Alicia Malone has been one of my favourite film people since I was first introduced to her in an interview with her on Criterion Now. Malone’s passion for cinema easily comes across in her role as an interviewer, the segments she hosts for TCM, FilmStruck, and the videos she posts to her YouTube channel. The strength of Malone’s segments is her joy, contextual knowledge and her ability to use the stories of personal lives and production that entices the viewer to watch more great films more deeply.
The book’s title comes from a 1988 keynote by Texas Governor Ann Richards that Malone uses as her epigraph, and is perhaps revealing to the plight of women both in the film industry, politics, and every other area of life:
Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.
Backwards & in Heels has many familiar stories within it, profiling early female filmmakers such as Alice Guy-Blanché and Lois Weber, silent stars like Mary Pickford, the stars of screwball comedies and ‘women’s pictures’, like Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, mythologised sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe, New Hollywood icons like Jane Fonda, through to the present day with figures still working with Meryl Streep and Octavia Spencer, and more recent directors such as Ava DuVernay. Although far from comprehensive, without an interest in women within the global film industry (although some international talent is mentioned in passing), Malone provides a strong series of empowering biographies (some a couple of pages, some closer to ten) written in an accessible way that encourages the reader to both read and watch more.
Many of the stories Malone tells are less familiar, remembering actresses and directors that might be less acknowledged, like with Hedy Lamarr, Mae West, Dorothy Dandridge or Ida Lupino. We learn of women who achieved far more for humanity and the world at large – and more intelligent – than we ever give credit for. Many of these stories have an element of tragedy: the marginalisation of actors of colour Hattie MacDaniel and Anna May Wong, even in the face of critical acclaim and major directors; the erasure of Rita Hayworth’s ethnic identity; the difficulty of Tangerine actress Mya Taylor to find positive trans roles, instead limited to prostitutes. There’s stories of women who lack agency or control, or were manipulated by men, or failed to get the due credit to support their careers. Hearing about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds after their passing still makes me so emotional. Malone hits her stride when she approaches the current era of filmmaking, addressing not only directors and actors but activists, producers, screenwriters, editors, cinematographers and so on, interviewing people like Rachel Morrison and Nicole Perlman that might be overlooked because of male directors overshadowing their contributions, but should instead be remembered for shaping the films as they are.
Although Malone doesn’t address narrative content so much, we need to consider how representation functions. Representation isn’t just made from depicting strong and empowered women on screen outside of sexist and misogynistic tropes, images and stereotypes, but in shifting the culture and placing women within creative positions to have an impact on how these stories are told.
With the most recent edition, Malone ties in the events of late 2017 and 2018, tackling the events following Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s The New York Times investigation into Harvey Weinstein and what this means for the film industry as a whole. As Malone concludes, “the only consistency [in Hollywood] is the struggle for women against discrimination, bias, sexual harassment, damaging stereotypes, and constant objectification”, with sexual assault “woven into the very fabric of the industry almost since the beginning.”
On a Sunday afternoon in early December, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Pandora’s Box at the Phoenix Cinema (not to be confused with Leicester’s Phoenix), with a live piano score by Stephen Horne. Alongside fellow silent film enthusiast and Conrad Veidt lover Max, Max had attended their showing of Häxan (1922) a month earlier, with live narration by Reece Shearsmith. As we took the train down amid the chaos of cancellations, we sat down to an ornately decorated screen, as though in the pre-digital age of decades ago, before physical film projection was usurped by bootleg VHS tapes, torrents, DVDs and streaming, the pillarbox screen the centre of attention amid the wooden seats. Critic Pamela Hutchinson provided a brief introduction to coincide with her BFI Film Classics monograph, outlining some of the initial negative critical responses.
Though Pabst can often be overlooked in Weimar Cinema, he tackled social issues throughout his silents and talkies against the emerging New Objectivity. Adapted from Frank Wedekind’s plays Erdgeist (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904), Wedekind’s narratives had been translated to cinema before with Leopold Jessner’s 1923 film, but Pandora’s Box became captivating through the energies of Pabst and Louise Brooks.
Greek mythology surrounding Pandora’s box and our relationship with evil may be diluted by time’s passage, the symbolism of Pandora reappropriated as a Danish jewellery company and the planet of Avatar (2009). But Lulu (Louise Brooks) explores this imagery well, embodied within Brooks’ cinematic image. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood (1982), both Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl were “conducting an investigation into [Pabst’s] relations with women”, interested in the “flaming reality” of “sexual hate.” In his insightful 1983 essay Lulu and the Meter Man, Thomas Elsaesser argues Wedekind explored the femme fatale, and associations of transgression, violation and desire through the social milieu of class division. Pandora’s Box confronts not only bourgeois values but the male power curtailing the freedom Lulu seeks. Lulu’s relationship with newspaper publisher Ludwig Schön is formed of convenience of social standing, alongside his engagement to the daughter of the Minister of the Interior, Charlotte von Zarnikow, caught between the power of the press, sexuality and the political elite. Lulu is an alluring temptress to male authority; Rodrigo Quast seeks to exploit Lulu as part of his trapeze act, with Pabst’s fast editing adopting theatricality as she dons her outfit, stunning the theatrical audience and the viewer themselves. Like the carnival freakshow of Freaks (1932), Lulu has a sexual and romantic identity of her own, beyond the dehumanising gaze placed upon her by accepted societal values.
Schön’s double-edged threat – forcing Lulu, with his gun, to stage her own suicide, is itself coercive, taking agency from her death away from her, an impossible choice captured in immaculate detail by Günther Krampf. As Schön becomes a victim of the very suicide threat he levelled, Lulu’s judicious process is tragic: in the trial, she is faced with five years for manslaughter, despite her victimhood. Framed in close-up, Pabst captures the emotion and power of the desperation of her tears, faced with a jury who never knew. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood, Pabst had no “stock emotional responses”, but sought actors to reach emotion “like life itself”. As the fire alarm is set off as a cunning escape, Pabst captures the unfolding chaos wonderfully. Lulu isn’t far away from the feminist heroine Angela de Marco in Married to the Mob (1988): facing presumed guilt against her husband’s murder in the bathtub by a bullet, we witness structures of power against her, through her avoidance of cops and her biased interview. As Elsaesser argues, Brooks’ Lulu is presented “practically without origin, or particular cultural associations”, with sexual desire part of a “more generalized structure of exchange”; sexuality lacks emotional engagement, with sexual acts and Reichsmark holding equal value. J. Hoberman writes that Pabst sought to create a fractured sense of eroticism, wanting “men in the cast to feel Brooks’s skin and have the actress get under theirs.”
In Lulu’s adventure in London, Pabst makes Lulu’s presence against male power most explicit. The mythology of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl) is buried within sensationalism of the press and tabloids and the police letter coining the killer’s name, enduring through the mystery of the ambiguity of his identity. The concept of the Ripper has a morality to it: a mutilator and murderer of prostitutes, attacking female sexuality in the slums and poverty of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly. Equally, the Ripper was formed against waves of Jewish and Irish immigration altering make-up and sentiment within 1890s London. The pervasiveness of representations border on the ridiculous: in film, the fictionalised killer of Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), the time travelling pursuer of H.G. Wells in Time After Time (1979), a frequent foil to Sherlock Holmes across mediums, and in comics, the Gotham-based serial killer of Gotham by Gaslight (1991) and its giallo fan film Ripper (2016), the subject of Alan Moore’s From Hell (1989-98), an alter ego to Mr. Hyde in Thunderbolts #167 and the foe of IDW’s Doctor Who comic story Ripper’s Curse (2011). As Hutchinson notes, “sexually motivated murders”, or “Lustmord“, “filled newspapers and narratives in 1920s Germany”, from ‘The Butcher of Hanover’ to the Ripper’s role in Waxworks (1924) and Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera. The conflict between Lulu and the Ripper, her reflection and the Ripper’s knife – recalls Lulu’s previous use of the gun, returning to the paradigm between Lulu’s agency and victimhood. In the Christmas mistletoe, Pabst builds a remarkable sense of suspense, seeking the reveal of who moves first.
Louise Brooks will always be defined by her age: as the 21 year old actress in Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, the disjuncture of seeing her graceful ageing in her latter years in Lulu in Berlin (1984) and Kenneth Tynan’s rediscovery in his New Yorker piece The Girl in the Black Helmet. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s eponymous 1991 song itself embraces the temporal disjuncture of “ghosts of long ago”:
And all the stars you kissed could never ease the pain
Still the grace remains, the face has changed
And you’re still the same
Having appeared in the avant-garde Denishawn troupe as a teenager and as a Broadway dancer, Brooks’ rising star emerged. As Hoberman notes, Pabst was inspired to cast Brooks after watching A Girl in Every Port (1928), attempting to borrow her from Paramount before she quit over a salary dispute. As German cinema fought against national boundaries, in a silent landscape supported by international coproductions and the universal language of the human face, American actress Louise Brooks could act alongside her German counterparts (with an Austrian director), a boundary that would continue to be stretched through the multilingual talkies that emerged, with a differently recorded version for each major market. Equally, as Siegfried Kracauer highlights in From Caligari to Hitler, the emergence of Kontingentfilme, or quota films, increased the distribution of foreign exports, with an increasing Americanization of Weimar cinema seeking to cater to American styles (1947:135).
Women in film are often underestimated, especially in melodrama, with “woman’s pictures” exploring women’s lives in deep, meaningful detail. With a handful of films, Brooks’ face joined the pantheons of women of early cinema, including Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, decades before Monroe rose to fame, in part through her interwar flapper design. Kracauer notes critics found Pabst “fundamentally wrong” in adapting a “literary play”, with characters serving to “illustrate principles” (1947:148). Lulu is not just a character, but a symbol of female morality and sexuality. As Elsaesser argues, Lulu’s lack of family ties, social obligations, education and culture, and her freedom from guilt and conscience, assigns her as a “construct, not a sociological portrait”. Lulu is but an alluring, unreadable cinematic face of ambiguity and mystique, to read onto how we wish. Designer Gottlieb Hesch drew a sharp visual dichotomy through the contrast of Lulu’s costumes, between the purity of her white dresses and the sinful darkness of her black dresses, taken to full advantage through the film’s monochrome locations and cinematography. In Asphalt, we follow another woman on the other side of the law: Else moves through Berlin’s urban criminal landscape in her need to survive, frequently interacting with police, using sex appeal to seduce men and explore her femininity just as Lulu did the same year.
