dimensional or multi-faceted, and also to represent women’s subjectivity in ways that counter prior cinematic renditions by refusing certain modes of representation imposed on women with the aim of altering viewing relations. Johnston for instance called for a cinema that would intervene formally with an emphasis on deconstructive strategies (1973:5). Mulvey advocated a form of textual distancing (“passionate detachment”) based on a break with conventional modes of looking which would bring about a disruption of the patriarchal logic of vision, leading to alternative visions (1975:6-18). Doane theorises a feminist cinema that “speaks” the female body differently by displacing the gaze and reworking the image of woman (1981:36). De Lauretis asks for a new articulation of female subjectivity: “the project of feminist cinema is […] to construct another (object of) vision and the conditions of visibility for a different social subject” (1985: 38).

Consequently, when the enunciating subject is female, the desiring look articulates a different economy of vision. In this respect, Bolton remarks that woman’s relation to looking is different from that of a man: women are more comfortable with nearness and touch than with the visible (2011:28), which would suggest distinct and specific features of female subjectivity. Thus, by rearticulating “feminine desire” and “female specificity”, women directors have to devise new strategies for representing women’s subjectivity on screen. These strategies, relating to the gaze, female sexuality, female imaginary, the construction of a new cinematic language with different symbolic associations, will be discussed in detail below.

In terms of Mulvey’s subject/object dichotomy of the “gaze” (usually structured according to phallic logic with its active/masculine and passive/feminine implications), one of the principal strategies employed by both Varda and Campion consists in the denaturalisation of the gaze: the vision is no longer hampered by voyeurism, women start to look at the world around them, they start to see, which is the first step towards them becoming subjects of vision and not its objects.

Varda’s interest in constantly articulating challenges to dominant representations of femininity is clearly expressed in Cléo from 5 to 7 which is a critical examination of traditional conceptions of womanhood, its central problematic being the woman-as-image/object, an idea visually rendered through Cléo’s repeated gesture of looking into mirrors. This visual metaphor suggests not only the conception of woman as image (of desire) but also the fact that in a patriarchal framework the woman can only be the subject of vision insofar as she is also its object. Thus Cléo’s presentation at the beginning of the film is in total accordance to male logic: a mere object/spectacle, a cliché that encapsulates all the conventionally desirable qualities of womanliness (beautiful, blond, voluptuous), Cléo is exclusively constructed by the looks of others, especially men, and her own obsessive and narcissistic focus on herself. However Varda will proceed to turn this male logic on its head in the second part of the film through a reversal of the positions of vision: Cléo’s defiant gesture of appropriating the gaze for herself is a way of subverting her initial presentation as object. Forced by her disease to look inside herself, to search for her identity, Cléo changes dramatically through the course of the film:  by becoming aware of her subject-ivity, she emerges as a different person, an active social participant empowered with a vision of her own. Thus, Cléo’s internal transformation from childlike egotism  to communication and vision is formulated in terms of a visual problematic. As noted by Fitterman-Lewis, the evolution from “the object to the subject of the gaze, from reflection in the mirror to self-reflection, has important feminist overtones” (1990:229).


Nicole Kidman in The Portrait of a Lady

From a narrative point of view, the strategy of denaturalising the gaze has implications for the nature of the journey undertaken by the main characters. If Cléo undergoes a clear and radical transformation from object to subject, in The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel does the reverse, or at least appears to. At the film’s start, Isabel is presented as very much her own master, confident, curious about the world, coveted by several suitors whom she unhesitantly rejects, and also empowered by the considerable fortune that her uncle bestows on her. However, by choosing to marry Osmond as a result of Mme Merle’s manoeuverings and Osmond’s manipulation, Isabel becomes just another object in her husband’s impressive collection of exquisite “objects d’art”, totally at the mercy of his absurd whims and stifling authority. If Osmond is a “consumer of persons”, Isabel is a “person consumed”, which illustrates James’s central thematic concern with humans used and made into objects (Gass quoated in McHugh 2007:98). According to Polan, the film “avoids visual pleasure” and “refuses resolutely to represent an easy image of female empowerment as demanded by the conventions of a certain kind of woman’s film” (2001:141).

