Friday, 15 February 2013

Notes on the Female Grotesque in Extremity Cinema

It seemed from the late 1960's onwards that a new discourse was emerging within the arts, among artists belonging to a politically aware generation that wanted to challenge the male-dominated film and art worlds, to rediscover female artists that had been overlooked (the  women surrealists being an obvious example) to then think about creating their own working practice, language and their own images of socially defiant femininities and sexualities that refused to conform to sexist patriarchal paradigms. This led to the rediscovery and subsequent influence of earlier woman artists whose work took up an interest in the rejection of standardised beauty - think of Hannah Höch's Dada collages or the playing with and inverting of gender constructions, for example in Claude Cahun's work on the  performance of gender and the theme of  womanliness as masquerade. Both these artists deliberately created images of socially unacceptable grotesque femininities that posed a threat to patriarchy's establishment of fixed gender identities, heteronormativity and the ideology of feminine beauty norms. These female grotesques were transgressive and powerfully subversive.

Contemporary visual culture has reinvented and recast the subversive figure of the female grotesque in current European "extremity" or "evisceration" cinema as devoid of the political challenge of its earlier incarnations. The anti-humanist sexual frenzy in the writings of The Marquis de Sade and George Bataille has also reappeared in the trends and tropes of extremity cinema. A need to break all borders of what cinema can "show", has led some films to express their extremity by the use of tropes more familiar with pornography. Contemporary female grotesques are presented (and often punished) for their morally degraded or bankrupt femininity by their enjoyment of violence, and of being either physically or morally disgusting, sexually excessive and obscene. What is being transgressed here is not simply the formal traditions of simulation over reality in narrative cinema but also, the bodily integrity and limits of the individual "actors" who are expected to perform more than emotional and physical labour in these shoots. The most obvious difference between the work of directors of extremity cinema and the "pornographers" Bataille and Sade is that they described violence and atrocity, whereas the directors are actually enacting it.

Two films in particular seem to follow this trend: the notorious French Baise-Moi (2002) and the Swedish A Hole in My Heart, (2004). In Baise-Moi two women, Manu and Nadine, after suffering abuse and poverty go on a sex-and-murder spree. What makes these women grotesque is their hunger for violence and the pleasure they take in killing. This film uses real sex, an odd choice in a fictional narrative where the relationships, places, people and events are simulated. What is even more problematic is distinguishing the simulated from the real; for instance when Manu and her unnamed friend are gang-raped, the camera reports the authenticity of the rape via close-up. The unnamed woman is really crying: snot and tears cover her face as she is really being penetrated by the real penis of her "pretend" attacker; therefore the film itself is the instigator of this real sex / simulated rape. The elements of the narrative may be fictional, but this experience is really happening to this actress. Tellingly, the female characters in the film are portrayed by porn actresses: what is being transgressed here is the boundaries between cinema and pornography. By not merely suggesting or simulating sexual violence, but re-enacting it, the film runs the risk of glorying it as spectacle.

A Hole in My Heart centres on two men who are making an amateur porn film in their flat, and Tess, the porn actress they have hired. The male characters in the film are presented as being emotionally damaged, each being given a monologue sequence where they explain themselves. Tess, the one-dimensional sex object, does not get a monologue. The men get bored being cooped up in the tiny flat, so they pretend to strangle Tess, then actually vomit and urinate on her. Tess remains blank and unresponsive; her passivity and refusal to defend herself or leave the flat make her appear a grotesque masochistic victim, conforming with Hans Bellmer's fantasy of passive females inviting violation.

Tess's body is presented as grotesque by the film in several different ways: the men repeatedly comment about her bad-smelling vagina, despite her spending much of the film obsessively washing herself. She has apparently had a vaginoplasty operation, a form of bodily mutilation in the name of "perfection" which takes to the extreme both the capitalist commodification of the body and the ritualised artificiality of feminine beauty regimes. It also reinforces the fetishistic idealisation of youth: hairless, "rejuvenated" vaginas are not the vaginas of grown adult women. The film inter-cuts footage of a vaginoplasty operation with clips of screwdrivers and other sharp instruments being shoved into the body of a Barbie doll. It is not clear whether the hate and disgust directed at the female body that these sequences project is that of the film's male characters or the director himself. What is clear is that this violence is not explained or critiqued: it is just pure spectacle. When all limits and restraints are removed from boundary-breaking spectacle, what remains is not joyful carnivalesque subversion but the unfettered display of alienation and cruelty. As Alain Badiou suggests:

Ever since the days of the Roman Empire, we know that when enjoyment is what every life tries to guarantee for itself, when it takes the place of the imperative, what one inevitably ends up enjoying is atrocity. Enter the time of general obscenity, of gladiators, of real-time torture, a time that might even make us nostalgic for the political slaughters of the dead century. (Badiou,2007:79)

What is particularly problematic, is that both these films, despite controversial receptions, are considered art-house films, and therefore are treated as if exempt from the label of pornography, the "art" or "experimental" tag provides an unchallenged alibi for the use of real sex. The images of sexual grotesquery and violence in these films reflect a worrying trend, seemingly without positive subversive potential. This trend may itself be reflective of a society that searches for ever more extreme forms of entertainment. This society remains sexually repressive: real equality has not yet been reached between the sexes. Perhaps when this happens the female grotesque will disappear completely, having no oppression left to subvert; but for now, it seems the female grotesque has taken a turn for the worse.