Deep South v.1 n.3 (Spring, 1995)
This article has come about from a work in progress, a Master's thesis involving a comparative analysis of two recent Australasian films; Jane Campion's Sweetie (Australia, 1989) and Alison Maclean's Crush (New Zealand, 1992). The following discussion indicates approaches and ideas which are under development in the analysis of these two films.
Both directors are from a particular 'moment' in the recent history of Australasian film. In the seventies and early eighties film-making in both Australia and New Zealand was dominated by male-centered narratives. From the mid-eighties on female-centered narratives have increased, this could be read as a backlash against the male-dominated films of the previous decade. Jane Campion and Alison Maclean are two women film-makers directly involved with reacting against the lack of visibility of women's experience in film. After a number of well-received short films in the mid-eighties Sweetie and Crush are the debut feature films for both directors. This analysis comes about from a desire to explore the critical strategies of Campion and Maclean as a response to the limited, and limiting, representations of women in film.
Also of interest are Campion and Maclean's presentation of women as anti-hero. In the 1980's a number of woman-centered films were concerned with a search for positive role models through which a new sense of female identity could be established. Films such as Melanie Read's Trial Run and Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career focussed on female characters of a strong, independent nature. This search for positive role models in film reflects the tendency toward a pragmatic, rather than theoretical, form of feminism in Australasia. However Campion and Maclean seem to be working against this form of female characterisation. Sweetie and Crush are involved in exploring the complexities of a female subjectivity which is darker in tone, and in doing so, are closer in practice to the British feminist counter-cinema of the late seventies and early eighties. The strategies of this feminist cinema actively work against viewer identification with characters as role models through alienation techniques, parody, and refusal of closure.
The following discussion will explore these strategies of characterisation with regard to recent critical discussions about representation of the female subject in film.
Before I begin to analyse the films in more detail, a brief plot synopsis of each narrative may be helpful. Sweetie is a dark comedy set in the suburban wastelands of Sydney. The narrative begins with the neurotically self-controlled Kay's visit to a fortune teller (she holds deeply superstitious beliefs about the world; earlier she walks along the footpath, obsessively avoiding cracks in the concrete). Kay is told she will meet a man "with a question mark on his face". This turns out to be the recently engaged -- of half an hour, to Kay's workmate -- Louis. A test of fate in the tossing of a coin for 'tails' five times begins their relationship. Thirteen months later Louis and Kay are living together; all appears to be progressing well in their domestic relationship, if not rather oppressively suburban in nature. That is until the unexpected arrival of Sweetie, Kay's sister, whom she describes as "a bit mental".
Sweetie is a figure of uncontrolled desires, in direct contrast to Kay's repressed state; where Kay is conventionally trim and tidy, Sweetie is overweight and wears tattered tight-fitting clothes. Sweetie has an unsatiable, amoral, attitude towards sex, whereas Kay withdraws from Louis sexual advances. Sweetie, along with her junkie boyfriend Bob, disrupt Kay's ordered, sanitised world. A world where even the sickly baby elder tree Louis plants as a symbol of their love, has to be removed in superstitious fear of the symbolic consequences of its death.
Sweetie's arrival is soon followed by that of their father, Gordon, at a loss after the departure of Flo, their mother, who has left him to cook for jackeroos in the outback. Flo is evidently tired of their dysfunctional family unit, dominated by the excessive figure of Sweetie. Kay and Louis accompany Gordon to the outback to win Flo back, which he does after a night of dancing and song. The poignancy of Flo singing in the desert night stands in stark contrast to Gordon's fantasy of Sweetie as a gifted prodigy. Flashbacks of Sweetie as a child, singing and dancing in imitation of Shirley Temple for her father, suggest something unhealthy about his obsession with her 'talent'.
The film ends in farcical tragedy when Sweetie, naked and mud-painted, falls through the floor of her childhood tree-house and dies, despite Kay's attempt to revive her.
