Thoughts on film :: Avant L’hiver (Before Winter’s Chill)

Avant L’hiver (directed by Philippe Claudel) could be said to follow that classically French film tradition of domestic dramas set amongst the intelligentsia…a sort of bourgeois angst. The domestic environment is usually fabulous – a Parisian apartment; a country retreat; a suburban architectural ideal. The women are beautiful; the men are middle-aged and paunchy, successful, rich and often libidinous. The pace is slow and the script is usually minimalist, peppered with meaningful stares and shots of designer kitchens.

Don’t get me wrong; I love these films. I honed my cinematic senses as a teen watching European films on BBC2. They were a welcome addition to my increasing experience of cinema as an art form. Avant L’hiver fits nicely into this canon of french domestic dramas, but with an addition that I found disturbing.

The plot is predicable enough: rich, successful, paunchy middle-aged man is married to beautiful, decorative woman in suburban modernist pile. Calm and order is threatened when man meets young woman who then appears to stalk him. Crisis ensues. Lots of meaningful stares and vague bourgeois navel-gazing. Young woman neatly exits plot and calm and order is restored. Or so we think.

External threat to the ideals of middle-class home life in the shape of beautiful young women are nothing new. Woman as siren and signifier of danger and threat is a classic trope in all art forms. Within film, it a genre in itself – think of Fatal Attraction as probably the most crude and obvious of its type. However, as the potential interloper, Lou, is a woman of Moroccan heritage, and it is this racial dimension that I found disconcerting.

In Avant L’hiver Paul (played by Daniel Auteuil) is a successful neuro-surgeon, revered by his female colleagues and female patients alike. He lives in a starkly beautiful minimalist house with his British wife of 30 years, Lucie (played by Kristin Scott-Thomas). They have a grown son and a baby grandchild. At one point, Lucie mentions that she has given up her career to assist Paul’s success, although we never learn what that career was. Their life is ordered and centres around Paul’s work. Lucie tends her garden and waits for and on her husband. She is concerned with plants, he is concerned with brains. She is the  corporeal to his cerebral. When Paul is not working, he and Lucie visit galleries and music recitals and enjoy the last family dinners in the garden before autumn comes.

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One day, Paul enters a cafe and is waited on by Lou (played by Leïla Bekhti). We are immediately struck by her youth, beauty and sexuality. Her shirt has slipped from her shoulder to reveal a patch of brown skin . She seems to smoulder, in contrast to the brittle, sterile perfection of Lucie. She is fire to Lucie’s earth; heat to Lucie’s coolness. As well as being the antithesis to Lucie, Lou is the embodiment of ‘exotic otherness’…her dark beauty suggests sexual availability (‘don’t you want to fuck me?’) but also danger and chaos. Lou’s world is that of domestic discord, emotional incontinence, duplicity, violence and prostitution. Her appearances are unexpected, unpredictable. Her apartment, in stark contrast to the grey minimalism of Paul and Lucie’s home, is noisy, messy and carries the threat of impending violence from warring neighbours. The blood red of the flowers she anonymously sends to Paul seem to overwhelm the muted palate of Paul’s life, mocking the bloodlessness of his relationship with Lucie.

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Despite Lou’s offer of sex, Paul takes a paternal interest in her, although it is clear he is mesmerised by her and, against his better judgement, actively seeks her out. Lou is cast as a siren, luring him, we find out later, to what she intends to be a violent death.  Film Noir as a genre is full of such women, their beauty and sexual desirability used to dupe and ensnare unsuspecting men. And they are invariably violently punished for their transgressions.

Order is restored and threat abated when Lou spares Paul and kills herself instead. She is found in her bath, the blood from her wrists echoing the red of the roses. Paul is required to identify her body. Visibly shaken, he is told by the police that Lou was not who she seemed. Her whole life as she told it to him was a lie, meant to trick him into trusting her so that she and a partner in crime could then extort money from him and kill him. Even her European-sounding name was false, her real one being decidedly Arabic. Paul takes a momento of her, a cassette tape of Moroccan music.

Winter is over and we see Paul once again eating dinner in the garden with friends and family. Lucie speaks of their difficult time, confident the episode is finished and life with Paul is back to normal. She follows Paul into the house and finds him listening to a tape of Lou singing a Moroccan song. The song of the siren. Even in death the lure of Lou is evident.

