Summary of Discussion on The Others

Our thoughts about the film ranged over several topics: the film’s setting, including time, space and place; the gothic heroine; her husband; their children; the plot twist(s); other gothic films.

We began with discussion of the film’s setting. A title identifies the action as occurring in Jersey in 1945. The Channel Island location mostly seems significant in terms of its isolation and the unusual liminal position it held during World War II: it was British territory, but occupied by the Germans. This allows the film a connection to gothic of Britain past. The link to past gothic films is heightened by the 1945 date – a time at which many gothic films were popular in Britain and the US.

Discussion also centred on just what aspect of the film the 1945 date setting referred to. While there are no flashbacks, the film’s structuring of time is complex as it is revealed that most of the characters are no longer living, with their deaths having taken place at various points in the past. The main family appears to have died some time between the beginning and the end of World War II, with the heroine Grace (Nicole Kidman) mentioning that the staff has left in the last week. In retrospect, we can see this as relating to the time of her and the children’s (Ann and Nicholas’) deaths. The ghostly staff replacements’ date of death is more concretely asserted – Grace finds a photograph dated 1891 of housekeeper Bertha Mills, gardener Mr Tuttle, and housemaid Lydia posed after death from tuberculosis.

 

The gulf in time between these sets of characters was especially interesting. We noticed that the film gave good reason for the lack of technology, the presence of which might have confused the older staff. Grace says that they have got used to not having electricity since the occupation, while the children’s supposed photosensitivity means they cannot be subjected to more than dull candlelight. The lack of a telephone and automobile also makes the fact that nobody calls more understandable – it both makes smoothes over the fact that the main family is only recognised by the three older ghostly staff and increases the whole household’s isolation.

 Space is especially important to the film, not just in terms of its isolated Jersey manor house setting, but the specific way in which Grace, Ann and Nicholas, as well as Mrs Mills, Mr Tuttle, and Lydia are all bound to the area of the house. The suitably gothic fog is complicit in this. While the ghostly staff is tied to the house by their duties, the children by their photosensitivity and Grace to a large extent by her status as mother, on the one occasion she leaves the house she is hemmed in by oppressive fog. Mrs Mills is signals that this is a deliberate instrument to prevent Grace from reaching the outside world. This is unsettling, as it causes us to question what is going on, and this is reinforced by the film’s camerawork on the two occasions characters attempt to leave. When Grace sets out in the fog she appears to both leave the house and happen upon it without changing direction- almost making it seem that the building on screen is a neighbouring manor house. The children leave in the dark and they too end up looping around the house. The camerawork suggests they are getting away from the house, but they return to it, and the gravestones revealing the deaths of Mrs Mills, Mr Tuttle, and Lydia.

This lack of mobility, or the sense of characters trapped in space, led us to discuss this matter more. We thought it was especially significant that while the ghostly staff, Grace and the children are limited to their place of death – the house and its environs – Grace’s husband Charles (Christopher Ecclestone) manages to escape the front where he has been killed to meet Grace in the fog on his return home. He states that this is what he has been looking for. While the gardener Mr Tuttle also has more mobility than his female counterparts Mrs Mills and Lydia, like them he is afforded no class mobility. All three are not only confined to the area of the manor house they previously worked, but to working for the new lady of the house– they do not get to rise above their class situation.

We especially focused on Grace’s status as gothic heroine. While the mother is fairly unusual in terms of gothic film (it does not occur in Rebecca (1940), Gaslight (1940 and 1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945), or Secret Beyond the Door (1947)) other aspects connect Grace to the genre. She is a woman in peril, seemingly beset by ghostly intruders (actually the new owners of the house) against whom she actively takes up arms – a shotgun. It is also feared, by her, and us, that she is going mad. It later turns out this had indeed previously happened as the children died after she smothered them with pillows and she consequently committed suicide with a shotgun. There also seem to be specific nods to the gothic film of the 1940s with an especially striking scene in which Grace in dressed in a white nightgown, lamp in hand, as she investigates the goings on. (See previous posts on gothic films we’ve watched for discussion of similar scenes, as well as the 20 minute video essay Passages of Gothic which you can view here https://vimeo.com/170080190)

