Many feminist films which have received critical attention to date, in varying degrees, encourage multiple readings of their narratives; shifting identifications with their characters; an awareness of the filmmaker’s hand in the construction of the texts; and therefore, a Critical Subjectivity1 on the part of each viewer. It is crucial now, I think, to address a film that appears more openly and more controversially tendentious. Annette Kuhn explains that, “Filmmakers may have a political investment in certain interpretations of their films, and thus seek to delimit readings.”2 Such a tendency may seem implicit within the feminist film project: politically motivated filmmakers will intend to generate certain “politically correct” interpretations of their films. And yet this appears to contradict a major thesis of my book—that feminism exists in the film reading, not the film text, and that a feminist film reading is one which seeks to hold contradictory perspectives in tension.
A Question of Silence (1982), the first feature film by Dutch writer/director, Marleen Gorris, can serve as a case in point in our exploration of this apparent contradiction. Critical response to this film revolves around the question of its tendentiousness:
First-time film maker Marleen Gorris’s film polarizes its audience; many will dismiss it as a feminist tract, but it is far more than that—
The feminist cause will not be well served by A Question of Silence—
“A Question of Silence,” . . . is both a feminist movie, and a thriller. Yet, it goes beyond those categories, and becomes a deeply human, poignant drama—
Sounds weighty, but rookie director Gorris leavens her social study with subversively original humor—
A Question of Silence proceeds by dialectics rather than didacticism—3
Whether the critics love it or hate it, they all feel compelled to address the questions: “Is this film ‘feminist,’ a ‘tract,’ ‘didactic’—in other words, ‘political’?” or “Is it ‘human,’ ‘dialectical,’ more than a ‘political statement’?”
The implicit assumption here seems to be that if the film is tendentious, we will be justified in dismissing it. Only if it presents a totally “balanced,” “fair-minded” picture of all events and characters do we need take it seriously. On the one hand, such a response negates the degree to which individual viewers may respond and interpret the film text in different ways. Perhaps more insidiously, however, buried in such a response is the assumption that most film is not tendentious or does not present a distinct ideological viewpoint. As well, this expectation of a “balanced” and “fair-minded” representation entails a denial of the degree to which any film exists within a certain cultural, societal, and historical frame. No film is an island, to which the viewer responds as if in a vacuum. We all bring our experience and our contexts with us. In other words, a critical portrayal of a husband’s behavior in a world which validates that behavior may be more “balanced” and “fair-minded” than an empathetic portrayal of that same behavior.
Thus it seems that Gorris’s film must be read in its societal and historical context and, in that context, her film is oppositional: it derives much of its impact through its juxtaposition with and reaction to the status quo. And in a strange fashion, the very extremity of its content ensures a certain multiplicity in viewer response. This is not a film that will lull the viewer into acceptance of its premises. I found myself thinking, wondering, questioning its logic even as I felt its inexorable inevitability.
Briefly, the film is based upon the murder of a male shopkeeper by three women who happen to be in the boutique together one day. Christine is a young mother whose frustration and loneliness in her marriage have brought her to a nearly catatonic state. She rarely speaks and her movements are slow and blunted, robotic, except when she caresses her infant child. Annie is a waitress in a neighborhood diner. She is in her forties, divorced, and she talks and laughs loudly and incessantly. There is a cynicism, an intelligence, and a desperation in her manic expressiveness. Andrea is a young, educated business secretary. She knows more than her employer and she knows that, too. Her self-expression reveals neither the desperate laughter of Annie nor the pained silence of Christine, but rather an intelligent, articulate, and relentless contempt. The women have never met before, nor have they known the shopkeeper. Ostensibly the attack is triggered when the shopkeeper catches Christine shoplifting. As he draws the stolen article from her bag, she defiantly takes it back and grabs another garment as well. The shopkeeper is stunned, and as the other shoppers—all women—stop to watch, Annie and Andrea each take an article of clothing from the racks and broadly stuff it into their purses. The three women, slowly and in silence, gather around the man and begin to beat him, deliberately, calmly, and without hesitation.
The extremity of this situation, the film’s premise, ensures that virtually any plot summary begins as mine has, and yet, Gorris builds her film upon a different narrative. The film opens with and is structured around the experience of Dr. Janine Van de Box, the psychiatrist who has been appointed by the court to determine the mental state of the three accused murderers. Block by block, the film is constructed of symmetrical, balanced sequences. We listen as Janine interrogates each of the women, in turn and repeatedly, and gradually she comes not only to understand their actions but to identify with them as women.