Crush has an expressionistic quality, due largely to the oppressive nature of the Rotorua setting. The landscape is made up of muted green paddocks and lush bush which is dominated by a grey, clouded sky and drifting clouds of steam from pools of sulphureous water and boiling mud. The strangeness of a landscape seething with geothermal activity reflects a similar seething quality in the characters themselves. The film begins almost as an affable road movie with two friends, Lane, an American, and Christina, a journalist, driving to Rotorua to interview prize-winning author Colin. Lane's turn at that wheel ends in disaster, as momentarily distracted, the car veers off the road and overturns. Lane struggles out of the wreck unscathed, but Christina crushed beneath the car, is hospitalised. Lane keeps Christina's appointment with Colin, but meets his fifteen year old daughter Angela instead. Her attraction to Angela is flirtatiously played out as they visit numerous geothermal sights and go to a local night-club that evening. Angela is in awe of the sophisticated American, allowing herself to be dressed up in Lane's seductive red dress. The next morning Lane meets Colin, inviting him to her motel to give him a haircut. Lane then succeeds in first seducing, then moving in with him. Colin is a reversal of the norm in terms of the stereotypical New Zealand male in film; rather than a physically active rebellious character, he is weak, emotional and awkwardly self-conscious. Angela becomes jealous with this change of allegiance and begins to visit Christina in hospital. Christina eventually emerges from the coma, but is irreversibly brain-damaged. As Angela's jealousy grows she nurtures the bewildered Christina into also hating Lane as the person responsible for her injuries. All three women are bought together when Colin takes Lane and Angela to a house in the bush for a holiday. Angela arranges for Christina to be released from hospital to stay with them. Tensions rise between them until a walk in the bush brings about a reconciliation between Colin and Angela. Left alone with Christina, Lane is faced with the terrible consequences of her carelessness and she begs for Christina's forgiveness. The possibility for reconciliation is denied however by Christina's own desire for revenge, which is fulfilled when she kills Lane by pushing her over a lookout into a raging waterfall.
The narrative structure of the two films centralise the relationships between the female characters, who are presented as archetypal opposites, a conventional device in the genre of melodrama, to which both these films belong. There is an excessiveness of characterisation indicative of a playfulness toward the conventions of dominant cinema, that of classical Hollywood film. This playfulness can be read as a critical awareness of the limitations of earlier conventions of representing women in film. This 'awareness' is made apparent by allusion to past stereotypes of genres such as film noir, horror, melodrama, and its sub-genre the woman's film. There is an attempt to reclaim these past stereotyped representations and then to reconstruct them. One aspect of this reconstruction is a recontextualisation of previous stereotypes, such as placing the femme fatale character into a contemporary Australasian setting to consider the critical consequences of such a shift. This allusive element, a form of ironic quotation, creates a sense of parody, which, as theorist Linda Hutcheon discusses in The Politics of the Postmodernism, is a popular strategy for feminist artists.
Another aspect of interest in comparing these two films is the focus on the female body, which is also presented as excessive. This excessive female body is often monstrous or grotesque in nature, defined in relation to female reproductive powers. A recent critical work which has explored this relationship between women and monstrosity is Barbara Creed's analysis of women in contemporary horror in The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Creed examines different aspects of the monstrous-feminine in terms of its archetypal nature. Creed, wanting to differentiate from the female monster (a reversal of the male monster), offers the term the 'monstrous-feminine', to emphasise the difference in the construction of her monstrosity, of how she horrifies. For Creed this term specifies these differences by emphasising the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity. This, along with other female stereotypes, establishes a definition based on sexuality. Creed offers two main aspects of the monstrous-feminine; the first finds woman is presented as monstrous in relation to her maternal and reproductive functions (divided into the categories of archaic mother, monstrous womb, witch, vampire, and possessed woman) the second form finds woman as monstrous in relation to the Freudian theory of castration, where woman horrifies because she appears to be castrated, or as Creed proposes, she terrifies because she threatens castration. The position Creed puts forward is not that the monstrous-feminine, as an active female presence within the filmic text, is necessarily feminist in nature, rather it is one which speaks of male fears about women. The female characters of Sweetie and Crush display monstrous tendencies similar to those proposed by Creed, these will be discussed further to explore how these notions of monstrosity inform on the female characterisations of the two films.
