Věra Chytilová & Chantal Akerman: The Explosion Of The Feminine Universe
It is pretty easy to determine when there’s the hand of a woman behind the camera lenses in cinema.
Since the early days of motion pictures, females have always had a very strong approach to direction. When the profession of the “Film maker” still had not taken on the prestige it has acquired through the years, cinema was a lot more accessible and open to women with the ambition of movie making, this is because major production studios held by patriarchal regimes were still nonexistent. Alice Guy-Blanche, also known as the very first woman to ever direct a movie, started her own movie company with the help of her photography supply manufacturer and then husband, Prior the American motion picture business transposing West.
It is apparent that since the birth of Hollywood productions, the world of cinema progressively became dominated by men, reshaping it in a completely different manner. Almost automatically a radical shift in what was being fed to the audience occurred, mainstream films portrayed female characters as mere objects for the audience’s satisfaction, crystallising women into either the “Madonna” or the “Whore”. This is because film works and has always worked as a social mirror to reflect social power structures at large and mass beliefs. Women’s conventional roles, as stated in Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape (1973), had little representational bite on women’s real identities[…] Or real experience, only stereotypes of women’s social status or, indeed, lack of status”.
The “Male gaze”, the main mechanism of filmic control, is how film theorist Laura Mulvey (1944) defined commercial cinema’s masculine way of looking in her collection of essays Visual pleasures and Narrative Cinema (1975). From the perspective of a heterosexual man, being both the camera and, supposedly, the spectator, women assume a “scopophilic” appeal (Term chosen by philosopher S. Freud to identify the activity of looking at another as an erotic object), they become nothing more than a two dimensional fetishised character: the loving mothers, the prostitutes, the girls next door, the femme fatales.
It goes without saying that it became increasingly harder for women to breakthrough in the sexist environment of direction, defined and built upon sexual difference; “Men act and Women appear”, observed John Berger in his tv show Ways Of Seeing (1972). The male gaze looks down patronisingly at women, and women just look at themselves being looked at. As a result, while classic Hollywood blockbusters would still produce and exploit this cultural legacy of sexism, women filmmakers started pouring their anger and frustration by creating pieces of pure, sensitive and raw art that would meet her point of explosion in the 1970s, years of the celebration of feminism and cultural theory.
The word “explosion” itself can be pretty representative for the provocative works of Belgian director Chantal Akerman and Czech Věra Chytilová, both forerunners of the avant garde female cinema, in particular, the tragicomic debut short film Saute ma Ville (C.Akerman, 1968) and the full length new wave masterpiece Daisies (V. Chytilová, 1966). In the most elegant and clever way, these two movies quite literally “explode” and destroy the dogma of the dutiful and gendered feminine, mocking societal expectations to the point of inverting them. The protagonists of both pieces are over the top, flamboyant, almost cartoony.
In Akerman’s film, in which the director herself is the one and only actress, the character is a clumsy, Chaplin-esque girl that “seems to come straight out of a Slapstick comedy” (Fernandez, 2015) occupied in strange household rituals, like sealing her windows and doors with thick tape, throwing her cat out the window and shining her shoes in a compulsive way, brushing her leg along and leaving dark stains all over it.
The same applies for Marie I and Marie II from Chytilová’s Daisies, two rebel doll like protagonists that, one day, when soaking up the sun at the beach in their colorful swimsuits, decide that everything is the world is going bad, so they might swell “go bad, too”, by dedicating their new lives to gluttony, frolic and idleness, breaking every convention expected of them as women.
The similarity between the two artworks is mainly based on the portrayal of the woman, how Akerman and Chytilová liberate girls from the conservative conventions and etiquette, but the films themselves work in a different way, aesthetically and narratively wise.
Daisies was released in a pre-’68 Europe, before the women’s liberation movement really took momentum, and also during a time where Czech art would mainly churn out pieces of “social realism” and propaganda, due to the nationalisation of the film industry. The risk Chytilová took with her movie brought her to be banned by the Czech authorities from working in her country until 1975. The film’s amount of gluttony and immorality was unacceptable under Czechoslovakia’s then committed Communist regime.
The quirky, colorful visuals of the film, characterised by alternating black and white to bright colors, all purple filters to sepia that change its composition scene after scene , are juxtaposed to the initial and final cutscenes of war montages, bombs exploding, buildings collapsing and planes colliding in the air. The film is a true riot of shock cuts and hues, but of course it is not a simple coincidence. “The form of the film was really derived from the conceptual basis of the film” Says the director. “Because the concept of the film was destruction, the form became destructive as well” (Chytilová, 2000). That prologue of disturbing, violent images is the reality the Maries find spoiled and “bad”, “an enflamed modernity that Daisies will make it its task to attack in its assault on manners” (Parvulesca, 2006), and it combines perfectly with their intent of revolting and, therefore, “becoming spoiled”.The film as a whole is a relentless assault — against moviemaking standard conventions and forms, against social norms and rules and indeed society itself, and, finally, against the spectator.