However, upon a closer analysis, a different meaning transpires. Irigaray herself advocates an unconventional reading method which identifies the “spaces between” in which alternative things are said about female subjectivity: “be attentive to something which does not appear the first time. Look at what appears when viewing a second time” (1985a:137). Thus, in “hindsight” (i.e. from the perspective of the film’s ending), Isabel’s status as subject at the film’s start is simply an illusion due to the fact that her innocence, naiveté and lack of experience prevents her from attaining such a position. The fact that Isabel does not know who she is and lacks a certain kind of awareness is also pointed out by Bessière (in Radner et al eds. 2009:127).This idea is visually rendered in the very first shot of the film in a close-up of Isabel’s searching eyes that give a restless, edgy, insecure impression of her interiority. Isabel is indeed “looking” but can she “see”? This is a very important distinction because in my reading of the film, Isabel does not know the difference between “to look at” and “to see”, these different actions being placed in sharp contrast in the scene in which Mr Goodwood visits Isabel in Florence and declares himself happy that “he had seen her” (the implication being that he understood what happened with Isabel), to which she replies: “Do you mean you came all this way only to look at me?”. From this perspective, Isabel only becomes a subject empowered with the ability to “see” only at the end of the film, when she understands the reality of her situation and the fact that she was the one who “got hold of a false idea”. Isabel’s transformation from illusory to real subject of vision is rendered in the contrast between the first and the very last shot of the film. The latter frames her in back-shot running away across the garden (from Mr Goodwood, and by extrapolation, from all the problems in her life) only to turn around and face (figuratively speaking, confront) what she had left behind (i.e. her unhappy marriage, her mistakes and misjudgements that nearly ruined her life). The expression on her face as she gazes at the camera and beyond is now mature, contemplative, self-assured, its sadness suggesting the tremendous price she had to pay, in terms of personal suffering, for achieving this transformation. In this sense, the film’s ending can be interpreted as a victory: the victory of Isabel’s reaching her ultimate goal, of attaining knowledge, experience and becoming a real subject. Campion’s choice of shooting the last sequence in slow-motion renders this new meaning even more apparent, as the spectator is allowed the time to interpret the dramatic transformation in Isabel’s personality, fully codified in her eyes and facial expression. Also, the strategy of condensing Isabel’s story in these two shots points to a visual economy that is also characteristic of Varda, the aim being to deflect visual excess which is construed as feminine in the history of art and film.

Another strategy of representing women’s subjectivity pertains to the depiction of the female imaginary which is constructed in contrast to the dominant characteristics of the male imaginary: order, form, visibility, unity, and erection. Irigaray proposed a cinematic theory of female subjectivity based on the diffuse sensuousness and eroticism of the female body and on a theorisation of fluids as a means of contesting the privileged place occupied by the scopic (1996: 106-8). For her, fluids bear a primary relation to the maternal and the inscription of desire which organises the subject’s being in the visible world. In Portrait, the symbolism of liquids and themes associated with water occur at multiple levels: film image, sound, text, and material, especially in Isabel’s relationship with Madame Merle, resulting in special effects and distortions that blur subject and object and affect visual clarity, which also reflects the difficulty Isabel has in “seeing” and her own illusory and vulnerable status throughout the film.

This new way of conceptualising the female imaginary impacts on the representation of female subjectivity in relation to sexuality. Classically female sexual pleasure is either ignored or represented in scenes depicting heterosexual sex, suggesting penetration and orgasm and displaying female nudity. In Portrait, Campion challenges this assumption by adding an erotic fantasy sequence and a contemporary prologue to the film, which disrupt James’s text of repressed sexuality. Thus, Isabel’s erotic fantasy alludes to the idea that women’s special experience of pleasure may lie outside the phallic economy: the fantasy involving her three suitors focuses on touch and has very little to do with the visual, as her eyes are closed. The fantasy itself is sparked by Mr Goodwood’s gently caressing her face when he bids her goodbye. Similarly, Isabel appears captivated by Osmond gesture of circling his daughter’s waist in the sequence where they had just made their acquaintance in Florence. This echoes Bolton’s idea that women are more comfortable with nearness and touch than with the visible (2011:28).