Pandora’sBox carries illicit beauty as we witness the dance between Lulu and Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), continuing their motions despite leering male onlookers, a rebuke to male power. Decades later, the lesbian sexuality of Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), Carol (2015), The Handmaiden (2016), Thelma (2017) and the Black Mirror (2011-present) episode San Junipero remain rare delights as we deconstruct the fetishising and eroticising male gaze, the emaciated international form seeking to conceal these relationships. The boat’s gambling den becomes but another Weimar underworld, alongside the havens of Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922) and crime and kangaroo courts of M (1931), and, as Elsaesser writes, a “fictional metaphor for the economic chaos of the Weimar Republic”, but the underworld connotes a distinctly queer connotation, only emphasised by the West German-era underworlds of Fox and His Friends (1975) and the Isherwood based Weimar-era underworld of Cabaret (1972); Dietrich’s bisexuality made her but another element within this underworld. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood, her residence at the Eden Hotel gave her a firsthand look at Weimar Berlin’s decadence, highlighting “girls in boots, advertising flagellation”, “agents pimped for the ladies”, sportsmen arranging “orgies” and the drag queens outside Eldorado, and the “feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians” at the Maly.
But Pandora’s Box is as much about Berlin as fleeing Berlin. With her passport, Lulu flees alongside her best friend, Alwa Schön (Francis Lederer), in far from ideal, squalid conditions. Like the foundational directors, seeking greater profits who fled to Hollywood, like F.W. Murnau, E.A. Dupont and Ernst Lubitsch, or fled anti-Semitism, like Fritz Lang, or Nazi-era directors like Douglas Sirk, or child refugees like Mike Nichols, without mentioning actors like Conrad Veidt, experienced dislocation from the country they were raised and born in amid developing tensions, adopting the United States as an inherited home. Dr. Mabuse der Spieler conveyed an international heist, but under the auspices of organised crime. Alwa and Lulu flee the country with urgency, emerging in Christmastime London that cannot escape Lulu’s inevitable fate, even amid the festive goodwill of Christmas puddings, window displays, gifts, snow and the marching Salvation Army. Posters, echoing the citywide search of M, warn of a criminal on the loose. Brooks was American, but in the following years, the Weimar cinema followed an inevitable collapse and migration. As Hutchinson argues, “geography carries crucial meaning”, highlighting Wedekind’s and Brooks’ own stays in London.
Günther Krampf’s immaculate visions have a tendency to be burned into cultural memory with his iconic image of the creeping shadow of Nosferatu (1922), but Krampf’s incredible eye is no stranger here either, illuminating in light the sinister London fog, prefiguring the film noir and its own femme fatales. Stephen Horne’s score provided a great compliment, integrating atmosphere, sounds of the train and fragments of Christmas carols within his piano performance. Like the greatest of live scores, Horne elevated the film he performed against to a place of beauty.
The controversial success of Scarface (1983) had been a struggle for Brian De Palma, thanks to its excessive language and violence. Having worked with Columbia on Obsession (1976), De Palma found himself with a 3-picture deal never fulfilled, though he would later produce Casualties of War (1989) with Columbia. Body Double self-reflexively explores the medium of film and the male gaze. In the opening, we’re confronted with artifice: sunset backdrops, smoke machines, a melodramatic angel in a graveyard. The typography in the title card bears no relation to the film itself: vampiric red and white cast against a desert backdrop. Made up in white hair, make-up and black leather, claustrophobic actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is unrecognisable as the camera moves out, a fire breaking out on set. The director, Rubin (Dennis Franz), is a clear analogue to De Palma, wearing a jacket and bearded haircut emulating De Palma’s own aesthetic. Blow Out (1981)’s opening used a similar technique: we follow a pornographic sex party through the gaze of a slasher villain, moving into the cutting room as Jack Terry applies foley effects.
Borrowing a house from Sam (Gregg Henry), filmed from the Chemosphere on Hollywood Hills, Jake is an antecedent to Jeff in Rear Window (1954). In Rear Window, Jeff observed neighbours from his Greenwich Village apartment, constructing a narrative from what he could see with his eyes. The telescope acts as the lens of the camera: Jake watches Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) undressing, drinking wine and dancing, spreading her legs and ogling her breasts. Jake controls focus; the telescope is mobile, scanning across the widescreen apartment. Pino Donaggio’s score emphasises idolisation and fantasy, combining erotic synths with a female voice, playing as a music video we cannot look away from. Cinematographer Stephen H Burum allows voyeurism through design: looking through the window, our gaze is limited by blinds, a visual motif repeated in the red-tinged poster and the minimalistic black-and-white lines across the walls of the apartment.
Brought back into reality by Sam, Jake moves back into the video, watching The House is Burning by Vivabeat (1979) from bed, providing the answer to what Talking Heads asked with Burning Down the House (1983). We enter another music video as Jake drifts back to the telescope with erotic desire, joined by Donaggio’s score. De Palma introduces the Rear Window element in silence: a man breaks a safe, moving back to the girl crying. Unlike Hitchcock, De Palma uses the apartment as unifying pillars: Jake has no broken leg; he is free to move. De Palma reconfigures our gaze from the perspective of the Indian; we are ourselves being watched. Jake’s set-built apartment, in its black leather, red highlights and blue and pink neon lights is as artificial as the apartment in Rope (1948), raising a toast to the skyline. The bed is extravagant, spinning next to the TV and phone; plants are maintained as a superfluous addition; a fish tank in pillars. Los Angeles’ nighttime city – its joggers and satellite dishes – has a stillness.
The dizzying enclosed atrium of the Rodeo Collection celebrates consumerism in its endless elevator and multiple entrances, facilitating Jake’s stalker gaze: he watches Gloria in the changing room mirror through the window, moving to the other side when noticed by a clerk. DePalma’s split focus dioptre emphasises this relationship with the gaze: positioning both Jake and the clerk in focus, De Palma allows us to use our eyes for ourselves and examine what we choose to see.
De Palma’s cinematic deconstruction is equally structural. De Palma creates a tragic ending for an archetypal hero: buried alive, soil falling into unending blackness. De Palma emphasises artificiality, creating stylised depth as only the frame can be seen from deep within. We move onto the set, dragged into the fantasy-yet-real world, descending waves of the smoke machines paralleling the waterfalls of the Los Angeles aqueduct system. Jake’s claustrophobia reflects the forgotten side of acting: sheer terror, running from one failed audition for the Shakespeare festival as Jake tries to find a way in, finding his “inner self”. In a tight, claustrophobic close-up, framed inside a rectangular compartment, De Palma moves back inside the film, as buzzers signal a new take and Rubin’s camera moves towards us. The film’s ‘reality’ is comprised of implausible tropes: the Indian a rubber mask, torn in half. The heroic actions of the dog, reprising his role from White Dog (1982), moves into melodramatic film logic as the man falls to his death in the reservoir.
De Palma moves out once more into an even more artificial world for the closing credits. As he tells in the featurette The Mystery, this scene had been the opening, but was moved to allow the thematic duality to develop more slowly. De Palma was inspired by the explicit shower scene in the opening to Dressed to Kill (1980), recalling the rapid cutting of the murder mid-way through Psycho (1960) whilst pushing extremes into full-frontal nudity and masturbation. Where Hitchcock showed through implication, De Palma showed, whilst evading pornography. We move through a window, surrounded by bats; Jake returns to his role as vampire. The scene is held as the body double, Mindy, is moved into position, sexuality dissipated by the mechanics of cinema: touched up by make-up assistants; sound equipment moving across; Mindy confesses she’s been on her period recently. Rubin and De Palma’s camera becomes so focused on the gaze it becomes parody: the camera focuses entirely on Mindy’s breasts; as blood runs down, kinkiness is replaced with sheer terror. The camera pans across the production crew: Rubin tries to think; the crew seem equally bored.
Jake embodies a trait familiar to many De Palma and Reagan-era protagonists: a sense of conspiracy. Going back to Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959), De Palma creates constant pursuit, tied to the identity and fate of a woman. He drives, watched from across the street; in the elevator, tension heightens as people in gym clothes fill up next to him. De Palma hated the chase sequence’s tracking shots and clichés, but it underlines the question of who is following who? Jake is treated with continual doubt by Detective McLean (Guy Boyd), dubbing him “Hollywood’s busiest sex offender”, just as Kate contends with institutional sexism in Dressed to Kill, Jack’s audio tapes in Blow Out and Eriksson fights against a military allowing sexual abuse of Vietnamese women to occur in Casualties of War (1989). Jake’s paranoia is at home with John Nada’s uncovering of corporate messages through sunglasses in They Live (1988) and Bill Whitney uncovering his family’s high society lives in Beverly Hills through a cassette tape in Society (1989). Like Nada and Whitney, Scully’s reality blends with hallucinations. In the corridor by the beach, this is most clear: Jake is almost debilitated as it fills with light; chasing after Holly (Melanie Griffith) in a Ford Bronco, hit by the red lights of a police car, he witnesses her whacked by a crowbar. In flashbacks, reality unravels as he finds greater clarity, but there remains mystery.
De Palma isn’t just interested in the film industry: he’s interested in the porn industry. Like cinema, pornography seduces us with images on both an aesthetic and value-oriented level. Though porn carries shame, taboo and censorship, it’s normal. As De Palma comments of the anti-porn movement in a 1984 interview with Marcia Pally in Film Comment (republished in Indicator’s booklet), “If you can’t prevent me from smoking cigarettes then you can’t prevent me from buying porn.” The lines between cinema and porn have always been blurred, from arthouse cinema, schlock and grindhouse, experimental artists like Andy Warhol and more recent films like Shortbus (2006) and Love (2015) that use unsimulated sex for narrative means. In Body Double, De Palma is interested in examining a Hollywood underworld existing in plain sight, like the Fleur-de-Lis escort service in L.A. Confidential (1997) and the death of Misty Mountains and the hunt for a film reel in The Nice Guys (2016). Hollywood has its share of secrets, from assaults to illicit affairs, queer relationships kept out of view. Here, porn actors have their own fight for union rights: an actor complains at the desk for being more than a “stunt cock”; the Adult Film Group proudly displays hits in a row of posters.