Grace’s relationship with her husband is also unusual in comparison to the 1940s gothic film. While in Rebecca, Secret Beyond the Door, and others, the heroine is in danger from her husband, in The Others he is absent for a large part of the narrative. When he returns this appears, as indeed it is, unlikely, seemingly summoned by Grace’s desire. We wondered what the point of Charles’ return was. While he does reunite with his family and they are overjoyed to see him, he is distressed, spending much time unable to get out of bed. We were unsure whether this related to post traumatic stress due to the war or if he had an inkling as to his own death, and perhaps those of his family members. It was noted that he confronts Grace about her slapping the children in the past, after Ann relates this to him, and it was raised that perhaps this signalled his knowledge of Grace’s killing of the children. We also discussed Charles’ swift departure. Perhaps this signalled some kind of resolution for him, or Grace, though it seemed a little hurried.

 

The children were another interesting departure from gothic films. While they seemed grounded and modern in some ways (we especially appreciated Ann’s logic in arguing for her interpretation of the bible) there were moments they appeared more like the creepy of films such as The Innocents (1961). There are times it seems that Ann might be ‘gaslighting’ her mother since she tells her of the intruders only visible to her – and not the audience. An especially disturbing scene occurs when Ann, dressed in her first holy communion dress, is possessed by the medium attempting to make contact with the family. The time Ann is supposedly possessed  by new resident Victor is more complex. In retrospect it seems unlikely that the young boy would have the same skillset as the medium – and since we only hear Ann with Victor’s voice while she faces away from her brother Nicholas we can suppose that, as in other parts of the film, she is tricking Nicholas in order to scare him. While not a very sisterly action, this has the feel of a childish prank rather than a truly creepy occurrence.

 We also debated the children’s alleged photosensitivity. In addition to the fact any previous exposure does not appear to have affected them (there are no sores on either child’s skin) we wondered just how aware people would have been of the condition in the 1940s. It serves the narrative, however, to keep the children in the house without having to explain why they cannot leave the grounds. It also keeps them close to Grace. We instead considered the light Grace wanted to keep herself and her children from was metaphorical – the awful truth of their non-living status and Grace’s responsibility for this.

It is especially interesting that the truth should be revealed when the curtains supposedly protecting the children from the sunlight disappear. This is a moment of horror for Grace, and this is indeed played with panic by Kidman. The connection of the curtains to the matter of domestic setting, and arguably female furnishings, is significant. Taking the line ‘Where are the curtains?’ out of its context strips it of its intensity, reducing it to a possibly trivial household inquiry. Spoken with urgency, but without knowledge of Grace’s fears, we thought it would well suit a parodic melodrama.

 While this whole summary has included spoilers (sorry!) some of us who had not already seen the film were aware of the twist that the family and the servants were ghosts; furthermore we suspected that they were the intruders with the supposed intruders actually the new living owners. The manner of the Grace and the children’s deaths was a surprise though. They clearly all perished at the same time, but the fact that Grace killed her children and then herself was shocking. An attack by the Nazis seemed more likely. This revelation turns Grace’s whole gothic woman-in-peril status on its head. While we might feel sympathy for her, presumably she was unbalanced and distraught at her husband not returning from the war, it is she and not her husband, the intruders or the medium, who is the danger.

 While we noted some differences from the 1940s gothic – the presence of the mother, the mostly absent husband, the fact Grace is not a woman in peril in the end, there are clearly aspects of the gothic the film knowingly draws on. In addition to the isolated manor house, Grace’s possible gaslighting, there is an emphasis on containment. Grace is obsessed with locked rooms, and keys, which speak to the fact she is keeping herself and the children from the ultimate secret – her actions. There is also the unusual fact that the supposedly ghostly goings on are indeed ghostly goings on –though the ghosts are not necessarily the people we suspect.  They are not the result of Grace’s imagination or her persecution by her husband. We also thought the scene in which Grace is dressed in a white nightgown, lighting her way with a lamp during her active investigation, was a nod to the 1940s films and The Innocents. We contemplated that the mute Lydia was perhaps a reference to the heroine in The Spiral Staircase.

