Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sleeping beauties

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve come across a series of disturbing filmic images of women who are (metaphorically or literally) sleeping through their lives.

The first was in an Australian film called Sleeping Beauty, written and directed by Julia Leigh, who was a year ahead of me at Sydney Uni. The second was in an American film called The Future, made by a woman who is also close to my own age: Miranda July, an American performance artist who is the star of her own film (and life, I would guess). The third was a film of the Paris Ballet performing Coppélia, a ballet based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story ‘The Sand-Man.’

The three films were completely different in mood. Leigh’s film depicts a dramatic, desolate world full of disturbing experimental encounters, scientific and sexual. In pursuit of money, and perhaps an experience that can break through her emotional frozenness, the main character takes on more and more transgressive forms of work, eventually allowing herself to be drugged so that men can spend the night with her beautiful, unconscious, naked body. This is a form of prostitution with heavy literary associations – Yasunari Kawabata and Gabriel García Márquez both wrote famous stories on this theme. The film also clearly alludes to the work of Haneke and other male European film-makers. One way of reading Leigh's film is that it evokes the disassociation and repressed trauma of a young woman who is almost completely immersed in a male cultural perspective for which women are passive, mute, disturbing bodily presences (there is an audible female literary voice in the film, that of Ingeborg Bachmann, but even she speaks, or rather is spoken, through a male character). She cannot break free from this heavy inheritance; it is as though she is enthralled to it, even though she is also clearly oppressed by it.

Paw Paw the cat
July’s film, by contrast, portrays a humorous, slightly fantastical, but very recognizable world of self-absorbed people stuffing things up. In this film a cat, who has her own squeaky soliloquies to the audience, ends up euthanized because the couple who have decided to adopt her are so busy having a crisis about the meaning of their lives that they forget to pick her up. It occurred to me that you could see this cat as a figure of divinity, the Second Coming in female, feline form. This time around, God is not persecuted or hated. Rather, she suffers and dies because people simply forget about her. There is clearly a message about our relationship to the environment gently embedded in this story of animal neglect.

What really struck me though, seeing this film the day after Leigh’s film (they were both shown at the Sydney Film Festival) was that The Future also depicts a woman who is in thrall to a culture in which women are seen primarily as attractive bodies, with no capacity or concern for moral agency. In this film the picture of femininity is drawn from popular rather than high culture, and the lines are not so sharp, the trauma is ordinary and visible rather than unexplained and hidden, but the problem seems essentially the same. 

In The Future, the main female character is a dance teacher for kids, who competitively aspires to create a series of sexy dance clips that she hopes will go viral on the internet. Finding herself jerkily and self-consciously incapable of this and lacking any other clear direction, she pursues an affair with a random stranger who offers her the opportunity to let herself be absorbed into his life and avoid working out what to do with her own. As a result she breaks her boyfriend’s heart, and her pet-to-be meets a clinical and premature death. The message for anyone who can identify with her: wake up! and live your sexuality - and your life - in a more conscious and authentic way.

July’s film seems more optimistic than Leigh’s about the possibility of this kind of awakening, but there is no redemption at the end of her story, either. What seems to be missing for both film-makers is any sense that there exists any widely-established cultural support for a view of women as active and responsible – as fully awake, especially in sexual relations. They both portray young women struggling with this soporific situation, which is a start, but it feels like there’s still a battle for consciousness to be fought.

As for the ballet, remembering having been enchanted by a live performance of Coppélia when I was a child, I took my 9 year old niece, Caitlin to see this filmed version of it. She commented authoritatively as soon as it began, “Very good dancing.” And it was. But it also gradually sent both of us to the verge of sleep. As Caitlin said on the way home, it seemed an achievement to get through it without nodding off.

Partly this may be the nature of ballet on film. Partly it may have been the result of us both having stayed up late the night before – I had been out dancing tango and Caitlin had had a sleep-over with a couple of her girlfriends. But mainly, I think it was due to the fact that in this production, the director, Patrice Bart, made a psychological interpretation of the story which was too subtle to be appreciated by anyone who didn’t have the original clearly in mind already (Caitlin and I both belonging to this category on the day of viewing).

As I found out later, the Hoffman tale is about a young man whose love for his intelligent, calm, beautiful and loving fiancée is interrupted by his deluded passion for an animated mechanical doll, an enchantment which develops during a period while he is living away from his fiancée. The doll is created and brought to life by a couple of men, one of them a very ugly, mysterious and threatening character. It is by looking through a glass created by him that the young man falls into the ultimately fatal trap of confusing this false, mechanical version of femininity with the woman who loves him.

In Bart's interpretation of the ballet based on this story, a single dancer performs both parts: the fiancé and the doll. Not only does this blur the distinction between them, it also suggests that it is the young woman herself who is giving life to the figure of the doll, rather than this being solely the work of men. As a result, the potential for confusion between woman and mechanical doll, fantasy and reality, dream and waking states, is exponentially increased.

When I saw it with Caitlin, this complex interpretation combined with perfectly executed but somewhat repetitive dance moves just made me sleepy. Now, though, it occurs to me that rather than simply presenting a dilemma concerning male perceptions of women, this version of the ballet opens up the same contemporary problem addressed by Leigh and July. Not only her lover, but also the young woman herself is in danger of being lulled into an artificial sleep by the power of images portraying women as passive sexual commodities. As she struggles to conform to their mechanical patterns, she compromises her agency, as well as her moral intelligence. And when this happens, perhaps beauty itself, as something inseparable from self-consciousness, is surrendered - unless and until she wakes up.

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