De Palma’s exploration of the porn industry is shaped by the emergence of VHS, beyond the limitations of physical film; Jake asks behind the counter in Tower Records for a porn tape. From his apartment, De Palma creates a frame within a frame: he watches Linda in close-up, rubbing her breasts and taking off her bra. Linda takes sexual satisfaction from her openness to voyeurism: she confesses to being an exhibitionist (or expositionist), saying how “excited” she gets when she knows “they’re all out there watching me”. Like the hallucinatory BDSM broadcast on CIVIC-TV in Videodrome (1983), De Palma questions the sexual images reaching our own living rooms. Jake reacts passively, desensitised, drinking alcohol to get through it. De Palma places us within the curved edges and scan-lines, watching a commercial for the voyeuristic Holly Does Hollywood. We follow through in a one-take shot, scanning across the set. A window is closed, to avoid an onlooker; crewmembers hang around with sound equipment; make-up is applied. Holly Body dances to music entirely in her element, a tattoo on her butt, as though no camera is watching. Her body is detached, evoking “Hollywood Boulevard”. The pull quotes are equally revealing, with positive reviews from Hustler; Eros Magazine declares it as “The GONE WITH THE WIND of Adult Films”. Holly Does Hollywood isn’t just porn; in its hyperbolic façade, it seeks to be cinema. De Palma revels in stretching the limit of film titles: Deep Ghost, The Mating Game, One Night at a Time, Bold Obsession, Star Whores. De Palma used real porn actors, adding a layer of authenticity. As he comments in the featurette The Seduction, he dissuaded women from auditioning from the film to avoid affecting their career; Melanie Griffith tested out with a porno queen, capturing the right movements on screen.
De Palma makes his self-reflexivity most explicit when he takes us within a Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video for Relax. Every time Relax is played on the radio, it bemuses me, a sexualised piece of excesses and orgasms. The MTV Generation reshaped youth culture ever since Video Killed the Radio Star (1979) was broadcast in 1981, creating a new medium for the industry beyond concert films and promo videos. We’re walked inside the set of the grand staircase of a house, miming along. The aesthetic epitomises the 80s: on multiple levels, there’s punk couples dancing; leather costumes; people fucking; drinking at the bar. Jake is dressed as a total dork; his expression of total shock. Crew are caught behind in the mirror as Jake watches Holly enter; the crew comments that it isn’t Last Tango in Paris (1972). De Palma cuts out of the video to reality, before returning to the orgasmic climax. In the underworld, Jake takes on a false identity as porn producer, grooming his hair and wearing a leather jacket, taking Holly back.
De Palma’s films repeatedly explore female sexuality, from the problematic, phallic disempowerment of murderous trans woman Bobbi and Kate’s experience sexually assaulted on the subway in Dressed to Kill, to Eriksson’s rejection of masculine peer pressure and the dehumanisation of women in Casualties of War. Through the industry, De Palma offers another lens into how we view female sexuality. Speaking in the featurette The Controversy, De Palma brushes off complaints of sexism; Shelton argues she had agency, and that she couldn’t judge it from “what I believe moralistically in my own life”. The Indian’s penetrating drill has a phallic quality of male domination, an aspect De Palma comments in the Film Comment interview as a twist on the murder mystery in a world of “electrical instruments”. Body Double becomes almost a slasher: he strangles her with the phone line, Jake on the other end. De Palma uses awkward humour, the plug coming out of the socket, utilising comedic gore, the drill dripping with blood through the ceiling.
Jake is introduced in romantic devotion, driving in happiness; at home, pictures proudly frame his love for Carol (Barbara Crampton) and their dog. De Palma is frank, creating a tragic punchline: he walks in on her fucking another man. But from the moment we’re introduced to Jake drinking shots at the bar, he remains unlikable and distasteful. His pursuit of Gloria carries unrelenting creepiness: he recovers her underwear from the trash, following to the beach and erotically embracing to Donaggio’s romantic score. Rehearsing to the telephone later on, he won’t leave her alone, telling her he’s the “guy that almost fucked you at the beach today.” De Palma is interested in sexual duality between Gloria and Holly, blurring their identities into one: as he places his hands on Holly’s butt, De Palma intercuts with Jake with Gloria on the beach. De Palma embraces Hitchcock as a cinematic language. Commenting in The Seduction, De Palma wanted to create a “meditation” on the “elusive, beautiful, evocative woman character” of Vertigo. The artificiality of the 360-degree rear projection soundstage spin feels most clearly Hitchcock, rotating against a plate of the background on a soundstage.
Though Body Double is far from the height of De Palma’s career, it’s a strong effort crossing between genres and styles with multiple themes to explore.
By the mid-1960s, Ingmar Bergman had other responsibilities, heading Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater. As he wrote in Images: My Life in Film, the theater was in “an advanced state of disintegration”, without a repertoire or contracts. (1990:44) He was lost. But Bergman found Persona the film that “saved my life”, proving he wasn’t “all washed up”. Shooting over two months in summer 1965 in the Filmstaden studio and Fårö, Persona’s experimentalism might suggest an atypical work, but Persona has the pathos and character that define Bergman, exploring the interior of the soul. As Alma (Bibi Andersson) reads aloud about anxiety, Bergman focuses close attention upon Fårö’s landscape of rocks. Equally, Alma’s admiration of religious belief carries shades of Bergman’s exploration of loss of faith. Through Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), fears of pregnancy and stillbirth equally mirror Marianne and Evald’s nihilistic conflict over her pregnancy in Wild Strawberries (1957).
Persona’s chilling early scenes in hospital reflect Bergman’s state as he wrote the screenplay. Wanting to develop a project entitled The Cannibals with Andersson and Ullmann, Bergman was confined to the Sophiahemmet royal hospital with pneumonia and penicillin poisoning. Over 14 days, Bergman wrote the screenplay for Persona from hospital. Early scenes are largely silent, framing clinical shots of bodies in a morgue in abstract close-ups; immobile vessels of bodies become another part of nature itself. A young boy rises, eyes opening; he puts on glasses, reading a storybook in bed. He moves his hand out to a screen, reaching out to us. In hospital, Alma and Elisabet develop a caring mutual relationship. But the hospital is also a place of routines, meticulously applying make-up and peeling potatoes, in constant search of something to do. The future and marriage stand off in the undetermined.
Alma and Elisabet find escape, moving to a house by the sea with company where they have freedom to read books. They become adoptive sisters; Alma has never had the opportunity. Although some might perceive a queer element, Bergman largely frames their relationship as explicitly sisterly. Alma speaks of past relationships, powerfully recounting a sexual encounter: a boy fucked her and her friend on the beach, leading to her impregnation and abortion. Her description is never fetishising nor titillating: she recalls each action with detachment, as he moved against her body and came. Particularly for American audiences, these scenes would have been shocking: in the last days of the Production Code, Hollywood still attempted to cling onto morality around sexuality. Alma speaks of an abortion as no big deal, never maligned because of it. Bergman asked Andersson to rerecord her performance in the mixing studio, allowing for greater intimacy than in the original scene.
Bergman creates a ghostly environment within the house, rain hitting the window; both women walking through the night in white nightdresses amid the sound of foghorns. But their relationship is quickly tested; Elisabet writes personal information about Alma in a letter, details she trusted her to tell no one about. Andersson and Ullmann’s visceral performances carry the weight of the film, truly sensing discomfort as their relationship falls apart. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist pans through trees and the beach in a rush, Elisabet running away from Alma as she attempts a needed apology. The final scene is of loss: Elisabet packs her bags, walking by the ocean in the opposite direction to Alma in the prior scene, waiting for the bus with her luggage. It is a resolution of simplicity, but nonetheless effective.
Bergman creates a ghostly sense within the house
Elisabet departs from the island
Persona is equally about our and Bergman’s relationship with cinema. The working titles, Cinematography and A Piece of Cinema, emphasised this connection more explicitly. In the opening, we witness the physical process, self-reflexively looking at filmstrips, white lights, sprockets, scratches and the countdown as the reel begins. Bergman intersperses shock cuts to a wide selection of images: frames from a cartoon, a clip of skeleton costumes framed by a white border, an erect penis (censored from initial US and UK releases), guts spilling out a slaughtered animal, a tarantula walking across the white screen, an impaled hand with a nail akin to Jesus’ crucifixion. In less than a minute, Bergman encompasses almost every genre: animation, farcical silent pantomime, pornography, documentary, monster movies and religious parables. Bergman establishes images of its landscapes: trees covered in snow; a close-up of a gate. Through the boy, offering circularity as he reaches his hand out in both the opening and closing, Elisabet’s face as an actress, moving in and out of focus, Bergman, as Thomas Elsaesser writes, presents cinema as “the father figure that demands renunciation of the primary love object, to enable the boy’s selfhood and identity”, separating body and image. As Elsaesser writes, Bergman follows Brechtian distance and “modernist self-reflexivity”, approaching film as a mirror alongside the techniques of the French and Italian New Waves.
Persona’s editing is decidedly experimental. In the opening credits, not only are colours inverted, framing black text against a white background, but Bergman follows a rhythm between fractions of a second, prefiguring film with images of a monk on fire, a lake of water, character faces, a policeman’s chase and so on. Midway through, Bergman uses a technique similar to the reveal of editor Yelizaveta Svilova assembling frames in Man with a Movie Camera (1929), before revealing the film fully cut together. In a moment of crisis, the frame splits, unable to process elevated drama, fracturing not only friendship but the physical film, an element lessened by subsequent digital releases and screenings. As editor Ulla Ryghe recalls of the premiere at the Spegeln cinema on 18th October 1966, film cans were marked with red labels as projectionists feared the film was burning up. In their confrontation, Bergman draws a parallel, juxtaposing faces against each other whilst moving across time, takes and performances.