Also, in the prologue to the film, a group of contemporary women are speaking off-screen about their romantic experience of the first kiss. The fact that these are “disembodied voices” (we can hear but cannot see them) counters the cinematic renditions of love in mainstream films which usually display the woman’s body as the site of passion with a fetishised focus on breasts, waist and legs. In contrast to the fetishisation of body parts connoting the purely sexual, both films highlight women’s hands as a preferred locus of interest: Portrait is visually introduced by a woman’s hand whose middle finger bears the inscription of the film’s title (also hand-written) whereas the very first shot in Varda’s film focuses exclusively on the fortune-teller’s and Cléo’s hands, a frame that is maintained for a considerable amount of time.  This dislocates the stereotypical masculine discourse about female subjectivity (often reduced to female sexuality), replacing it with a rhetoric indicative of activity, individuality and destiny which is what hands connote.

Thus, a focus on the body attuned to the other facets of perception, such as touch, sound, sensation, disturbs the exclusively visual basis of theories of the cinema (Watkins 2009:195), laying the foundation for a haptic cinema that questions the privileging of the visual over the non-visual considering that touch is as essential as the optic to our understanding of the world. Moreover, touching bodies do not reflect a solitary subject, or a subject/object relation founded on mastery, rather they enable a relation to each other: “The rigid binary of subject/object is replaced by mutuality which flows between them” (Canters & Jantzen 2005:118). It can be thus surmised that in contrast to Freudian and Lacanian sexuality which is based on the visual (it is scopophilic because the penis is visible), women’s sexuality is best understood in non-visual terms: “within a scopic economy, the female genitalia might seem like an absence, but within a haptic one, […] they are far richer than their male equivalent” (Jay 1994:535).

In her attempt to conceptualise the distinctiveness of female sexuality, Irigaray challenges the Lacanian view according to which the phallus is the privileged signifier, structuring symbolic relations: “The significance and signification of the “two lips” of the vagina suggests a non-fixity of meaning and subjectivity as against the coherence and apparent wholeness of subjectivity implied when the monolithic phallus is erected as primary signifier” (1994:63). In other words, far from being “lack”, women exceed binary opposition: “her sexuality […] is plural” (1985:28). This “non-fixity of meaning and subjectivity” is also reflected in the fluid camera movements and open narratives of both films. Moreover, Campion disrupts the narrative and intercuts it with a travel sequence shot as a black and white silent film in which Isabel arouses the desire of several men, including Osmond. This sequence, as well as the surrealist episode of the talking beans, can be interpreted as a psychic journey depicting the plurality of woman’s desires, images and fantasms. In Varda’s film, the ambivalence and duality of woman’s subjectivity is reflected in the very narrative structure: the turning point of Cléo’s transformation occurs during a song rehearsal at the exact temporal middle of the film. As Cléo’s new sense of herself is founded on sociality, the film’s format foregrounds the intersubjectivity of identity, bringing both the image and self-image of Cléo together in the attempt of drawing a fuller picture of her interiority.

Agnès VardaVarda’s film also speaks of the power of the mirror in constructing the female self-image and its relationship to the concept of masquerade i.e. femininity conceived as a mask that can be worn or disposed of at will. Thus, Cléo’s internal transformation can be traced through the contrasting use of mirrors in the first and second halves of the film: whereas at the beginning identity and mirror image are firmly united, mirrors providing Cléo with a reassuring image of coherence, with a sense of her existence as synonymous with beauty, in the second part of the film mirrors no longer offer her this confirmed identity as beautiful object, their surfaces being either disturbed or broken. In this way, Varda challenges woman’ relation to the mirror and interrogates the notion of physical beauty, artifice and reflection. Referring to the scenes in which the female protagonist surveys her image in the mirror, Mayne talks about the “realm of the surveyed female” (1990:47), the constant pressure imposed by patriarchy on women to conform to a certain ideal of external appearance.