Responding to this film, the critic and viewer can put the brutal murder aside, soft-pedaling its radical nature, and emphasizing “the other plot,” Janine’s consciousness-raising. The murder becomes more of a plot device, therefore, a difficult metaphor which allows a more easily accepted point to be made. Or, the critic and viewer can get stuck on the film’s so-called biases; Carrie Rickey speaks with Gorris on this point:
She [Gorris] describes the typical response to her film, both at home and abroad: “Its critics complain that there’s not a nice man in it.” She deadpans, mimicking a finger-pointing male critic, “It would have made your film much stronger if you hadn’t stereotyped the men.” Then, lapsing into her own voice, she observes, “That’s like saying, ‘if there is one good man, then all’s well with the world because I am that man.’ “4
Each of these critical approaches seems to miss the film’s best points. They both position and read the film within certain preexisting and standard measures of “realism,” “poetic license,” and “morality.” Perhaps the more revealing approach to the film—and the approach most in sync with the process of feminist criticism I explore in this text—is to ask “why was the film made in this way?” and “what questions are raised by the film’s radical content and its deliberate, symmetrical form?” These questions help us to see the film less as a single and tendentious statement, and more as an occasion for multiple perspectives.
In fact, if Gorris had wished her viewers to sympathize unquestioningly with the three murderers, if she had intended to lead her viewers unswervingly to certain thematic conclusions, she would have made a very different film. In the Monthly Film Bulletin, Sheila Johnston writes that this film moves its viewers “with the methods—allusion, association—of the most classical narrative.”5 I would argue that Gorris modifies these methods and utilizes some of Eisenstein’s strategies—vertical montage and intellectual montage, and subversive laughter, for example—to create a distinct effect. She manages to communicate to her viewers a sense of the inevitability of the narrative action, even a desire for that action to be played out, without requiring an answering and unreflective audience commitment to that action. The viewer is caught up in the action, enjoying its rhythms and balance, even desiring its inevitable resolution, just as a listener comes to anticipate and actively desire the resolution that develops organically from a passage of music. And yet Gorris ensures a certain distance or awareness on the part of this same viewer, encouraging a reflection, an active questioning, the generation of multiple perspectives.
So how does Gorris achieve this uneasy balance? Let us look first at the level of narrative structure. Gorris constructs her film of numerous “equivalent” sequences arranged and balanced symmetrically. For example, the film opens with “the crime,” a brief, supposedly playful scene of attempted intimacy, poor timing, and missed connections between Janine and her lawyer husband. If this film contains a metaphorical murder, this is it. The two players are at home, on the sofa, and the camera tracks around from a side view to a head-on perspective, giving us, the viewers, a clearer vantage point. (Gorris’s camera is frequently this obliging, revealing “what’s important” with a directness that almost calls attention to itself in the difficult context of this film.) The scene centers around an effort at communication, at connection, which is manifested as a competition, a power struggle between husband and wife. He is reading and she wants to get his attention, to play. She tries to distract and arouse him and he seems to respond, only to shift positions with his book. In annoyance, Janine takes her pen and pantomimes a thrust to his chest, drawing the pen down toward his genitals until her husband leaps to attention and they begin to embrace. The scene is brief and light, ending with laughter and kisses, yet Janine’s pantomime is disturbing. Even more disturbing is the fact that it is her feigned violence, not her playful affection, that connects with her husband. And as the film proceeds, we will observe that it is this type of muffled yet competitive power struggle—although verbal rather than physical—that characterizes Janine’s relationship with her husband.
Getting back to the larger structure of the film, this opening “scene of the crime” is followed by six brief scenes, introducing the three murderers, after their crime and the “crime” we have just witnessed. The first three of these scenes reveal in sequence and in context, the film’s characters: Chris in her living room with her child; Annie working at the diner; and Andrea taking dictation from her employer. After identifying the three women and providing some significant, suggestive details in each of their contexts, Gorris offers three more short scenes, in the same sequence, revealing the arrest of each of the three women. The pattern of the film is quickly established. Gorris seems to build her film of blocks of information, each of them similar in some ways to the other blocks: first, Christine is introduced, then Annie, and then Andrea; first Christine is arrested, then Annie, and then Andrea. In a similar fashion, we are offered symmetrical scenes of Janine interviewing first Christine, then Annie, and then Andrea, again and again.