We were also reminded of more recent gothic films. Grace’s response to a suggestion that she has left a door unlocked, leading to the possible exposure of her children to damaging sunlight, ‘Do you think I’d do such a thing?’ is an important turning point. When we learn of just what Grace has done, it seems less like gaslighting and more that she is beginning to realise what she has done. Our knowledge then reframes the early scene of Grace waking up screaming and her response to the panicked breathing of her children. Grace’s screaming is especially intense, but she does not reflect on this. Other aspects appear to seep through, however. Grace admonishes Ann for her quick shallow breathing at the dinner table, and later Ann similarly tells off Nicholas for comparable behaviour. It is possible this is linked to how Grace killed them – their hastened breathing in response to her smothering of them with pillows. We connected this return of the repressed to the film The Awakening (2011) in which the heroine is walked through her childhood home, and the passages of her mind, in order to remember her past and move on. In fact, perhaps all of this is occurring in Grace’s mind. Such a view is supported by the fact Grace finds so many veiled items in the junk room of the mansion a surprise. While she has presumably lived there for a while, she has only just stumbled across the books of the dead- photographs of posed dead people. She is understandably shocked by these macabre pictures, and later finally recognises the truth of the ghostly servants when she discovers their photograph hidden under Mrs Mills’ mattress. The notion that this is taking place in Grace’s mind may seem to undermine the earlier assertion that Grace is not imagining the goings on. But it simply points to the complexity of the film, its relation to the gothic and its conscious referencing of earlier gothic films.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on The Crimson Field

Our discussion on The Crimson Field encompassed several areas: its three (or four) female heroines and some similarities to the heroines of melodrama and the gothic; other female characters; relationships between the other characters, including between the genders and within hierarchical structures; the suffering crying soldier and his connection to music; other films and TV series about women during war and pondering why the series was not recommissioned.

We began by noting that the hour was very action and character packed – despite the fact it all took place during the one day. This set up many interesting plot points and character relationships for upcoming episodes.

We thought that the first episode’s focus on three women’s journeys to, and first experience of, the field hospital echoed a similar Hollywood trope. In Hollywood films there are sometimes three main female characters with these separated from one another on the grounds of morality: one is a ‘good’ girl, one a ‘bad’ girl and the other sits somewhere in between. Each of these faces a different fate: one is usually punished (often by death), another triumphs and the third suffers but manages to go on. We commented that this links to US, and especially Hollywood films’, focus on melodrama.

In The Crimson Field, there are the posh clueless Flora (Alice St. Clair), the left on the shelf do-gooder spinster Rosalie (Marianne Oldham) and the spirited Kitty (Oona Chaplin) who is signalled as ‘bad’ through her modern habits of smoking and expressing forthright opinions. Kitty seems to be our main heroine as we are afforded some insight into her past as she throws away a ring on her boat journey. While Flora has to suffer the grim reality of bloody bandages and Rosalie is mocked for her spinster status, we are more invested in Kitty. She stands up to matron on behalf of the other women, and is later in danger as she is attacked by a patient. Her response to this is calm, forgiving, and her challenge to man to just kill her gives us some further awareness of her troubled past.

The three heroine focus is somewhat disrupted by the arrival of a fourth. Joan (Suranne Jones), a self-sufficient qualified nurse, arrives late, dressed in a leather coat, sporting a short hairdo, and riding a motorcycle. We thought that the fact she is unmarried (such an option was not open to nurses at the time), her appearance and manner possible coded her as a lesbian. We were especially intrigued regarding the ring she wears around her neck, hidden by her clothes.

While the emphasis on suffering – of both genders – points to melodrama, we also saw a correlation with some of our recent work on the gothic. The three main female characters headed outside at night, dressed in white gowns and carrying lamps, to wish the troops luck as they left for the front.

Our attention was also drawn to the two other main female characters – Sister Margaret Quayle (Kerry Fox) and the recently promoted Matron Grace Carter (Hermione Norris). Their relationship was complex. Outwardly good colleagues, there appeared to be tensions under the surface since Grace became matron despite Margaret having more experience. We also found the difference in their approaches to the new volunteers telling. While Grace was tough on them, Margaret appeared more friendly. Margaret was revealed to be hypocritical and cruel however as she commandeers Flora’s cake and despite telling her she has shared it among the men, is seen eating it secretly. More disturbingly she deliberately withholds a medical exemption from a suffering soldier meaning that he is sent back to the front. Meanwhile Grace is revealed to be caring towards Kitty after her attack, despite Kitty’s earlier disobedience.