As an actress, Elisabet is a product of cinema. We’re introduced to Elisabet as star, performing a role in a production of Sophocles’ Electra: she smiles, lights behind her and bathed in make-up. Bergman never tells us much about her, rarely elaborating on her background or co-stars, instead communicating her identity through images. Persona explores the economy of images and its relationship with the eyes. Old performances are transmitted on television as Alma watches, immersed, with the indignity of the passage of time, captured as cinematic beauty for eternity; Elisabet judges herself against the standard set by a film years ago.
The insular hospital becomes penetrated by television: Elisabet watches coverage of a burning monk in protest against Vietnam. In an incredible wide shot, she backs away from the television, unable to comprehend what she is witnessing, broadcast across the world. Around the same time, a similar scene plays in Night of the Living Dead (1968): the seclusion of the house anticipates the threat through continual coverage of chaos outside. As theorists like Marshall McLuhan began to question the media we consume, Bergman questioned the world we formulate in images. As Bergman wrote, his films “cannot melt, transform, or forget”, but he “shall never rid myself of those images”. American cinema’s reaction to contemporary events was slow, struggling to find relevancy before New Hollywood began to emerge. But within the elevated production of Swedish cinema – writing screenplays quickly, turning around filming and editing in a few months – Bergman responded to the chaos around Vietnam succinctly and effectively.
The insularity of the hospital is penetrated by coverage of the Vietnam War
Elisabet backs away from the television
Later, Bergman plays a similar scene, cutting as he zooms closer and closer into the small details of a photograph of a boy in the Warsaw ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland surrounded by SS, his fate predicated within an image itself. The image alone might reveal little, but surrounding context tells us this boy is likely dead. On the beach, Alma shoots her camera out at us, capturing an image of the audience watching the film, as though we are another rock in the landscape. In the reunion with Mr Vogler (Gunnar Björnstrand) towards the conclusion, Bergman invokes sight, an essential element to the process of watching. Touching his face and removing his tinted glasses, Vogler might be blinded, but is still able to sense the physical world.
As he wrote in his essay The Snakeskin, Bergman felt creativity as a “sort of hunger”; his cinema “communicated dreams, sensual experiences, fantasies, outbursts of madness, neuroses, the convulsions of faith, and downright lies” in a “rage”. Bergman began to question why he made films or staged plays. Laying in hospital, he had “driven all my engines at top speed”, shaking his “old body until it fell apart.” (1990:51) Persona is Bergman’s reckoning with his career, leaving open many masterpieces to come.
Set three years into the American Civil War in 1864, The Beguiled is a story of the South, shot in the Madewood Plantation House in Louisiana and set in the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies in Virginia. The enclosed world Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) builds seems unimportant amid wider conflict, teaching girls French lessons and table etiquette. Alicia (Elle Fanning) takes up embroidery and farms agrarian land, sowing soil and growing carrots in a long, tedious process, meals directly from the land. Coppola sought to present “women left behind” during wartime, rather than men at war: the house abandoned, slaves fled, husbands and fathers lost in war without a single reference; as art director Jennifer Dehghan describes, young girls Marie (Addison Riecke), Emily (Emma Howard), Jane (Angourie Rice) and Amelia (Oona Laurence) were “babies when the war started”, growing up within a “claustrophobic and trapped” environment.
Conflict exists upon the periphery: Confederate soldiers march by the gates transporting prisoners of the war; explosions provide the only noise and light, touching the house from a distance, creating what Coppola describes as a “stark experience”. The Beguiled remains largely silent, the score by Phoenix only intermittently used. A Quiet Passion presents a similar sense of the periphery of war and gender: Emily Dickinson voices opinions on slavery and conflict, but remains confined to her house, told to keep silence and her place; Davies shifts through the archive of war, compiling a montage of photographs and music. The General (1926), one of the earlier films about the war, positions Johnnie as a train driver trying to hold onto his way of life as the war passes behind him. Atad himself argues Coppola’s exoticised South bears comparison to the “false nobility” perpetuated by The Birth of a Nation(1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939), the latter a film Coppola confesses she drew her first impression of the South from.
In the opening, Coppola plays the film as a dark fairytale along the lines of how Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) foregrounded mythology with the historical and political context of the Spanish Civil War. Young Amelia walks through the twisted branches of the woods, picking mushrooms for supper as she discovers the body of Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell); with his Irish lilt, McBurney recalls the United States’ founding as a nation of immigrants. Each girl responds to his presence differently: Jane treats him with distrust as an enemy and mercenary, feeling loyalty to the Confederacy; Martha threatens to return him as prisoner of war; others feel he should be treated with respect and dignity. McBurney becomes an empty vessel, speculated over but never knowing his identity, limping around on crutches and spending most of his time in bed in the music room. As Martha washes open wounds with alcohol, the awkward stitches feel like a David Cronenberg film. As Christian Lorentzen comments, “[g]ore is a new element in the work of Sofia Coppola”, through the “mangled flesh and bone” and the blood on Martha’s nightgown during the amputation.
The Beguiled is defined by its women; John is relegated to the housework. Coppola went into filmmaking as an act of visibility, taking over The Virgin Suicides (1999) from a male director out of persistence and making films for teenage girls that “treat that audience with respect”. Coppola drew influences from female-centric films, including the films of Jane Campion, The Innocents (1961), Tess (1979) and stills from Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), reflecting the rituals of femininity.
Martha is the most manipulative figure, holding unspoken influence and control at the head of the dinner table. Kidman delivers a powerhouse of a performance, remaining as affecting as her sheer sexuality in To Die For (1995), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Moulin Rouge! (2001), spirituality and existentialism in The Others (2001) and The Hours (2002), emotion as a raped woman in Dogville (2003), and her more maternal role in Rabbit Hole (2010). Previously working with Coppola on Somewhere (2010), Fanning is quickly becoming one of the greatest young actresses of recent years, embodying teenage sexuality and desire in Alicia that she has done so well in the idealised, imagined body of Jesse in The Neon Demon and Julie’s indifference to sex in 20th Century Women. Fanning grew up with Coppola’s films; she still regards The Virgin Suicides as one of her favourite films. Dunst, working with Coppola since she was a teenager, is able to achieve character and identity far deeper than Mary Jane in the Spider-Man trilogy (2002-07) and Vivian in Hidden Figures, developed with personality. But as Richard Brody writes, Coppola’s Civil War and women are “an abstraction”, reducing complex historical and political events without the flashbacks, interior monologues and images of war that lace both the book and original film, interested instead in each character’s “immediate experience”.
The young girls of the Farnsworth Seminary carry youthful innocence, dressed in white, virginal dresses. The Beguiled’s conceit of multiple women interested in the same man might seem the premise of a raunchy sex comedy or exploitation film, but McBurney’s presence creates a deep exploration into female desire. Colour changes: girls put on blue and pink dresses, but remains subdued. Amelia remains oblivious to adult desire, keeping a button from his uniform as a memento and staying friendly with her pet tortoise. Martha heads a meeting on what impact McBurney is having; the impact is clear.
Examining wounds, Martha is tempted to touch his thigh, but holds herself back, without the “incest and a fervid erotic imagination” or “dark past or kinky yearnings” from Siegel’s film. In the middle of the night, Alicia sneaks out, kissing him as he lies asleep; later, the pair have sex. As Edwina confronts them, he’s pushed out of bed, falling down the stairs. The loss of McBurney’s leg becomes a phallic metaphor: Martha decides the best course of action is to amputation to stop the bleeding, without knowing anatomy. McBurney rails against the women in masculine aggression, knocking a chandelier to the ground and throwing Amelia’s tortoise. Martha is a butcher and castrator: he would rather be dead than less than a man. His sexuality embodies newfound ferocity: having sex with Edwina, he rips her pearls off, rolling along the floor. As Brody describes, rather than the frenzied “slathering lust” of Siegel’s film, Coppola approaches female desire with “a lyricism, a gracefulness, an elegance that doesn’t in any way diminish its carnality.” But The Beguiled entirely rejects black female sexuality: slave Hallie in Siegel’s film, controversially not present in Coppola’s adaptation, is for Atad a woman who “stands up for herself with a ferocity drawn from any number of black women in the blaxploitation genre.”
The women must reconcile Catholic faith with sexuality, entwined within 19th century culture, carrying expectations of marriage and love; sexual desire becomes a sinful hindrance to repress. The Beguiled becomes a cautionary tale. Although McBurney isn’t the crucified Jesus analogue of Siegel’s film, McBurney becomes what J. Hoberman describes as a “snake in the garden”, the seminary “one step from Eden”: paradise in the middle of chaos. The seminary’s welcoming of McBurney reflects their faith: a young girl feels looking after him would be the proper Christian thing to do, whilst Edwina prays for his health. Given a Bible, McBurney sets it aside, never looking through. The seminary maintains religious rituals, saying grace at the table, but rarely practices what they preach. Martha stages a last supper, but it depends upon murder, a twisted dark fairytale intertwined with theological iconography: she feeds him poisonous mushrooms he willingly consumes, effectively causing his own demise, speaking in double entendre. McBurney is left a white shroud, symbolised only by a blue ribbon hanging upon the gate.
Working with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, Coppola conforms to a highly classical style running through the film’s narrative, cinematography and characters, using vintage lenses. With Marie Antoinette (2006), Coppola chose the opposite approach, opting for an anarchic, ahistorical punk aesthetic. Little in the film, scarcely its sexual politics, feels 2017, but a product of an earlier era of filmmaking. In the opening shots, even the pink lettered title feels as though it were imprinted on physical film at the same time as Siegel’s film. Le Sourd excels in shot composition, conveying the enclosed nature of the seminary: white, blown out windows and drawn curtains; a little girl watching events from a tree; girls crowded together inside, watching from the curtains. As Martha meets a Confederate soldier at the gate, Le Sourd creates a duality within the frame, creating a distance between them. At the dinner table at night, the lighting is perfect, darkness only illuminated by candles. The Beguiled’s classicist approach bears comparison to The Lost City of Z and its emulation of the form of earlier, biographical epics: approaching history as history, foregoing an explicit clouding from present aesthetic sensibilities or cultural values.