This display of grotesqueness owes much to generic influences. In many ways characters are similar to conventional stereotypes of women in dominant film, however it is the excessive nature of signalling these codes that creates a sense of the grotesque. This strategy of signalling past codes of female representations to then subvert is a form of doubling common to the ironic mode of parody. Parody is concerned with critiquing the politics of representation, and therefore possesses potential for film-makers such as Campion and Maclean, enabling previously accepted modes of female representation in film to be disrupted. Earlier codes are signalled only then to be undermined, creating a 'gap' by refusing the fulfilment of expectations. Generic expectations, such as stereotypes, are made unfamiliar by being updated, remoded and recontextualised, yet they are still present as recognisable types, though obviously excessive by being too heavily coded to be authentic.
In terms of genre both films could be considered "woman's films". The woman's film, as feminist film theorist Mary Anne Doane points out, is not a "pure" genre, that is a system with set components, rather it is heavily influenced by a number of other genres or types--melodrama, film noir, and the Gothic or horror film. The point of unification is that of address: female point of view motivates and dominates the narrative which is directed at a specifically female audience. This is in contrast to classical cinema which tends to foreground a masculine point of view within the narrative structure.
Both Sweetie and Crush place female experience and point of view at the centre of narrative concerns, however, the woman's film was concerned with maintaining the status quo, that of patriachy, by privileging a return to a masculine point of view to constitute closure. Sweetie and Crush deny this by refusing a point of closure, and thereby subvert the genre.
The woman's film is a sub-genre of melodrama. Film theorist Thomas Elsaesser describes melodrama as a filmic means to deal with internal contradictions, fears and anxieties about woman's place and power(lesness) in society. Narratives reveal women's desire for independence and control over their sexuality, but eventually these narratives require a recognition of a need for sacrifice and conformity on the part of the rebellious woman, resulting in a return to the status quo. The family is central to these films as the site of socialisation, and therefore the place where female power is negotiated.
The narratives of Crush and Sweetie are involved in this playing out of family power struggles with regard to the position of the female subject. In Sweetie there is a sense of dysfunction within the family due to a distortion of power relations. The nature of this dysfunction is unspoken, but is signalled within the discourse of the film as incest. The extremes of the opposing nature of the two sisters' characterisations -- Kay's repression and Sweetie's overtness -- can then be read as subversive strategies, as a form of protest against the socialised female roles they are expected to assume, but also as a symptom of the distorted relationships within the family. It's a matter of debate as to whether this represents simply an internalisation of the dysfunction they are confronted with, or a point of liberation from social expectations, even so, it is a reaction against the workings of the nuclear family and the privileging of male power within it.
Other strategies of subversion are also centered on the female characters. As mentioned above, narrative structures of melodrama often focus on archetypally opposite characterisations. Typically these oppositions are defined in relation to their sexuality. The stereotype of the domestic woman is one which is depicted as being fully socialised, but to the point of being de-sexualised within the narrative, her position is confined to the domestic realm of house and family, under the control of her husband or father.
In Sweetie Kay assumes this role, she is repressed and in control of herself, whereas Sweetie, in contrast, is a figure of excessive female energies, closer to the figure of the femme fatale. Kay keeps her body conventionally thin and clean; several scenes show her washing or ironing her clothes, in pointed contrast to Sweetie's unkempt appearance. A confrontation between the two sisters makes this opposition apparent after Kay finds 'sleeves' on her bedroom floor. A confrontation with Sweetie leads to the discovery of the remainder of the dress, now died black, drying on the wall of the enclosed concrete yard. The resulting argument leads to physical violence, but this is delivered with a kind of black humour, a comic re-enactment of childhood eruptions over the possession of a favourite toy. Sweetie, determined to "really do something" to express her displeasure when faced with punishment, performs an act resonating with a sense of almost ritualistic defilement, by attempting to eat Kay's china horses.