These building blocks function in a number of ways. Initially, they provide a sense of security, of balance, for the viewer. We know how the film will proceed and in the midst of quite a radical content, we experience the calming influence of order. As well, this symmetrical progression adds to the viewer’s experience of narrative inevitability. No matter how shocking the material treated, we come to expect and desire each new block of information, for it is a necessary part of the symmetry of the whole. And yet, each sequence concludes with a number of questions still unanswered. Janine cannot persuade Chris to speak to her, for example, and Andrea continues to deny that there were witnesses to the murder. Similarly, the murder itself is depicted in a series of flashbacks, each of them revealing a bit more than the last, yet each of them stopping just short of total disclosure. By this method, Gorris ties her audience into the narrative, enlisting our curiosity and stimulating our desire for the narrative to play itself out. Each sequence ends without completely satisfying our interest and so we are drawn further and further into the story—a standard narrative strategy. At the same time, however, Gorris denies us certain typical narrative satisfactions, thereby encouraging a certain awareness and distance in her viewers.
Perhaps most significantly, Gorris often denies her viewers the satisfactions of the shot-reverse shot paradigm, the return look that allows the viewer to slip smoothly into the film’s exchange. In Janine’s initial interview with the accused Christine, the camera keeps a disconcerting distance from the suspect. We see Janine, in close-up, as she asks her questions, but there is no answering reverse shot of Christine. Instead, the camera is more distant and Christine sits at right angles to the doctor, only occasionally turning her head quickly to glance at Janine after a particularly misguided or painful question. This lack of connection is even more disconcerting to a viewer who most closely aligns herself with the psychiatrist. Janine provides the thread of continuity in the narrative; she is the locus of change and at least initially, she seems the more reasonable of the main characters—after all, she has not committed a brutal murder. It is because we are most easily drawn to Janine that her isolation from other characters, their unresponsiveness, is all the more noticeable and uncomfortable to us. And this isolation develops as a theme.
Beyond the disruption of the shot-reverse shot pattern—a disruption all the more unsettling because of this pattern’s apparent suitability for depicting the analyst-analysand exchange—Gorris often presents Janine, alone in her study, listening again and again to the tapes of her interviews with Annie and Andrea. As we listen to the disembodied voices and laughter, the irony of this non-communication reinforces the viewer’s sense of Janine’s isolation, and of our own distance from the film’s characters. Similarly, Christine’s refusal to speak, the “question of [her] silence,” imposes another isolation upon us, the viewers. And Gorris’s imagery reinforces this experience: the camera often keeps a surprising distance from her speaking subjects; she creates an almost rhythmic visual refrain of characters turning their heads, suddenly, jarringly, when a speaker’s words strike home—a startling attention that serves to point up the extent to which these characters are otherwise unconnected; and she uses repeated shots of a character standing at a window, her back to the scene’s supposed “action” and her eyes fixed, unseeing, upon the opaque surface.
This experience of isolation, of disconnectedness, in the midst of a relatively standard narrative format is significant. Gorris coaxes her viewers in and out of the film. Her symmetrical narrative structure lulls the viewer into compliant expectation, just as her extreme content drives the viewer to fight this very acceptance. She disrupts the shot-reverse shot paradigm, simultaneously encouraging and thwarting the viewer’s expectation of connection between two characters and between viewer and the film. Her strategies lead to a questioning of standard tests of rationality and patterns of logic. The film “rejects rationality on the entirely admissable grounds that the commonsense assumptions which underpin it—‘it’s only clear’ / ‘there’s no doubt’—are the weapons of a patriarchy which controls not only by repression (the police, the penal system) but also, more insidiously, through ideology.”6 In other words, Gorris uses the forms of classical film narrative to draw us into her story and then, just as we begin to expect a certain “logical,” “obvious” resolution, she changes her focus. She draws the camera and us away from the supposed “action.” She points to a new center, a different train of thought. In effect, she constructs a “new logic;” the terms of syllogism are unexpected because she focuses her film on unexpected questions. Perhaps the best demonstrations of this process are Gorris’s treatment of the murder itself and of the courtroom debate.
The murder itself is drained of all frenzy, of all surprise. To begin with, all knowledge of the murder is after the fact. There is a definitiveness about the act and as viewer, I never had that familiar sense that “if only . . . this would never have happened.” The murder has already been committed before the film commences and we hear the coroner’s very detailed, very dispassionate description of the fatal beating before we see the scene in flashback. Gorris offers the murder in a series of flashbacks, each proceeding a little further with the account of the deed. These flashbacks are accompanied by a playfully ominous, quickly moving musical score. Gorris’s camera is disconcertingly obliging in these scenes, panning from woman to woman, making sure that we know where everyone is and that we understand exactly how the scene progresses. And finally, when we are actually confronted with the murder, her camera stays unswervingly with the faces and moves of the three women. Once the shopkeeper falls, we do not focus on his body again. The women’s faces remain perfectly calm, composed, and purposeful. There is no frenzy, no uncontrolled emotion, no flinching.