Coppola’s The Beguiled presents an interesting counterpoint to earlier adaptations, helped by strong performances and characterisation from some of the greatest actresses currently working. Coppola approaches the material with a confident visual style and identity, harkening back to another era.
Coming Out provides an interesting counterpoint to Girl, produced 5 years later for the BBC’s Play for Today strand of programming. Unlike Girl, Coming Out is directed by a woman, Carol Wiseman, but follows a largely male cast of characters; scriptwriter James Andrew Hall is male. Frustrated children’s author Lewis Duncan (Anton Rodgers), writing in the queer underground press under the ridiculous pseudonym Zippy Grimes, is an unrelenting misogynist, dismissing his assistant Judy (Melanie Gibson) at all costs. He forgets her birthday; makes her miss her train; passes off all his half-concocted writing off to her to make some sense of. Lewis is continually unlikeable, never allowing the audience any sympathy for his situation. When Judy brands him as a “sexist pig”, wanting to be allowed her own life where she can go out with her boyfriend, we side with Judy.
Lewis faces constant pressure to come out, filtering his emotions into a manuscript. Everyone around Lewis tells him he should come out, but coming out has material consequences. With a queer perspective, Lewis has a burden of representation: he writes books imagining everyday situations around straight relationships, but his position will always be as an outsider. Lewis has a responsibility to write about queer themes, characters and settings. Lewis becomes a figure for other characters to open up to: Mrs Cooper (Helen Cherry) approaches him, talking about her struggle to deal with her priest son Jamie’s coming out. As a tutor and children’s writer, Lewis has to be careful, subject to homophobia: teaching young Brian, he becomes seen by Brian and his father as a “poof”, perverted and dangerous and a menace. Lewis faces pressure from his editor to be open as a column writer.
Lewis’ friends are equally reprehensible, never acknowledging their own privilege. Richie (Nigel Havers), Gerald (Richard Pearson) and Gunnar (Michael Byrne) are all in unhappy relationships, in a space neither monogamous nor polyamorous, creating a toxic culture of jealousy and dishonesty that cannot be easily resolved. Richie becomes an epitome of gay sexuality: blonde, young and beautiful, he becomes a artist’s muse, posing for Renaissance-esque paintings. Lewis meets for a night with black prostitute Polo (Ben Ellison), but remains unaware of the issues black gay men face as Polo recounts how few other opportunities are available to him and being stabbed by a policeman; even £500 a week is difficult to get by on as he attends to other people’s needs. At the dinner table, Gerald makes clear the many issues facing gay men, including the police threat. But Lewis never acknowledges this reality until it hits him square in the face: he rejects radicalism, decrying as an egalitarian prophet that all people are the same. Lewis is blind to real issues: misogynistic against women; homophobic against his own community. His struggles seem minor in the face of all other issues.
Coming Out ends upon a positive note, as Lewis commits to writing out his own experiences, clacking away at his typewriter. But Lewis remains an unlikeable protagonist who never really evolves over the course of the piece, never able to attract audience sympathy.
The Loft is a cute queer venue in the middle of Birmingham’s Gay Village. Produced in collaboration with Shout Festival, Shout have hosted LGBT film screenings throughout last November and this year’s LGBT History Festival. Shout are offering greater visibility to archival content, screening rarely seen TV productions of Girl and Coming Out (1979) as part of the Flatpack Film Festival. Even with the advent of YouTube, VOD and streaming, both productions remain difficult to come by, rarely screened and tied up behind paperwork. Festivals and events offer a role in curating the archive: behind the immensity of decades of content, little incentive exists to seek out forgotten relics on one’s own. It needs to undergo a process to be found again, amid a lack of positive queer representation.
Girl’s existence is directly tied to Birmingham: the piece was produced as part of the BBC2 series Second City Firsts (1973-78), recorded around Pebble Mill. Looking for early representation, we might be tempted to look at cinema, but as documentaries like The Celluloid Closet (1995) explore, LGBTQIA+ representation was largely hidden behind coded characters, although not entirely out of sight. But television offers a quicker production cycle, responding to social issues from young writers without the protracted process of drafting screenplays, scouting locations and concerns around budget. Girl feels disposable, relying upon theatrical staging and dialogue constrained to one room, but it’s of its time, never produced to be watched 45 years later. Broadcast post-watershed, Girl is an important milestone, the first same-sex kiss broadcast on British television, exploring the relationship between Jackie (Alison Steadman) and Chrissie (Myra Frances). Though 1970s audiences needed prior warning for its queer content, Girl still feels radical.
Set within a military institution, Girl lacks any male characters. A male presence is still felt: posters of male pin-ups adorn the wall; Maggie (Stella Moray) worries about pregnancy and brags about dicks. Girl’s characters are filtered through codes of masculinity rather than codes of femininity, providing an interesting insight into a period where queerness seemed in opposition to being a soldier, a conflict persisting to this day even without the same institutional discrimination. Girl was produced on the cusp of 2nd wave feminism. Before our contemporary debates around identity politics, intersectionality and online discourse, Girl’s questions are still relevant, but less well defined: marriage and abortion are rejected as remnants of patriarchy, in conflict with Catholic religious doctrine that similarly strengthens a patriarchal system.
Even today, queer women on screen remain marginalised: queer cinema invariably focuses upon attractive, shirtless white cisgender men than affording space for other identities, or are filtered through a male gaze. Some break through: Saving Face (2004), Transamerica (2005), Appropriate Behavior (2014), Carol and Tangerine (2015), but these are exceptions. Ghostbusters (2016) codes Holtz as queer, but her identity was suppressed through studio pressure and Feig’s unwillingness to push further.
Girl is inescapably subject to the male gaze: the piece is written by a male, directed by a male and approved by heads of department that are male. But Girl never uses its sexuality to elicit the male gaze, instead depicting real power to female intimacy. Jackie and Chrissie never just kiss: Steadman and Frances present closeness rarely captured elsewhere, enraptured in bed together under blankets; cigarettes evoking visceral sexuality. Jackie and Chrissie dance to a record, love made beautiful. Chrissie might be a player: she’s done this before, skirting outside lines of monogamy without ever being open and honest about it, but their love remains intense and instantly heartwarming. Against hate and oppression, seeing queer, female love on screen is powerful for its very existence.
DC’s efforts to launch a cinematic universe split critical opinion, despite commercial success. Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) maintained dark and gritty tones, in line with Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12) and The Dark Knight Returns (1988). Suicide Squad (2016) balanced wide numbers of characters between an uneven structure, unable to come together. Man of Steel may be the strongest effort, reimagining Superman’s mythology, but with major flaws. Behind failures lie masterpieces: Superman: The Movie (1978), Batman (1989), Vertigo stories like V for Vendetta (2006). Introduced in Batman v Superman, attending a gala in an elaborate dress, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) charged into battle in the Trinity in the fight against Doomsday.
Since inception, Wonder Woman has been symbolic for young girls and women, central to protest movements, intersecting along lines of feminism. Captain America, in patriotic red white and blue, symbolises the American Dream, but often critiques it, rogue amid the corruption and conspiracy of Nixon and Reagan, or SHIELD and Tony Stark in Civil War (2006-07). Superman, lone-surviving immigrant from Krypton and young boy in rural Smallville, symbolises “truth, justice and the American way”, despite his heritage. Wonder Woman’s costume may be red, white and blue, but she’s Themysciran. Gal Gadot isn’t American either: she’s Israeli and Jewish, outspoken against the actions of Hamas, serving in the Israeli Defence Force, leading to the film’s banning in Lebanon.
The mythical Themyscira, paradise Amazonian home, plays with ancient Greek mythology: an image of waterfalls, ancient stone and luscious greens, shot in southern Italy. Young Diana (Emily Carey) grows up, introducing us to an entire culture beyond the metropolitan Gotham and Metropolis, with a unique culture with accents not out of place within the Mediterranean. However, the film never touches upon Themyscira beyond the film’s first act, leaving open questions around its inhabitants and identity following human intervention.
Diana’s origin combines multiple retellings, shaped by clay by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), a virgin birth without father; in Blood (2011-12), Diana is revealed as Zeus’ daughter, amid confusion around her identity. Diana has an uneasy relationship with Hippolyta: Hippolyta forbids her from becoming an Amazonian warrior, trained instead by aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana undergoes rites of passage of a young adult: meeting stranded American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), working for British intelligence, she defies Hippolyta, taking her ship out into the human world. These conflicts aren’t uncommon: in The Contest (1994-95), dissatisfied with Diana’s inability to reshape the human world of men, Hippolyta relinquishes her title, seeking a more worthy warrior in her place. Themyscira has a conflicted relationship with our own: in Greg Rucka’s run in the mid-00s, Themyscira is a recognised nation state with an embassy in New York, Diana as ambassador, in-line with real-world geopolitics and globalisation. Diana even recently became a symbolic ambassador to the real-world UN.
Through the World War I setting, this duality rises to the fore. In the opening, Diana arrives at the Louvre, examining an image taken in the aftermath of battle in 1918 glimpsed within Batman v Superman, utilising a wartime setting similar to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), transposing the World War II of her introduction in Sensation Comics #1 (1942) to World War I. WWI superheroes have always been retroactive, with Union Jack, introduced in The Invaders #7 (1976), deepening the legacy of Marvel’s universe. Superheroes emerged out of the vigilantes and pulp fiction of the 1930s in the shadow of the Great Depression, yet soon became a propaganda tool supporting national interests against spies, fascists and commies throughout World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.
The film adapts many elements from Marston’s first few issues, supporting characters like Steve’s secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) and villains like Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), reimagined in her Phantom-esque mask. Nazis became caricatures since WWII propaganda began, sans the uneasy politics of genocide and eugenics. In the alliance system, war is chaos. The centenary, afforded distance from living memory, allows us to reflect upon what the war represented.