For Kay, a fixation with cleanliness and order reveals an emotional desire for control. Her physical withdrawal from Louis is a reassertion of control over her body and emotions, unable to cope with any form of 'invasion'. She also tries to control her own mind, disturbed by the images that occur there. When she attends a meditation class Kay finds when she tries to relax her mind is invaded by a flurry of disturbing images; of raw meat and vegetables dancing over a formica table, of Sweetie, and of dirt flooding in from an opened door. For Kay the world can only be kept ordered through superstitions, the kind of primitive rituals children rely on to keep the world at bay, such as the ritual of not stepping on cracks. Although these superstitions work for her at first by bringing her and Louis together, eventually they are found to fail. Louis leaves her upon finding the dried remains of the elder, and the trees, of which she has a pervading fear -- images of their invading roots haunt her dreams -- get a final revenge with the death of Sweetie following a fall from the tree-house. This forces Kay to finally take action with the physical act of trying to resuscitate her sister, and in doing so, having to overcome her fear of bodies and their corporeal nature as she is forced to make contact with her sister's bloodied lips. The necessity of coming into contact with Sweetie's blood for Kay to accept what cannot be controlled and ordered has sacrificial connotations, as if Sweetie's death is a necessary part of Kay's development as a socialised female subject. That Kay is now fully socialised is indicated in the mise en scene with the painting of her nails black, in mimicry of Sweetie, illustrating a new found acceptance of her sister's behaviour. A reconciliation with Louis enforces this, indicating Kay has found a way to move on, away from the troubled past. But the banality of this offered ending is not the final sequence of the film. That is left to the image of Sweetie as a young girl, singing to her father under the tree in their yard ('Love Me With All of Your Heart As I Love You . . .'). The failure of her adult life contrasts with this image of the potential of childhood, it also plays out the childhood bond between father and daughter which had only been glimpsed in fragmented flashbacks. The disturbing quality of this ending returns the focus of the film back to Sweetie and her father and the knowledge that it was the breaking of the incest taboo that lead to her failure to cope with adult life which lead to her premature death.
Crush deals with the complexities of female desire in a different context. Angela appears to have assumed the role of caretaker of the house. Her mother is absent, apparently dead, and Angela has taken on the role of 'domestic woman' to fill this gap; she performs domestic chores such as cooking for Colin. Angela is presented as strangely asexual, until Lane's arrival she appears androgynous, dressing in overalls and a baseball cap, prompting Lane to teasingly suggest she mistook her for a boy. Part of her infatuation with Lane lies in the potential to explore the possibilities of a more sexualised persona. That femininity can be seen as merely a social construction is made apparent through the exchange of the red dress, which becomes a signifier for female sexual powers. Lane gives it to Angela, telling her own clothes are "not commercial" -- that is they don't "sell" her as a sexual being--initiating Angela's desire to possess this power. Colin seems unhappy about this change, as if he wants to deny his daughter's sexuality. He initially seems oblivious to the growing resentment between the women. Angela's jealousy over her father's involvement with Lane appears to be only partly due to a sense of loss of primacy in his affections, it seems to have something more to do with her relationship with Lane/ the relationship between the two women.
The opposite of the domestic woman is the figure of the femme fatale. The femme fatale is another example of woman defined in relation to her sexuality. She is a figure of excess; of a dangerous and threatening sexuality. She is also the antithesis of the maternal for she produces nothing. There is a sense of mystery about her, a 'secret' to be explored, which is the very fact of her excessive sexuality. For these reasons she is a figure of discursive unease, she threatens instability as her power is in revealing fears of uncontrollable drives which could lead to the loss of agency and subjectivity. The femme fatale is an articulation of male fears about sexual difference. The sense of danger she represents has to be removed for the male subject to reassert control. For this reason conventions of dominant cinema require her eradication from the filmic text; she is either punished or killed, or -- less likely -- domesticated. Campion and Maclean's evocation of the femme fatale in the characters of Sweetie and Lane are informed by these earlier conventions of character, however as these conventions are signalled they are simultaneously subverted. For example, the visual representation of the femme fatale has become so heavily coded it could now be considered iconography. The physical rendering of Sweetie signals this subversion; the seductive clothing of the femme fatale, emphasising the fetishised female body, is transformed for Sweetie into short skirts and too-tight, low-cut shirts, ragged lace gloves and black nail polish. The sense of excess is furthered by the proportions of her body bulging out of these clothes. She is however a femme fatale in nature -- she is sexually dangerous -- not just to her pathetically inept boyfriend Bob, but to Louis as well, whom she succeeds in seducing on the beach. Her sexuality is also 'dangerous' in itself, for it is her father's obsessive interest in her, his fascination with her childhood charms, which has lead to the breaking of the incest taboo, and following this her failure to become a fully socialised, signalled by her perpetual need for male attention as an adult. She performs 'tricks' for Louis and her father by walking over the back of a chair, still involved, even as an adult, in the need for seeking male approval by re-enacting childhood games.