As we mentioned earlier, the use of a series of incomplete flashbacks stimulates the viewer’s curiosity. We are drawn into the event and we begin to actively desire its resolution. In other words, we want to see the murder. As well, the fast-paced musical score, particularly in contrast to the quiet, more serious tones of much of the film’s sound track, excites us and draws us into the scene’s events. The bright, garish, toystore colors of the boutique and its display racks add to our desire/expectation of action. But this desire/expectation is stirred at the visceral level, as well as at an intellectual or even an emotional level. The pace is light and quick, almost playful, and we want something to happen.
But when it does happen, Gorris’s depiction of the beating is “stylized through a deliberate, almost ritual execution,” and she refrains from building a bond of passionate empathy and identification between her characters and the viewers.7 We have caught glimpses of Christine, Annie, and Andrea’s everyday lives and we are aware of their personal frustrations. Gorris has not, however, portrayed them as helpless victims. She has not developed their personalities and experiences over time, building toward this outburst of violence. Rather, she has used a sort of shorthand in communicating the family and professional frustrations these women face; Gorris clues us in to their only too typical experiences without drawing us into the individual characters’ perception of those experiences. We remain observers for we do not see these characters change and suffer, and we learn of their situations, for the most part, third-hand—we listen in as Janine repeatedly interviews each of them. As well, the immediate catalyst for the murder is seemingly rather trivial: a shopkeeper catches Christine shoplifting. We have not shared Christine’s day with her, leading up to this event. Similarly, the murder itself is so calm, so dispassionate, failing to enlist a frenzied emotional identification from the viewer. And the killing is prolonged over time; this is no sudden, impulsive gunshot but rather a measured, determined beating. And although Gorris never presents us with a sensational and bloody image of the dying man, neither does she shy away from the physical details of the murder. The coroner’s account is so detailed, that we, the viewers, can picture the damage done by each of the women’s blows and kicks. Thus, Gorris avoids an immediate, emotional response to a violent image while she nevertheless communicates an intellectual and imaginative recognition of the scene’s significance. She refrains from the fast cutting, the bloody images, the emotional frenzy common to much movie violence—strategies which stimulate sensation, not reflection—while she still conveys the physical detail and the horrible permanence of the women’s act.
So Gorris uses standard movie techniques to draw us into the scene: flashbacks, musical score, imagery, and color. At the same time, she thwarts our expectations of other narrative techniques by denying us the fast editing, violent imagery, explicit motivations, and invitations to emotional identification to which we are accustomed. The use of standard strategies prevents us from resisting/rejecting her difficult content out of hand. The denial of other expected strategies prevents us from becoming so absorbed in the difficult content that we fail to really see it. In other words, Gorris is trying to strike an uneasy balance. She wants our attention, our investment in her narrative, but she also wants us conscious, intellectually aware. Her strategies encourage the dual consciousness, the Critical Subjectivity we have posited as elements of feminist film viewing.
Rather than a tendentious film, Gorris’s film now seems a problem film, a film that raises questions precisely because of the extremity and apparent bias in its subject matter. That subject matter suggests a whole host of questions while her formal strategies lead us off in another direction. While the film’s explicit content may lead us to question the women’s relationship with the murder victim—and by extension with men—the film’s form focuses our attention on the murderers’ relationships with each other, with Janine, with women. For example, Gorris’s depiction of the murder focuses not on the mutilated body of the victim, not on the violent relation between the killer and the killed, but rather on the experience and behavior of the women performing the murder, and on the responses of the women who witness it.