Marie I and Marie II do not give a correct example of how a rightful lady should behave, their desire of excess is the antithesis of the ideal soviet woman: they have a very bold fashion sense, a huge appetite for refined food and adventure, they chew loudly, jump on furnitures and lick their fingers in a childish, irreverent way, having little consideration of the symbols that the communist dogma praised: food and money, wasting them in big amounts. They take up space and make noise in a society which has forbidden them from doing so. In an interview from 1967 with writer Antonin J Liehm, Chytilová said: “We are still living as guests in a man’s world.” But in Daisies, men are reduced to poor, whiny sugar daddies exploited by the “spoiled” Maries for extravagant dinners, who weep and long for the girls to love them back on the phone while the two are slicing up phallic shaped food with scissors.
The finale of the movie is actually what guaranteed it to be banned from the Czech cinemas: The Maries stumble upon a large, rich State banquet and start a riotous food fight. With massive food shortages all over the country, rations were put in place to ensure supply. The Maries’ outrageous waste of food is, even today, extreme. They then soon proceed to try and tidy up the mess they made, constantly repeating to themselves “If we’re good and hard working, we will be happy!”, almost feeling remorse and accepting to be socially useful. Finally they lie down on the top of the banquet table, admitting that they are finally at peace until the room’s enormous chandelier falls from the ceiling and crushes them, followed shortly by a new montage of war and bombings . Though Chytilova claimed under political duress that this was a moral punishment for the girls’ transgressions, it seems rather to “extend their reign of destruction, consuming not only the two of them, but the film itself” (Shaviro, 2007).
Wherefore in Daisies we see the parody of feminine sexuality, unapologetically smashing taboos of femininity through embracing its visual stereotypes of girly and cute while revelling in their gluttony and spitefulness, Chantal Akerman confronts womanhood and its dogmas within the domestic environment.
Saute ma Ville, which literally translates into “Blow up my town” is Chantal’s very first creation at the age of 18, released in the year 1968. The twelve minute movie unfolds inside a tiny apartment kitchen where a jolly and almost hyperactive protagonist starts her evening routine of cooking and cleaning, but slowly descends into a “kind of manic episode” (Macaulay, 2014). In fact, not a single one of her action is performed as it should be. She eats her pasta in almost a compulsive manner and trashes her kitchen’s floor with cleaning products, then proceeds to frantically mop it wearing a small headscarf and a coat she found in one of the cupboards, perhaps trying to represent the typical woman of the 60s and boycotting the image of the perfect housewife. Every gesture looks like the “externalisation of psychic implosion” (Bergstrom, 1999)
This off-kilter, excessive simulation of housework its nothing but a “parody a contrario of domestic order” (Ferrer, 2015). It is a statement of rebellion against the confinement of the woman to the house, represented in its the most representative space, the Kitchen, which will be Akerman’s starting point with her feature film Jeanne Dielman in 1975. As a matter of fact the kitchen was a space of woman subjugation, claustrophobic and oppressive.
Her bizarre character does not want to be recluse in such domestic isolation and doesn’t need rules to govern her own life. The interior is the enemy, like in most of Akerman’s films: it hardly ever presents itself as a place where the family gathers at the table or one that “epitomises the remembrance of or the nostalgic longing for childhood years” (Bruno, 2012), the interior conceals secrets, shame, violence and, as Jon Davies defined, “gendered labour” (Davies, 2016). At the same time, she choses to set her films in the household environments in order to finally give space to the daily gestures of a woman that were almost never shown that way, because “Those women’s gestures [would’ve] count for so little”. (Akerman, 1977)
Her shenanigans in the narrow kitchen culminate in an unexpected suicide. The girl suddenly sets fire to a letter (which we cannot read) and turns the gas of the stove on full blast, letting it blow up “her town” and, first of all, herself. The kitchen and the woman both doomed to their own destruction.
The two movies share a final destructive act that annihilates the characters: The Maries and Chantal complete their betrayal of social grace by suffering a metaphorical death. The real killing is that of the “idea” of the woman, Vera and Chantal both wanted to free her from her position as a “seductive presence or source of visual pleasure” and allow her to be anew. The ‘cleaning up’ that each character performs in such a disruptive, tumultuous manner is just an anticipation for their doom, except that in Akerman’s short it’s a suicide, which does not have to be confused as a gesture of resignation, but an anarchic, raging desire of self expression and freedom, just like in Daisies, where the Maries just pretend to be regretful of their wanton, convincing themselves by telling each other how they are not going to be bad anymore, when in reality they are just concluding their wreckful agenda by enduring the most destructive action a man (woman?) can experience: Death. Vera and Chantal are living proof of how impetuous and powerful a woman can be, behind a camera, in front of it and, most importantly, in life.