Another important strategy for conveying interiority is the use of silence and pauses as means of signalling that the woman on-screen is experiencing self-reflection and repose e.g. Cléo’s solitary walk in the park, Isabel and Pansy’s conversation about the two conflicting proposals of marriage, their dialogue being interspersed with long pauses and silences. The impact of this conversation on Isabel’s subjectivity is also sustained by the refraction of her face forming residual, ghost-like ripples beside her.

Overall, Campion makes ample use of colour, rhythm, gesture and light in the creation of a visual language aimed at symbolically representing female interiority. The film’s fluidity in movement is constituted through variations and contrasts in colour, shadow, saturation and transparency (Watkins 2009:196). The variations in the speed and colour temperature of the film demarcate Isabel’s progress, the contrasts in light and darkness reflecting Isabel’s state of mind and ethical dilemmas. In the sequence in which Isabel walks with Pansy in the garden, the latter stops short at the edges of the shadow cast by her father’s house, which she is forbidden to cross. This powerful visual metaphor is suggestive of the restrictions and narrow boundaries imposed by patriarchy on women. The shadow makes visible the boundary created by Osmond’s will, which is internalised and invisible. Moreover, the film’s shallow depth of field creates a pattern of colour and light very similar to Rembrandt’s portraits, the complex chiaroscuro operating as a trace of the characters’ psychical and somatic processes. Regarding the soundtrack, the film is permeated by a multitude of fleeting impressions: the musical score is often interspersed with tiny sounds, of leaves rustling, of fingers drumming, the inhalation of breath. All these strategies help to examine theories of subjectivity and difference in cinema and also reveal Campion’s intervention in the patterns of representation that are conventional in mainstream cinema.

In contrast to Campion who renders female subjectivity exclusively through cinematic means, Varda, a more “literary” filmmaker, allows us direct access to the character’s thoughts and subjectivity through the use of internal monologue. After she leaves Irma the fortune-teller, Cléo pauses before a hallway mirror and muses in voice-over: “Being ugly, that’s what death is. As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive”. Similarly, Angèle’s view of Cléo is also offered in voice-over: “She needs to be taken care of, she’s like a child”.

Regardless of their differences, both filmmakers ultimately put forward a female point of view that triggers a different kind of filmic language, the discovery of what Irigaray calls a “parler femme”, or “speaking (as) woman” (Bolton 2011:50) which is  a different way of communicating outside of the masculine, linear language privileged by patriarchal culture.  The only POV shots in Varda’s film are female, belonging to either Cléo or Angèle and Paris is reconstructed not only in the best realist tradition of New Wave films but also through a female point of view that is fully determined by feminine subjectivity. Regarding the film’s style, Sellier remarks that Cléo was perceived as surprisingly novel at the time of its release, largely because it was a film made by a woman yet it was “intellectual” and refused to resort to sentimentality and character identification as its main techniques for drawing the audience in (2005:183-193).

It can be thus concluded that the cinematic strategies adopted by women filmmakers in representing female subjectivity are informed by feminist ideologies, a fact which implies a different construction of the object, a different mode of organising meaning, a different language of desire.  The tendency is to deflect visual excess, to introduce feminist visual codings, to create new visual structurings that evade the voyeuristic placement of the female subjects, to use modes of narration that are different to the established classical male paradigms. These alternative feminist film practices are forms of textual resistance to the dominant cinematic model with the aim of generating new textual forms, new aesthetic models as well as a new spectator-text relationships which render voyeuristic cinema and its pleasures problematic.


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