Similarly, the film story triggers questions like “what did the shopkeeper do to deserve such violence?” and “why did three women who had never met before join together so instinctively to perform this act?” and “how can viewers—particularly the male viewers—respond to this film without fear and hostility?” However, the film form grants the narrative premise an air of cool, measured, deliberate and inevitable fact. The climactic courtroom debate is perhaps the most succinct demonstration of the manner in which this film shifts the terms of our reasoning, suggesting the irrelevance of our typical line of questioning. After a seemingly interminable procession of male witnesses, none of whom have “witnessed” anything, and whose testimonies Gorris cuts together into seamless, senseless babble, Janine is finally called to testify as to the accused women’s mental health. The doctor, to the surprise and horror of the court, defends the mental soundness of the three women, and by her “defense,” she convicts them of sanity and of power. The women are caught in a patriarchal trap: the doctor’s “defense” assures them of the harshest sentence. Gorris has turned the courtroom “rationality” upside down. And when the prosecutor, in exasperation, attacks Janine with the question, “what if three men had killed a female shopkeeper?”, all the women—the accused, the murder witnesses who have each appeared for the trial, and Janine—burst into laughter. The laughter is startling, disconcerting, seemingly inappropriate, and utterly contagious. It breaks the tension and it startles the viewer out of the context, encouraging us to think again, to reflect. Gorris attempts to call our attention to the utter irrationality of the prosecutor’s logic, to use “militant humor” in an effort to disrupt this logic.8 Mary Daly has analyzed four “male methods of mystification,” one of which is precisely this “reversal” attempted by Gorris’s prosecutor.9 It is an effort to deceive, to obscure the basis of the argument by reversing its elements. The film murder has everything to do with the gender-based oppression of women, the economic servitude of women, and the silent isolation of women. To reverse the roles as the courtroom prosecutor suggests is to render the act unrecognizable (not to mention the ironic and painful fact that violence directed against women by men is by far more frequent than its reverse.)
Thus, we found a number of ways in which Marleen Gorris plays her film content off against her film form, encouraging an active questioning of the typical “ways of seeing” a particular event, and of the typical ways of experiencing a particular formal strategy. We have raised a number of questions that grow out of this film’s difficult subject matter and the film viewer’s possible experience of that subject matter. I suggest that Gorris prevents her viewers from resisting the subject by using certain familiar, even seductive, film strategies, and yet she thwarts that seduction again and again, encouraging an actively critical perspective in these same viewers. In this way, Gorris encourages multiple perspectives in her viewers.
However, A Question of Silence, like any other film, does not ensure a particular spectator response. The questions I raise, the tensions I identify between form and content, are not necessarily the tensions and questions other viewers will experience. And although a filmmaker may wish to encourage a Critical Subjectivity in her spectators through the depiction of multiple perspectives, the most effective way to stimulate this active questioning is through the sharing of distinct, individual responses to a particular film. In this text, I have tried to offer some suggestive approaches to a group of specific films in the hopes that these ideas might trigger more discussion and greater self-consciousness on the part of the film viewer. For most of all, Critical Subjectivity is a process of perception, and in that sense, it is never complete. Just as dreams accumulate interpretations and meanings for us in the reflected light of each new experience, so our analyses of films change and develop in the light of new insight and extended sympathy. And the feminist film experience is the affirmation of this expansiveness, this construction of the self that names itself not “in opposition to” all “other” readings of a text, but rather identifies itself—simultaneously, complexly—in a multitude of meanings.
1. Realism is characteristic of film practices which present an appearance of transparency by effacing the marks of meaning production in films’ textual operations.
By Critical Subjectivity, I mean an awareness of the contradictions within ideologically created positions and the tensions within the language women try to speak. We have learned through our reading of Lacan and Althusser that our point of view is constructed through language and ideology; that it must be deconstructed through the recognition and questioning of contradiction within the assumptions that form its base; and that we may then rebuild our point of view, constructing a critical subjectivity, a subjectivity that is critical of its own process and organization. This critical subjectivity knows no absolutes; the closest it comes to a sort of truth is the recognition of contradiction and tension; this exists only in the spaces in-between, in the contradiction between ideologies, between orders of language, and between experiences.
2. Annette Kuhn, Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1982), p. 190.
3. Linda Gross, “Filmex Reviews,” Los Angeles Times, Saturday, April 23, 1983, Part 5, p. 2; Janet Maslin, “Film: Silence of Killers,” New York Times, March 18, 1983, C3, p. 132; Peter Stack, “Three Women Who Murder a Man on the Spot,” San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, October 21, 1983, p. 71; Carrie Rickey, “Three Women Kill a Man—‘For No Reason,’ ” San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, November 11, 1983, p. 32; Sheila Johnston, “De Stilte Rond Christine M. (A Question of Silence),” Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 50, no. 589, February 1983, p. 48.
4. Rickey, “Three Women Kill a Man—‘For No Reason,’ ” p. 32.
5. Johnston, “De Stilte Rond Christine M. (A Question of Silence),” p. 48.
8. Sergei Eisenstein, Notes of a Film Director, trans. X. Danko, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. (1970), pp. 111, 112.
9. Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Boston: Beacon Press (1978), p. 8.