Another refusal to follow the convention of the femme fatale's role within the narrative is when her death fails to provide a point of closure in terms of an eradication of the threat she represents. Rather the final image of her singing to her father in the garden reveals how much she remains a significant presence of dysfunction within the family, and how little has been changed by her death.
For Lane the femme fatale image is closer to the original; with a Louise Brooks style black bob and her overly large bee-stung lips, along with a self-possessed assuredness of character required to seduce those around her. However, Lane's sophisticated charms are not only aimed at the male characters, her sexual identity remains ambiguous. Although she is only seen to be sexually involved with Colin, there is a sense that she is using him to work her feelings out for Christina. There is also her initial encounter with Angela, with whom she is flirtatiously seductive. The decentering of sexual tension from a heterosexual narrative breaks with conventions of dominant film, and which in turn defuses the need to investigate and eradicate the femme fatale from the text. For if the femme fatale's 'secret' of an opposing sexuality, which needs to be unveiled and removed, does not function as an opposition, as it would not to another woman, the classic paradigm can no longer function. However, Lane is 'removed' from the narrative of Crush when she is killed by Christina, but her death does not provide a sense of closure needed in a conventional narrative structure. Angela and Colin have already reconciled, therefore Lane does not need to be absent for this to occur, and Lane has already admitted her guilt and asked for forgiveness for causing the accident which damaged Christina; therefore there is no need for her to be 'punished' within the text. Her death serves no narrative purpose, as would be expected in terms of closure, rather it creates a 'gap' which serves to further enforce the denial of conventional form.
One possibility for the necessity of her death would be in terms of a generic influence, that of the Gothic. The Gothic is a tradition concerned with opening up the realm of the irrational, of the perverse impulses and terrors that are found beneath the surface of the civilised mind. Typical of the genre is a brooding atmosphere of gloom or terror, embodied in the settings which reflect the dark and irrational forces surrounding the characters. The Gothic shares a number of thematic and narrative concerns with melodrama; both genres deal with that which is desired and repressed. Repressed desires are those which can't be dealt with or expressed in any way, they are those which never completely go away. In psychoanalytic terms the Gothic represents the return of the repressed, the experience of the uncanny or the unfamiliar. As Peter Brooks points out in his discussion of the Gothic in The Melodramatic Imagination, it is through melodrama that we are led back to the sources of the 'uncanny':
Melodrama in its Gothic form foregrounds what the social order forbids and represses about familial relations. Hence its obsession with themes of incest, adultery, sadism and masochism. (p. 37)
This is apparent in Sweetie; where the behaviour of the two sisters can be read as two different expressions of the same dysfunction within the family, that of the breaking of the incest taboo. Incest is not directly stated, rather it is implicitly acknowledged within the narrative; the forbidden desire of the father returns in a displaced manner as the dysfunctional behaviour of both Sweetie and Kay.
There is a strong sense of the Gothic in Crush which is articulated in a number of ways. For example a possible reading as a Biblical allegory reveals a Gothic sensibility. This reading is established early on when Christina describes New Zealand as 'God's own country', a common cliche, that the remainder of the narrative will soon overturn:
No predators, no poisonous spiders, no snakes. New Zealand's this totally benign, paradisial, pre-lapsarian world . . . and we're uneasy about it. There's this obsession to uncover the germ of evil, search for the snake. That's the New Zealand psyche -- looking for serpents. I guess we have a streak of perversity!
It soon becomes clear that the 'serpent' is the American, Lane, the neo-femme fatale. She wrecks a destructive path through those she comes in contact with, making apparent the fragility of the order she overturns.
The geothermal activity of the Rotorua landscape has a threatening quality, where the notion of 'the return of the repressed' is represented visually by a sense of an uncanny, and possibly supernatural, 'presence' beneath the steaming ground, of unknown forces being pushed to the surface. However the possibility of an allegorical reading is undermined even as it is indicated. An early montage sequence of Rotorua includes a sign of 'Hell's Gate' -- a gruesome grimacing mouth advertising a geothermal tourist site -- this sign is too obvious in its signalling of this allegorical reading, undercutting any notion of authenticity that such a reading could provide. The sense of irony from installing, and then subverting, indicates a 'knowing' attitude; an awareness of form which acknowledges through a sense of play, its own exhausted conventions.