Given the racial tensions in France and the rise of extremist right-wing politics, I don’t think it is far-fetched to see a sub-plot in Avant L’hiver.The character of Lou as a woman of Arab ethnicity is not accidental. She represents the perceived threat to white, middle-class life of multi-culturalism; despite the liberalism of the middle class, it’s high gates (like those protecting Paul and Lucie’s life) are closed to anything that threatens the hegemony. The danger is ‘out there’ and it is ‘foreign’. Despite the appearance of integration and Westernisation embodied in Lou’s character, we are reminded that underneath lurks real danger and the exotic appeal of ethnic ‘otherness’ does little to compensate for this danger. It permeates white culture, it brings chaos and ultimately death. Is Avant L’hiver racist? No, I wouldn’t go that far but I think it portrays a while middle-class afraid of what it perceives to be the potentially devastating effect of multi-culturalism. The final scene shows Lucie seeing the expression on Paul’s face as he listens to Lou’s song. There is no freedom from fear. Lucie knows this.

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Bad girls

I was reading a book review about Amanda Knox when I got the idea for this post. For those who have been on another planet for the last few years, Knox is a young American women who was tried for the murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Italy in 2007, convicted, jailed for almost four years, then released after appeal. She is currently being re-tried in her absence.

What triggered me to write was this paragraph:

The court was also told how many people Knox had slept with since leaving America. Kercher’s British friends testified that she’d been scandalised by Knox’s bringing different men back to the house. The first words that Knox spoke in public, after 15 months of silence, were in defence of the vibrator that she had kept in her washbag, and that had apparently offended Kercher. She interjected: ‘It was a gift, a joke.’ (Nick Richardson review http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n20/nick-richardson/nothing-fits )

The above extract from a lengthy (and very good) book review by Nick Richardson encapsulates an ancient and prevalent trope that is both complex and yet scarily simple:

beautiful woman = promiscuous = dangerous

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Amanda Knox is considered to be a beautiful young woman. This is important. It is important because we ascribe very specific characteristics to beautiful women that are enshrined in mythology and are still influencing how we judge women, on every level. Woman as temptress, woman as siren, woman as scheming, manipulative and treacherous.

Added to this is the obvious interest in Knox’s sexual activity. We are told she has had numerous sexual partners but more than that, her actual enjoyment of sex for its own sake is evidenced by her owning a vibrator.

Society is very clear about women who like sex and religious dogma, in particular Judo-Christianity, has set out a virgin-whore dichotomy that continues to fuel misogynist rhetoric and the myth of the bad girl. Amanda Knox is the bad girl; beautiful, sexually active, dangerous. Mess with her at your peril, as her former boyfriend, and fellow accused, suggested to a British newspaper:

Amanda Knox’s one-time boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito wishes he’d never laid eyes on the American brunette, he has admitted.

Six years after the murder of Knox’s roommate, British exchange student Meredith Kercher, the Italian  says his life is hell because of his short-lived romance with Knox.

As he prepares to face trial for Kercher’s 2007 murder in Perugia, Italy, for a second time, Sollecito said he doesn’t blame her – but still wishes the two had never been together, so he could have been spared the ordeal.  Daily Mail, 3rd October 2013

Whilst he stipulated later in this article and elsewhere that he does not blame Knox for the murder, it is clear that he feels he is in this situation as a direct result of his relationship with her.   His attraction to Knox has brought him to a life he describes as hell – not his much documented drug -taking, his addiction to porn or his  fecklessness, but his association with Amanda Knox, who the press have labelled luciferina (she-devil).

I am reminded of a particular scene (much loved by teenage boys) in the 1986 film of the Umberto Eco novel, The Name of the Rose (dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud) in which William of Baskerville, monk and mentor to the young novice Adso, reminds him,

Of woman? Thomas Aquinas knew precious little, but the scriptures are very clear. Proverbs warns us, “Woman takes possession of a man’s precious soul”, while Ecclesiastes tells us, “More bitter than death is woman”.

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Adso was ‘seduced’ by a local peasant girl and was afterwards tormented by his feelings of affection for the girl and pity for her hardship, and his shame at succumbing to his lust for her. He is later told that the girl is ‘already burned flesh’ and she is inevitably burned alive for witchcraft.

The bad girl doesn’t have to be beautiful but when she is, her beauty becomes a weapon, used to lure and entrap men, to drive them mad with desire, to make them steal, cheat, rape and kill.  Such women are known as femme fatales;  they provide the motive and also the excuse for the bewitched man’s behaviour. Read the transcripts of most rape cases and you will see evidence of how this myth has far-reaching and potentially fatal consquences for women. Man as victim. Woman as responsible for her own abuse. “He couldn’t help himself”, and “she knew what she was doing”.

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The beautiful bad girl trope has been used to best effect in the films of 1940s and ’50s Hollywood known as Film Noir. Shot in atmospheric black and white, film noirs are essentially crime melodramas that typically have a treacherous, beautiful woman as a pivotal character in the action. Men kill for her, sometimes she is a killer, sometimes she is killed but her beauty and sexual allure is always seen as inherently dangerous.