Placed in the months before the signing of the armistice and Treaty of Versailles the following year, our protagonists launch into battle in the Western Front. Russia was caught in revolution; the US, having pursued an isolationist policy, joined the war, Steve smuggling information from the Ottoman Empire. The German Empire became increasingly militaristic, seen through the focus upon General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) as villain. The “war to end all wars” became a breeding ground for political ideologies as the world tried to rebuild, amid anarchy, fascism and socialism and influenza. As Rüdiger Suchsland argues in Caligari: When Horror Came to Cinema (2014), the war reshaped cinema and art, through Dadaism, expressionism, Cubism, Futurism and surrealism. Wonder Woman reminds us of the devastation: 25 million dead, mothers, children, civilians. The film’s villain is war: Wonder Woman fights against poison gas obliterating the entire world. Her fight is futile: poison gas became a powerful threat through the work of Fritz Haber, its legacy felt through the genocide of the Holocaust and use of chemical weapons within Syria.
For Jenkins, Wonder Woman is a “hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind”. Diana is neutral: although Germany is ostensibly the enemy, she doesn’t take sides. Wonder Woman understands both sides complexly, attempting to find resolution. Through her lasso of truth, shield and bracelets, she never uses guns, a singular force of nature storming through No Man’s Land after a year in trenches without progress. She joins forces with a multi-ethnic group of soldiers, including American Scott Trevor, Scotsman Charlie (Ewen Bremmer), fez-adorned Arab Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) and Native American Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). In London, we walk past multiple ethnic groups, including Sikhs. Chief embodies the responsibilities of war and its legacy, confessing to Diana that his tribe was decimated by Trevor’s people. Sameer speaks multiple tongues, including Chinese, unable to fulfil his actor dream in wartime.
We see war’s impact through everyday people: Wonder Woman protects a small German village, aghast at starvation and refugees, forced to demolish a church tower. The film implicates the culpability of man, drawing duality between the symbolic Ares and our own free will, responsible for our own destruction. Focusing upon generals, influencing without fighting war, we move beyond presidents and kings and prime ministers to individuals, their own parts to play. Does killing Ares end war? The ‘one man’ theory simplifies war: the deaths of Hussein and Bin Laden positioned as ending the war in the Middle East; Hitler as enchanting dictator, not an ideology of racism and hate. Even in Star Wars, the deaths of Vader and Palpatine didn’t stop the rise of the First Order.
Themyscira embodies duality between the classical war of myths and legends and modern warfare. In an early scene with young Diana, we move within a Renaissance-esque painting as Hippolyta relates history down through ages, telling stories of Ares. Themyscira exists outside of time; its inhabitants have no awareness the war is actually on. Steve’s crashed plane brings human war to a peaceful place. As U-boats approach the island, hidden behind an invisible barrier, Jenkins draws these parallels most clearly, dark smog dissolving into the bright blue ocean. In the direst of times, even paradise is not safe; humanity sees paradise as another place to invade. In Snyder-esque slow motion, Jenkins places us in ancient battle evoking 300 (2007), juxtaposed against modern, mechanised war. Spears slaughter modern troops; Amazonians impacted by bullets amid man’s intervention. Themyscira stands behind fraternity, honour and small, internal conflicts. Modern war, in its global powers and uncertain enemies, is outside these structures. There is no glory as a German agent refuses to face war, swallowing a cyanide capsule.
Ares acts as both symbol of war and embodied god. Never becoming the main villain, he is necessary in a mythological fight between gods, transcending human conflict behind secrecy and hidden identities in his brotherly yet torn relationship with Wonder Woman. In a CGI intensive battle, war engulfed by orange flame, the film becomes its most Snyder, interested in visual spectacle over narrative storytelling, but remains engaging. The film implies Ares’ death ends the war, celebrations in London following the armistice, but this is disingenuous. Months of fighting and real human soldiers and negotiators had to come together first.
Placing Wonder Woman as period piece may seem a distancing measure, avoiding real world politics for escapism, but superheroes always respond to the world around them. Superman, upon introduction in Action Comics #1 (1938), had been a social justice warrior, “an enforcer on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised” rallying against “social injustices” like “poverty, inadequate housing conditions, mobster violence, and corporate and political corruption.” In radio drama Clan of the Fiery Cross (1946), Superman fought the KKK, incorporating “real Klan secrets leaked by Kennedy to expose and ridicule their rituals”. Recent stories like Batman #44 (2015) engage with issues of white violence and police brutality.
Films adaptations like The Dark Knight Rises (2012) show the power of public uprising amid poverty and chaos. In Batman v Superman, the film asks theological and philosophical questions over God and the power and control of superheroes. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man (2008) cannot be detached from Afghanistan and the War on Terror. Wonder Woman cannot be detached from gender politics.
As Jill Lepore explores in The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014), Wonder Woman was conceived as a “new type of woman”, who could “combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men”. Creator William Moulton Marston had been in a polyamorous relationship with Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway, attending talks by Emmeline Pankhurst and suffragist protests as a student. As Lepore argues, the World War I setting “makes a certain chronological sense”, within the Marston family’s admiration of “the formidable women who fought for suffrage, equal rights and birth control”.
Female superhero films have largely failed, with Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005) unable to capture the strengths of their characters or explore issues of gender or empowerment. Supergirl (1984) might be the most enjoyable, if only because of the Christopher Reeves series and its 1980s cheesiness. But these films failed because they were bad films. Female characters are left periphery, no matter how interesting their characters are. In animated films like The Killing Joke(2016), DC struggled to present Batgirl’s sexuality in a way that isn’t deeply problematic. However, as Lepore argues, Wonder Woman is not “the Women’s March”, lacking her “American commitments and her feminist cause” as the film seeks universal audiences, positioned as “an implausible post-feminist hero”.
As Diana walks through London, a gown covering her costume, Wonder Woman is forced to dress towards conservative fashion trends, unable to carry sword or shield or expose skin. Looking through outfits in a store, she’s attracted to the most masculine and agile outfits possible to wear in battle, adopting glasses a la Diana, a nurse with her namesake in Sensation Comics #1, whose pseudonym she adopts.
This sequence resembles another in the original comic, as Wonder Woman walks down the high street, passers-by gawking at her immodesty. Were Diana walking down that same street today, she’d be fine in shorts and exposed sleeves. But wardrobe has dominated Wonder Woman’s career. In The New Wonder Woman #178-204 (1968-73), Denny O’Neil disempowered the character, placing her within the modern, groovy fashion of Swinging London.
During the 1970s, experimental artists like Dara Birnbaum, following feminist scholars like Laura Mulvey, criticised media representation of women, remixing images from The New Adventures of Wonder Woman (1975-79). More recently, questions continue to be discussed with Wonder Woman’s quickly reversed costume redesign of armour-covered skin, amid efforts for stronger female characters.
Attending a meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet, Diana faces patriarchal judgement: she cannot know secrets of war, nor act as distraction to leering, horny ministers. She explains her role to them as his secretary, christened Diana Prince by Steve, constantly told to step back and not fight, decades before women were allowed to serve. Women worked as WAACs, nurses in combat and in munitions factories, but never in front lines. Man’s instinct is to protect women, but in doing so they lose their power.
Etta Candy represents the suffragist movement, wanting to fight for women’s rights, but never too hard. Suffragist movements split between violent and non-violent action; Etta would never chain herself to a railing or set off bombs, despite her beliefs. Women marched on Washington, draped in costumes, flags and shields. In Intolerance (1916), made contemporaneously to the movement, we see early arguments around the right of children, the state and the mother, alongside lines of poverty. Etta as Steve’s secretary is ironic: Wonder Woman became relegated to the secretary for the Justice League in All-Star Comics, unable to join them on international missions. Diana believes Etta’s role amounts to slavery within man’s world, tying to the central ideology that women were “enslaved to men” without the right to vote. According to Lepore, bondage within early issues of Sensation Comics, far from kink and fetish, ties into “the iconography of suffragism, feminism and the early birth control movement”, where women marched in chains as “political theatre”.
Feminism is shifting: women in the US achieved suffrage in 1920 with the 19th amendment; women over 30 in the UK achieved it in 1918. But debates continue on, Wonder Woman hailed as feminist icon in the 1970s in Ms. magazine; the missed opportunity of Roe v Wade; third-wave feminism, between identity politics, issues of sexual abuse and inequality. Through Themyscira, Wonder Woman confronts sexuality and gender, tapping into, as Lepore argues, suffragist ideas from feminist utopian fiction that suggested “amatriarchy that predated the rise of patriarchy”, with feminist “obsession with Amazons”.
Themyscira is diverse, between black and white, but its women embody a particular kind of womanhood: largely white, cis, able-bodied, beautiful. Themyscira has no room for Asian women or trans women. The gods protect women, giving them their own island. With the arrival of Steve, Diana deals with masculinity and sexuality. Bathing in a fountain, Diana is confounded by his dick; he brags about size, whilst trying to remain respectful and apologetic to her.
On the boat, Steve doesn’t want to sleep next to her; that’s for marriage. Steve follows a set of ingrained, normative rules already feeling outdated. Diana is sex positive, reading 12 volumes on sex; she understands mechanics, but doesn’t need men. She has an island full of hot women, and her hand. Amid 1950s censorship of comic books, Sensation Comics was “accused of inciting lesbianism”. Who needs marriage? But as Steve confesses, marriages rarely stay together; men find other women. In the aftermath of battle, in snowfall, Steve talks about life in peacetime: having “breakfast”, falling in love, kids and growing old together. Immediately, they acknowledge this as bullshit, taking her up to his room and they embrace, fading to black. Sexuality isn’t linear; some cultures are free, some are more conservative.
Themyscira becomes respite from war for Steve, but he has a duty, making it out alive or not. Gadot and Pine play off each other well; Pine stretches himself beyond his role as Kirk in Star Trek (2009-present) as a dutiful man in war. However, their chemistry never feels romantic. Wonder Woman seems more interested in Sameer; her primary interest is in fighting war. In The First Avenger, we feel Steve and Peggy’s relationship more closely, understanding them as characters and what they stand for, feeling closeness and strength in their relationship. Wonder Woman attempts to manufacture connection through Steve’s watch, as symbolic memento, yet never acquires enough power.