The figure of Christina, who by killing Lane fulfils the function of a monstrous creature of revenge, is a conventional figure of the Gothic horror. Christina embodies the monstrous-feminine of the Gothic tradition; she represents the uncanny. Her awakening from the coma can be read as a return from the dead, similar to other monsters of the horror tradition, such as the figure of the zombie, or the walking dead. Her 'return' as a vengeful creature is fearful when seen in contrast to the intelligent and articulate woman in the opening sequence of the film. She is monstrous due to the disturbing nature of her transformation; she has reverted to a pre-socialised state, where she has to re-learn social rules. This monstrous element is increased by her relation to that of the abject.
Julia Kristeva describes the abject as that which threatens life, that which disturbs identity, system, and order. The abject takes a number of forms but is specifically related to the human body, its wastes and decay. The abject is that which must be excluded, so a 'clean and proper self' can be constructed. But the abject is also necessary, it is that which as a socialised subject, we define ourselves against. It is through ritual that contact with the abject element is experienced, so as to once again exclude that element. Barbara Creed suggests the process of watching a horror film, of experiencing images of abjection such as blood, mutilated bodies and corpses, is similar in effect to that of ritual, in that the fearful element is once again encountered and excluded.
Christina can be seen to represent the threatening powers of the abject in a number of ways. Her return to a pre-social state is reminiscent of the experience of the infant, where the child has not yet learnt to repress all forms of behaviour regarded as being unacceptable, improper and unclean. This relates to infantile experiences of bodily excretions--urine, shit, mucus, spittle, blood and vomit--which have not yet been controlled and removed from sight. Christina is seen to be horrific by returning to a state where she has no control over these bodily functions, or knowledge of appropriate behaviour; she dribbles, shits on a hospital therapist, throws food and reveals her breast to a male nurse.
Sweetie too is presented as not fully socialised, as a creature of the abject. She breaks social taboos by urinating in the gutter beside her father's car, she eats the china horses in an almost cannibalistic ritual, and in a final act of rebellion when she climbs up the tree-house she paints her naked body a muddy black, ritually re-enacting an earlier 'primitive' state, one that is closer to the abject.
There is also an element of the Gothic monster in Christina, equivalent to a contemporary Frankenstein's monster. The hospital life-support machinery she is connected to could be likened to that of the Gothic laboratory, concerned with bringing the dead back to life. Angela is then her 'creator', feeding her mind on ideas of hate and revenge toward Lane. But much like Frankenstein's monster, Angela finds her 'creature' has needs of its own that she has not anticipated, and cannot satisfy.
Christina is also aligned with the supernatural presence of the land. She is a supernatural creature who expels the unwanted figure of Lane. Another allegorical reading allows Lane to represent the destructive force of American imperialism which threatens New Zealand's fragile sense of identity. By pushing Lane over the precipice, into the gushing waterfall, the forces of nature engulf the intrusive threatening presence.
Christina is then a possessed monster. But in Creed's terms 'possession becomes the excuse for legitimising a display of aberrant feminine behaviour which is depicted as depraved, monstrous, abject--and perversely appealing'. Her refusal is represented as a return to the pre-socialised state. Abjection is then a form of rebellion against the clean and proper female body, where breaking these rules demonstrates their fragility.
This act of rebellion is also true for the other female characters of these two films. In one way or another they refuse to take up their expected place in the social order, this could be read as a protest against the confines and restrictions such an order places on the female subject. Campion and Maclean have an awareness as film-makers of the difficulty of representing female characters and the female body in film. Previously female characterisation has been limited to stereotyped depictions of women, always in relation to her sexual powers. Dominant cinema has overcoded and fetishised the female body. Feminist film-makers attempted to break down this fetishised female body by creating a new stereotype, that of the strong independent woman. But this in turn, has became just as limiting as a way of representing female experience in film. By working against the status quo and more conventional feminist strategies, Campion and Maclean have constructed female characters who, although repulsive, are compelling in nature.
The term the 'female grotesque' is a step toward articulating the female characterisations found in Sweetie and Crush, where filmic conventions are called upon and subverted through strategies of parody and excess. However this in itself provides only a critique of accepted codes of femininity, where the female grotesque breaks down the paradigm of the fetishised female body, but it is not yet apparent whether it is a form which can offer a potentially liberating expression of female experience.