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A quick search of crime drama promotional posters of the time demonstrates how the femme fatale character is positioned within the narrative and as a source of menace in her own right, but also as a metaphor for the dangers and desires found in the dark, forbidden, criminal underworld where the films are set and for the forbidden excitement of the life of crime.

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If film noir serves as a warning to men of the perils of female sexuality, especially when embodied in a beautiful woman, then it also reminds women of the dire consequences of living a life of moral destitution  The femme fatale in film, is punished for her beauty and her sexual allure. She is shot, beaten, strangled and raped or worse still, she is abandoned by the man she loves, left to a life of degradation to contemplate the error of her ways.

The message is clear, be a good girl because bad girls always come to a bad end.

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Scream, baby, scream

The other evening I watched the 1953 version of War of the Worlds, directed by Byron Haskin and starring a long list of B movie stalwarts. The original story is, of course, by H.G. Wells and deals with the fear of an apocalypse brought on by hostile extraterrestrials. The characters in this version are pretty much as you would expect; gung ho military leaders, louche professor of everything to do with ‘out there’, trusting priest, female science graduate……whoa *rewinds*. Female science graduate? In 1953? Great! Well, yes you’d think that wouldn’t you? Said female though fails to arrest 1953 expectations and spends the entire film screaming, clinging onto professor, simpering or handing out coffee to military men. The message is reassuringly predictable; man save planet, woman look purty and keep man happy.

But it is more complex than that. Sylvia, as the only female character, serves as a conduit for our fears. We see the male characters being brave and fearless or brave and stupid (as with the three fisherman who attempt to initiate a conversation with the alien), but we don’t see fear. That is reserved for the face of the pretty, young Sylvia. We see her fear writ large, in close-up as her face contorts. Her emotion, if unchecked by the manly professor, is excessive, incontinent, out of control. We fear the unknown of this excessive emotion just as we fear the unknown of the alien. Where will it end? Can someone please shut that woman up?

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The message is pretty straight forward; emotional responses, especially fear, are feminised. We channel our collective fears through the feminine, not only women but those considered ‘other’ to to masculine norm – children, gay men, the elderly, the infirm. Indeed, in the 2005 remake of War of the Worlds (dir. Steven Spielberg) Dakota Fanning’s child character (Rachel) displays all the fear and horror while her father (played by Tom Cruise) progresses the narrative with gritty determination. Her brother, Robbie (played by Justin Chatwin) displays the emotional range typical of a teenage boy and spends a lot of time staring incredulously around him) while Rachel sobs, screams, cries and shouts. Even when Cruise’s character beats to death a man out of shot, it is on the face of the girl child (removing the safety of the blindfold) that we see and experience the full horror of what is happening behind the locked door.

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So, in the fifty years between these two films what has changed? Well, there is no leading lady to make coffee and scream a lot (although there are plenty of examples of films where that still happens) but the female is still doing the fear thing. Woman or girl, she channels our horror and fear and expresses it across her beautiful face. She is a foil for the dynamism of the male characters and she progresses the narrative through her paralysed inaction and the need to be rescued.

It isn’t really news that emotions and the display of them are perceived as feminine, in fact it is one of the stereotypical constraints of gender that harms both men and women.  We can carry this theme further and ask what red-blooded male wouldn’t fight aliens to save a woman or child? But I think there is something else going on here….something much darker, and I will go into that next time. In the meantime, here is a visual clue…

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Living in the gaze

If you are a woman then you will know all about the gaze. Your girlhood was an initiation into it and you learned of its power. You became a young woman and your sense of self- worth was determined by it. The gaze approved or disapproved, made you feel good or bad, drove you to starve or gorge, drove you to cutting, drove you to suicide. You tried to hide but soon discovered that outside of the gaze you simply disappeared. Dissolved. You have found that if it is hard to exist in the gaze, to age in the gaze is harder still. The gaze is brutal, violent and unforgiving. It invalidates and shames and obliterates those women who don’t conform as well as those who simply don’t measure up.

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Cinematic film is all about the gaze, how we look and how we are looked at. How women perform for the gaze is the essence of the cinematic experience, both within and outside of the frame.  I believe that film represents culture in a way that is more immediate and more accessible than any other art form. We are educated in cinematic language, we understand its code and nuances and absorb its meanings. We both influence and are influenced by cinema and we see our collective hopes, desires and nightmares reflected back at us when we watch the screen. In this blog I will be writing about cinematic film – with occasional forays into the art world – from a feminist perspective. I will be writing about films I love and films I hate, those that have made an indelible mark on me and those I wish I could forget. I will be writing about how film changes the dynamic and forces us to be both the viewed and the viewer, to be a voyeur whilst also being the subject of the critical gaze. This can make for a very disturbing experience.

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