Wonder Woman has a smaller contribution to DC’s cinematic universe than predecessors; Batman v Superman followed each origin, contained within videos on a tablet; the Flash made an unnecessary cameo fighting Boomerang In Suicide Squad. Wonder Woman has some connections, through its opening logo, Wayne Enterprises vans and an email thanking Bruce in the final scene, yet the film is largely disinterested in making Wonder Woman more than it is. Instead, Wonder Woman establishes a somewhat lighter tone, more colourful yet without sacrificing the dark and gritty elements that established this universe. In the lead-up to Snyder and Whedon’s Justice League (2017), Geoff Johns acting as executive producer, DC’s films have a way forward for an entire universe of characters.
It’s remarkable one of the most influential films of the past two decades was directed by two trans women, earning $450 million against its $60 million budget. Celebrating the achievement of Patty Jenkins obscures the major financial success of The Matrix, or high profile female directors like Kathryn Bigelow. In a male-dominated industry, Hollywood gave the Wachowski sisters power because they passed as male, but they have struggled with their gender identities since childhood.
Keanu Reeves, embodying queerness in My Own Private Idaho (1991), masculine action hero who gets the girl in Speed (1994), becomes our audience avatar as programmer Neo, because the audience is assumed to be male. But the Wachowski sisters explore queer themes in films like their debut neo-noir Bound (1996), shot on a $6 million budget, or Cloud Atlas (2012), splitting the soul between hundreds of worlds and bodies, although problematic in its gender and racial fluidity; while including trans characters like Nomi in Sense8 (2015-present).
Many trans writers have interpreted The Matrix as a trans narrative. E.A. Lockhart reflects that “life early in transition felt a lot like being Neo”, finding solace knowing the Wachowskis went through a similar process. Marcy Cook argues The Matrix is “Lana’s (and maybe Lilly’s) soul laid bare” as “the most successful transgender-focused movie ever made”, through dualities between the dream world and the real world. For Cook, Neo and Thomas Anderson represent two identities, asserting his identity as Neo “in defiance of death”. As she argues, “trans people are always playing two roles” between societal expectations and relationships between friends, family and coworkers. Cook positions Morpheus as the “transgender elder”, guiding Neo’s fate between the red and blue pill without making the choice for him.
The Matrix is never an explicitly trans narrative; the only time the word ‘trans’ appears is as prefix in computer code. Yet signs are there. The Wachowskis create Cronenbergian body horror as the Bug forcefully probes Neo’s stomach during his interrogation, reflecting a sense of bodily dysphoria. As an emaciated body within a vat, unable to speak, Cook argues Neo represents transitioning through HRT and surgery. Through androgynous characters like Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Switch, the Wachowskis challenge expectations around masculinity and femininity. As Neo tells Trinity, “I thought you were a guy!”; she retorts that “most guys do”.
With its challenging of gender expectations, The Matrix is the late 90s. It’s about as 90s as Sandstorm, from black leather jackets to a grunge soundtrack, mixing Marilyn Manson, Prodigy, Rage Against the Machine and Rammstein.
The early 90s, like the 80s, is becoming nostalgic, from clothing to aesthetics, resurrecting Power Rangers (2017) and series like Fuller House (2016-present). Yet, as someone growing up with late 90s and early 00s culture, it’s off limits. The late 90s isn’t cool.
The late 90s represent crossroads between two centuries and millennia. As we look through the TV set in the Construct at the society we are, the destiny of the red and blue pill is ultimately a question of where we have come so far, and where society goes from here. Our crossroads isn’t merely between 1999 and 2000, but 2199. Just as The War of the Worlds (1898) looked towards the growing global conflict of the oncoming century, The Matrix embodies contemporary anxieties. In retrospect, we see the society arising out of this: the post-9/11 world of an altered global outlook with new online fears. Neo jumps between two buildings, falling to the ground perfectly unscathed. A building explodes in a fireball; this isn’t controversial. In the lobby shootout, Neo and Trinity pass through security guards with guns, but remain heroes, not anti-American terrorists.
As Todd McCarthy, David Thompson and John Powers argue on the film’s critic commentary, Neo represents a ‘slacker’ archetype: an ordinary (white) guy, working in an office cubicle for Metacortex, alienated from society, dishevelled and skinny. Neo isn’t so far apart from the disillusionment of Tyler Durden in Fight Club the same year, embodying anti-consumerist disenfranchisement:
You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.
As Carrie-Ann Moss describes in an interview in The Matrix Revisited (2001), the film reflects a “sense of wanting to be free, of not wanting to be controlled, to fight the norm, or to fight people telling you how things should be”. The Matrix positions itself as social critique in opposition to the modern world of capitalism, deregulation and population growth. Neo walks through crowds caught in a trance in the final scene, awoken. Agent Smith wants to rebuild the world as a better one, at the peak of civilisation, dismissing the notion of a perfect world, reflecting a search for a new American identity. Trans writers have suggested these anti-establishment feelings also reflect the trans experience: Neo escapes the institutional system of oppression built upon erasure, bathroom bills and medical gatekeeping. In her speech as recipient of the HRC Visibility Award, Lana Wachowski spoke of her experience of institutional control:
In Catholic school the girls wear skirts, the boys play pants. I am told I have to cut my hair. I want to play Four Square with the girls but now I’m one of them — I’m one of the boys. Early on I am told to get in line after a morning bell, girls in one line, boys in another.
Yet 1999 signals another societal shift: the internet. The Matrix is not so much about the internet as we understand it today, but the Internet, capital I. From the opening sequence, juxtaposing the green computer code of the Matrix against the Warner Bros logo, signals we’re in for something radical, looking to the future. In part, it acts as a manifesto in line with other cyber and techno-utopians around this era. In his closing monologue, Neo declares the rise of “a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries” where “anything is possible”. John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace isn’t so different, declaring “cyberspace does not lie within [governments’] borders”. Theorists like Manuel Castells, in his Information Age trilogy (1996-98), began to grapple with the implications of the internet as a separate realm of existence, whilst films like Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Pi (1998) posed similar questions.
The Matrix’s world is transitional. Its bulky, white shell computer monitors with Matrix code evoke the green monochrome displays of the 80s. Our world is tangible: the cellphones are Nokias, Neo has a landline, the internet isn’t everywhere. On the Nebuchadnezzar, concept designer Geofrey Darrow sought to create a dirty and used world made of detritus, in opposition to the stainless steel worlds of sci-fi: an almost post-internet world. When Neo is silenced by the agents, his gooey mouth sewed shut, relates an era where this was an existential question, where verbal communication was our primary form of contact, without anyone to instant message. For Marcy Cook, this represents a sense of “yelling into the void”, when trans people were “unable to defend” themselves, before the internet allowed for greater trans awareness and the growth of online communities.
We approach the internet through the backend, within infrastructure as we witness the déjà vu of glitches in the Matrix. Neo, as a hacker, has a modern analogue in luminaries like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, or angry trolls on message boards, locked within his messy bedroom. But the internet is evolving into an internet of experiences. From Wi-Fi in cafes to Pokémon Go to transmedia technology, digital augmentation creates an internet not as a separate realm as The Matrix presupposes, but embedded as an extension of our environments and senses. Through VR and 360 videos, the internet opens questions around posthumanism and transhumanism.
In part, The Matrix builds upon existing science fiction tropes. Its post-apocalyptic dystopia is not worlds apart from The Terminator (1984), whilst the journey in the Nebuchadnezzar feels like the Millennium Falcon. Grounding its science fiction in theory, the Wachowskis asked Keanu Reeves to read books, handing him copies of Simulacra and Simulation, Out of Control and Evolutionary Psychology, asking philosophical questions. As Reeves comments in The Matrix Revisited, “[y]ou can get meaning out of anything. You can make that reason whatever you want.” For Baudrillard, reality has become hyperreal, a fairy tale, where simulations of reality – our consumer culture – have become more real than reality itself.
In its science fiction worldbuilding, The Matrix expanded beyond its trilogy into videogames, graphic novels and online content, becoming what Henry Jenkins describes in Convergence Culture (2006) as “entertainment for the age of media convergence”, creating a “horizontally integrated” form of narrative storytelling ensuring “consumer loyalty”. Franchises like Star Wars, through the Lucasfilm Story Group, have become more transmedia than ever, collaborating ideas and connecting elements between Rebels, The Clone Wars, its novels and Rogue One (2016), requiring wider knowledge.
The Matrix goes beyond science fiction, combining an intertextuality of elements from heist films, martial arts, John Woo-esque action, anime, videogames; creating a Moebius-esque vastness of worlds, and FBI-esque agents straight out of the 1960s. The Wachowskis enlisted Yuen Woo-ping, legend of Asian cinema for films like Drunken Master (1978), as stunt coordinator. As Jenkins argues, the Wachowski sisters “positioned themselves as oracles”, offering fans “cryptic comments”, allowing them to deconstruct the film’s allusions for themselves. In the film’s opening tease, we follow Trinity as central protagonist fighting cops, in martial arts formation as ‘the eagle’, running sideways across a wall. As Patrick H Willems deconstructs in his video essay How to Begin a Movie, this scene plays off of noir elements through chiaroscuro, vertical lines and shadows, while utilising superhero powers as she jumps between roofs and through windows.
Yet The Matrix is radical in another area: CGI. The late 90s and early 00s are filled with CGI that look like a bad hangover today, from Naboo in The Phantom Menace (1999) to Garfield in the real world in Garfield (2004), before the photorealism of Grand Moff Tarkin, or CGI existing entirely unnoticed. From its anime-esque bullet time, cellphones falling from hundreds of stories, sentinels, electricity, fire, or morphing in the telephone booth, The Matrix told its story as spectacle, becoming part of its aesthetic through the advancements of digital editing. From liquid mirrors made of mercury, to reflections within warping spoons, The Matrix pushed the envelope, yet still used practical effects to ground itself within reality, like the animatronic baby in one sequence.
The Matrix questions what can be done within the cinematic medium, simultaneously questioning our notions of reality. Delving into dream worlds, The Matrix questions human experience and how we ascribe meaning. As far back as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978), science fiction attempted to grapple with the construction of our own world. But this is a real field of study. In 2016, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk became viral for suggesting our own existence is a simulation, based on our shift from “pong, two rectangles and a dot” to “photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously”.
