Saturday, August 28, 2010

Women on the Move: Three New Films Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

directed by Sarah Turner
The Headless Woman
directed by Lucrecia Martel
Villa Amalia
directed by Benoit Jacquot

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

In Lesbian Visibility, film theorist Amy Villarejo suggests that maybe out-there L-Word style representation isn’t the equality it’s cracked up to be. Instead, she suggests, lesbians can change the objectifying visual field by being craftily invisible, unavailable to voyeuristic eyes. It sounds counter-intuitive and like a return to the days of Queen Victoria’s ignorance, but Villarejo’s not suggesting that films like The Kids Are All Right should be banished because they basically turn lesbians into straight couples in order to make them visible in mainstream media (except for that bit where Jules has sex with a guy, hmmm, oh wait, that’s another article). What she’s interested in is non-mainstream films by lesbian filmmakers that don’t contain the obligatory – what to call it: snuggle shot? – but still allude to a queer, female sensibility.

For some reason, several of these films involve trains (Ulrike Ottinger’s Johanna of Arc of Mongolia and Yvonne Rainer’s Journey to Berlin/1971 spring to mind), and three recent films suggest that being on the move (not just on trains: think Thelma and Louise!) might just be a way of making lesbians visible without, yknow, the purple silky panties approach that Channel 4 took to advertising the L-Word. Sarah Turner’s Perestroika, released on September 1 by the ICA, is closest to the fabulous feminist experiments of Ottinger and Rainer, mixing video from the 1980s with digital film and stills from 2007 to tell the interconnected story of two journeys that Turner made on the Trans-Siberian Express.

Unlike the fabulously camp journey Delphine Seyrig experiences in Johanna of Arc, Turner’s journeys are fascinating but hot and uncomfortable: and the journey in 2007 is emotionally wrenching because Sîan Thomas, the friend who took her to Russia in 1987, died in 1992, and this is Turner’s first return. As she repeats the journey, she is haunted by memories of her friend (some of which she videoed) and by memories of pre-perestroika Soviet Russia.

The film itself is haunted by various apparitions, including Turner herself, only visible as a reflection in the night-darkened windows. The voice-over narrator speaks as the filmmaker we glimpse in the window, but this ‘Sarah Turner’ suffers retrograde amnesia, a fictional lens Turner introduced to look at memory and loss. The film ends at Lake Baikal, the site of a slow ecological catastrophe, where it appears that flames are rising from the freezing waves. Through the hallucinatory intensity of the train journeys, this image makes terrible, perfect sense.

So, you’re wondering, where’s the lesbian in all of this? The narrator speaks repeatedly to or of ‘you,’ addressing someone who is travelling with her, who is just visible in a repeated sequence in which Turner stumbles to the restaurant car. Most of the voices (but not all) in the film are female, and there is an underlying sense in which it is a beautiful, unconventional love story between Turner and her loved-and-lost friend Sîan. Turner appears only one unreflected: in a photograph shot by Thomas in which she is filming with her video camera. When we see the footage of Thomas taking the photograph, it has an aliveness that – with the faces blocked by cameras – is heartbreakingly inaccessible. Intense currents swirl around and through relationships between women, to the hypnagogic rhythm of the train that connects us with both dream and desire.

Equally dreamy/nightmarish in its evocation of female subjectivity is Lucrecia Martel’s brilliantly opaque film The Headless Woman. Out now on DVD from New Wave films, The Headless Woman continues Martel’s exploration of her home province in Argentina, Tucumán, which was brutally suppressed during the junta. Motivations are often mysterious, characters are afflicted with lassitude then suddenly ravenous with desire, dialogue is elliptical: her films seem like they are being made as if under political censorship, full of oblique but loaded references, and a vertiginous sense of threat.
At the centre of this unstable world, where nothing is what it seems, is a dentist called Veronica whose Christian name seems to certify the truth of what she witnesses. The problem is that Veronica, driving along an empty road, doesn’t see what it is she may have hit. Even the graze on her head that testifies to the accident is erased when her husband makes her hospital attendance disappear after it transpires she might have killed a young indigenous boy whose body is found in a drain after torrential rains. Veronica is caught between polite society – her husband, lover, friends, sister – who want her to remain untroubled by inequality and her role in it, and the possibility of rebellion, embodied in her favourite niece, Candita.

Candita is played by Inés Efron, the lead from XXY, and her role in that film is just under her skin here, not least when she swims languidly across the new pool while the adults lounge around. But her queerness is also part of the narrative: much to her mother’s disapproval, she has a girlfriend, a campesina who is the fastest-moving and most directed person in the film, riding alongside Candita’s mother’s car on her motorbike, and guiding Veronica through the rural community where the boy’s family lives. Candita, seeing Veronica’s sympathy with her rebellion, attempts to seduce her with a ferocious kiss: Veronica refuses her, and from that moment, she turns back to her old life, refusing the possibility of movement (across class boundaries, as well as literal freedom of movement) that Candita both seeks and holds out.

Ann Hidden, in Benoit Jacquot’s Villa Amalia, makes the choice that Veronica can’t – but her choice is guilt-free, and this new French film (on DVD from Peccadillo Pictures) is a lighter-hearted affair. Although it deals in death, divorce, disappeared dads and other life-changers, it does so with inimitable French style. Everything in the film looks glorious, and it looks all the more glorious as Ann leaves her stultifying life of apparent love and success in Paris to disappear in Italy (note to fashion editors: in doing so, she leaves behind this season’s camel, chignon and white shirt look to adopt a Mediterranean wardrobe of non-maxi flowered dresses and short hair, making clear that minimalism is for people with empty lives). While the character of Ann takes a tranche of Under the Sand, adds a soupçon of The Page Turner and jusqu’un peu of Catherine Deneuve in Les voleurs, Isabelle Huppert makes the somewhat hackneyed role of the fortysomething Parisienne restlessly rediscovering her erotic and artistic life her own by train, mountain and boat. She doesn’t fly because she doesn’t want to be traced via her passport – but that seems secondary to the need to show a woman, alone, on the move, changing direction.

Of course, the film’s distributed by Peccadillo so it comes with certain expectations – and fulfils them, but quietly. Ann’s childhood best friend Georges tells her he’s gay with a shrug, and later gets beaten up while cruising on the island of Ischia, where Ann has retreated. Ann leaves behind her cheating lover Thomas and doesn’t so much come out as come alive: literally, when she is rescued from the sea by – typically! – gorgeous Giulia, out for the day on her friend Carlo’s boat. She and Giulia form an instant attraction of silent glances, and – typically! – shack up after their first night together.

Don’t expect hot sex, though: everything in this film is as hidden as Ann’s (not-so-subtle) stage name (her absconded father is Jewish: she has presumably changed her name to hide that legacy and to hide from him). Huppert’s strong face and awkward-graceful motion convey the sense of Ann’s turbulent and dramatic interior world, expressed through her piano compositions but not language – and, when she returns to Ischia at the end, perhaps a peace in being so far from metropolitan culture, hidden in her new love.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at

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