Subverting the tropes of the cyberpunk movement, The Matrix ascribes our own world as the fake world. Driving through Chinatown, we see the inauthenticity: using Hitchcockian rear-screen projection in the car, the world becomes dreamy, defocused with saturated colours. The Wachowski sisters shift the colour timing of each scene between green and blue, drawing a visual duality between the real world and the matrix.
Neo, like us, has experienced the matrix from birth, seeing it as organic. Reality is a sensory experience. As Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) tells Neo, “real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. Cypher eats a steak, knowing full well the steak is not real. On the Nebuchadnezzar, their goopy food attempts to recreate the taste of chicken. Taste buds can be manipulated. The film’s mantra of “this is a spoon” evokes The Treachery of Images (1929): representation, not reality.
Morpheus questions Neo’s disavowal of fate, fearing “not [being] in control of my life”. Yet we aren’t in control: every time we say the wrong thing, drop a pen, do something on instinct, our minds and bodies betray us. Free will scarcely exists. Or, as Marcy Cook argues, not being in control is the “central theme in becoming transgender”, a remolding of existence whilst “fighting your birth” and societal expectations.
Philosophy, as universal thought, can be found in every text, from choices a character makes to fate and destiny. TheMatrix immerses itself within it, calling upon the thought experiments of Nozick’s experience machine and Plato’s allegory of the cave, given visual representation. Reality is constructed, from societal expectations, to laws of governance, aspirations and dreams, fashions and incomes. Though we debate universal laws, nothing, or very little, is pre-ordained, varying between different cultures. As Edward Soja argues, physical spaces contain a thirdspace – a real-and-imagined space – built upon materiality and semiotics, political discourses and lived dimensions. Nothing is real, beyond reality itself.
At its core, The Matrix is an exploration of identity. Though the film may play a kiss between Neo and Trinity, it is not a love story. We never follow Neo as he attempts to woo her, or becomes caught in an awkward romantic comedy. The narrative arc is internal. Neo may become a modern messiah, with a prophecy and mythos behind him as saviour, yet these are not the abstract struggles of Jesus, they are our own. Neo loses his identity on the Nebuchadnezzar, placed in identical clothing, yet he never had it in the first place.
Nearly twenty years after its release, we might question whether The Matrix still holds its power. Its CGI, soundtrack and radical aesthetic are horrifically outdated, its genre-bending becoming subsumed in wider pop culture, numerous other science fiction franchises taking its place. As the internet is caught in a frenzy over the notion of making a reboot or sequel or spin-off, there are still stories that could be told. Through the John Wick series (2014-present), Keanu Reeves has become a badass and household name once more, teaming up with stunt double-turned-director Chad Stahelski and Fishburne. Yet The Matrix remains a powerful, multi-layered form of filmmaking, and spectacle.
Kristen Stewart is a joke, forever defined by her stilted acting in Twilight (2008). Twilight is what it is: an adaptation of a YA novel, spanning several fanfic erotic sequels not featuring Kristen Stewart in the Fifty Shades (2014-present) series. Stewart started out as a child actress, appearing in masterpieces like The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000). Every child actor has an interesting path. Elle Fanning grew up to be one of the greatest teenage actors around. Macaulay Culkin became Macaulay Culkin. Elijah Wood grew up to be that weird guy in Spy Kids 3-D (2003), Frodo, a serial killer and Dirk Gently’s friend.
Stewart isn’t going to win any Oscars any time soon. But Assayas proves she’s capable, lifting her out of American cinema into French cinema. Casting an American lead, Assayas sacrifices none of his film’s reality in favour of commercial intent, never breaching the film’s internal world. Maureen exists as outsider, with a diasporic American identity. Working for Kyra, she never fits into the Parisian world, with her old knitted sweaters or addiction to her cellphone. As a personal shopper, Maureen is continually alone, absorbing other people’s identities in shallowness and materialism, spending thousands of euros on clothes that aren’t hers. She follows her late brother Lewis’ French lifestyle because of a pact they made. As she tries on a sparkly dress, Maureen is caught between taking an identity which isn’t hers and the sheer joy of rebellion.
Personal Shopper captures a sense of modern job insecurity and globalisation. Maureen’s boyfriend, Gary, works in the Middle East, seen only through Skype calls. Maureen must travel across Europe between London and Milan, never able to enjoy travel. It’s a job, but never a rewarding one. In a film like Only God Forgives (2013), Ryan Gosling’s insertion into Thailand’s culture as an expat felt forced, as though our only way to relate is through a white figure. Here, cultural conflict is central to the narrative.
Personal Shopper’s genre is difficult to classify. In part, it is a horror film. As Maureen explores Kyra’s apartment, it becomes a haunted house, like the gothic horror of the 1800s or a female-centric film like The Innocents (1961). Personal Shopper avoids representing its ghosts as the goofy cartoons of Ghostbusters (1984), but returns a sense of the unknown beyond clichés. Assayas’ ghosts are a spectre and trace of the past, an invisible presence caught between two realms of existence not immediately discernible. Assayas avoids the well-trodden tropes of gusts of wind or slamming doors, never falling for jump scares.
Maureen carries a self-awareness of the genre she exists within, akin to the awareness of genre trappings in films like Scream (1996) and The Cabin in the Woods (2012). Maureen wants to be a strong, independent woman, telling her invisible stalker she hates horror films, where the helpless female character must avoid a male murderer. As she finds the body in the apartment, covered in blood, Maureen must embody this role, caught between the fear of the messages and her own independence. The camera moves through the corridors of the hotel as though in Steadicam, like the eeriness of the Overlook in The Shining (1980). As she is questioned by police, devolving into a cliché of the detective genre, Maureen finds these roles inescapable.
Personal Shopper’s horror is not in its ghosts or serial killers, but in its technology. Cinema, after all, is technology in itself. Often, films like Unfriended (2014) and Cyberbully (2015) have tried to tap into the internet as horror, failing to feel realistically terrifying, playing paranoia entirely ineffectively. Technology is so ingrained within our everyday life it feels difficult to critique without sounding out-of-touch or conservative. But technology is something we should be skeptical of, thanks to writers like Evgeny Morozov and documentarians like Adam Curtis. Technology has restructured social interaction, political engagement, working life, the news industry and so on, placing big data within corporations and governments. Anti-terrorism and internet security adverts may seem melodramatic, yet there are genuine fears.
I cannot control my phone. As I type up my notes for this review, Google voice command activates out of nowhere. Trying to listen to The Eclipse Viewer, it lowers the volume to 0. It skips to the next episode. My phone calls home, with no reason why.
Assayas tries to capture how overwhelming this all is. As Maureen attempts to relax and sketch, she’s interrupted by the blare of Gary on Skype, unable to ignore. In one scene, she attempts to ask a question, caught between a multi-person business call. There is no escape.
In his excellent video essay Smartphones in Cinema and TV – A Missed Opportunity?, Luís Azevedo questions how smartphones affects narrative and cinematic form, creating a sense of distance beyond our instinct to present text messages as a visual aesthetic as utilised by series like Sherlock (2010-present). Rather than embed technology in the frame, in the desktop documentary form used by video essayists like Kevin B. Lee, Assayas shows us technology as something we see on a screen through our own eyes. Assayas never aestheticises, but shows Gary’s Skype call continually breaking up.
Maureen’s iPhone, an everyday object, becomes something she fears. Like the emotionless computer voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Maureen receives texts from a stranger, conveying no emotion in their delivery to discern tone or meaning. Assayas never attempts to speed this process up, creating sheer tension out of sending and reception.
As she questions who is sending the texts – a friend, the ghost of Lewis? – Assayas never reveals the sender. In its anonymity, the phone receives new power. Maureen experiences the fears of many women – unwanted texts, stalkers, creepers sending dickpics – becoming a psychological fear. The sender pretends to be in the same space as her on the Eurostar, with nothing saying otherwise. But her curiosity must be met. In London, trying her dress on, Maureen instinctively grabs the phone. Her boundaries break down: she sends the sender a photo of her in the dress, an artificial sense of trust built through repetition.
Assayas uses technology in an expository function, to explain information. The phone becomes a manifestation of Maureen’s internal monologue, in anxieties and desires, becoming a voice on her shoulder telling her to try Kyra’s dress on. The phone becomes her closest confidant, to sleep beside and voice her thoughts to, as though the words will dissipate with no tangible connection to the real world. Technology is a tool: we see Maureen’s process of researching Hilma af Klint on her phone on the metro (before buying a physical art book), or watching a 1960s TV movie about Victor Hugo’s spiritualism on YouTube after her friend’s suggestion. Assayas connects these scenes, as the video plays on with no temporal or spatial constraints, moving between locations. Rather than unnecessary quirk, these elements become essential to advancing the narrative.
Assayas uses these technological mediums to connect us to our understanding of spiritualism. Spiritualism is directly tied to advancement of technology, through the party tricks that emerged with the advancement of electrical telegraphy in the 1850s. Assayas moves beyond the crystal balls, Ouija boards and campy horror to ground Maureen and her brother Lewis as mediums within our contemporary context, helping us understand spiritualism as a legitimate belief system. Despite the advancement of science and technology, faith and spirituality are going nowhere; they lose none of their power. Religion may seem dead, but it’s not.
Recently, I lost a friend.
I only met him a few times. But it still affects me; I must still come to terms with it, and question where his soul resides now. Assayas captures a search for meaning in the aftermath of a death. Maureen’s relationship with Lewis, dying of a heart condition they both share, creates a symbiotic blood tie between the two. Maureen follows in his footsteps, carrying an innate sense of her own mortality as she reconciles her beliefs, even in weakness. She holds onto the smallest chance, because it is a chance. Assayas depicts her desire to find peace and faith, yet no answers are forthcoming. Her friend attempts to swiftly get over the loss of Lewis, finding a new boyfriend, but we see an unspoken sense of repression: she can’t come to terms with his passing, even though she tries to.
Assayas’ ghostly spectre is at its most powerful here. Through a breaking glass, we infer a ghostly presence. Maureen tries to find scientific justification, surmising the glass broke some other way. But she knows her instinct is true. In the final scene, Maureen travels to the Middle East, and is haunted once more. In the film’s final lines, she asks:
Is it you, Lewis? Or is it just me?
The film fades to white (as opposed to black), as Assayas gives no answer.