Despite the dramatic war backdrop, much of the episode is about such complex characters, their power plays ,and their battling relationships. We also commented on the kindness of Kevin Doyle’s captain Lt Colonel Roland Brett,  in contrast to Colonel Charles Purbright (Adam James) forcing an emotionally damaged soldier to return to the front. Even the admirable Brett warns Matron Carter to make sure she controls the potentially ‘silly’ new female volunteers, though. This attitude fits in with the misogynistic narrative the melodrama research group has recently uncovered while researching the World War I magazine The War Illustrated. In these issues girls can be plucky and brave, but they are still kept contained. The depiction of the main heroines and other women in The Crimson Field challenges this view. (See the NoRMMA website for more on the project: http://www.normmanetwork.com/?p=604.)

We were especially struck by the depiction of Corporal Lawrence Prentiss (Karl Davies) – particularly in contrast to the women. Prentiss appears to have PTSD, and is seen to be physically suffering from his war experiences. He is offered sanctuary by the colonel (who also explicitly defies an order from his superior not to reissue an exemption pass on health grounds) and is seen crying profusely as he listens to a gramophone record of Madame Butterfly. Such a depiction of the suffering male is unusual, and the understanding shown to Prentiss perhaps progressive for the time. It is possibly significant that the music has a restorative or recuperative effect because Prentiss’ emotions are displaced onto those of a woman – the suffering opera heroine.

Watching the episode also prompted some discussion of other films and TV series which covered a similar topic. We mentioned the British films The Gentle Sex (1943) and Millions Like Us (1943) whose points of view were affected by their time of production. The TV series Tenko (1981-1984) about female prisoners of war was also referenced for its unusual focus on women during wartime.

We ended by pondering why the series was not recommissioned. It would have been especially apt to have it run through the 100 year commemoration of World War I. Its complex characters, and its positive view of women, provide a different view of war to the one we are usually afforded. We connected this to the BBC now moving money into such massive budget programmes as The Night Manager as it competes with Netflix and other platforms. If you’d like to see the rest of the series, most episodes are available to University of Kent staff and students via Box Of Broadcasts: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

 

Summary of Discussion on The Devil’s Vice

Our discussion on The Devil’s Vice included comments on: its Gothic elements; references to other Gothic films; Richard’s ‘Gaslighting’ of Susan; the audience’s genre expectations; the audience’s alignment with Susan; Richard and Susan’s relationship in terms of control and isolation and Susan’s realisation that Richard is her abuser; the role of technology; the film’s contemporary setting; the film’s purpose of the promotion of awareness of domestic abuse and the relation of this to the Gothic.

Like last session’s The Diary of Sophronia Winters, The Devil’s Vice contained a checklist of gothic elements. The opening shots of Susan, as a woman-in-peril, falling through the space from the top of the stairs onto the hard floor beneath emphasises the importance of the house. This is where much of the film’s events take place (the only other settings are a hospital, a  local library, a coffee shop and a police station), with its two staircases also playing prominent roles. Other aspects of the house are significant: there is a mirror on the stairs, several locked doors, focus on a keyhole, creepy portraits (specifically an old black and white formal photograph of a group of children and their schoolteacher, nicknamed ‘Smiler’ by Susan and Richard and seen as a demon), bats in the attic (and later in reference to this a comparison to Dracula’s house) and a disturbing doll in the no-longer needed nursery. In addition to Susan’s status as woman-in-peril she, like many other gothic heroines, is an active investigator who is seeking an answer to what is happening – and engages in the often-present action of walking down the stairs in her nightwear. In keeping with the contemporary setting, Susan is clad in pyjamas rather than a nightdress, and lacks a candlestick to light her way.

More specific references to gothic and horror films abound. The spiral staircase invokes memory of Robert Siodmak’s 1945 film. Susan’s research into the possible presence of a poltergeist summons up thoughts of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), and her misleading suggestion that they call in a catholic priest brought to mind William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Other points of plot similarity to gothic films include the pain of child loss (in J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, 2007) and concern for Susan expressed by her husband Richard to his wife’s friend (Douglas Sirk’s Sleep My Love, 1948). Aspects of The Devil’s Vice’s style also appeared to be referencing other films: the black and white footage of Richard’s attack on Susan was likened to scenes in Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2009).

Smaller moments also inspired comparisons. The appearance of the sunglass and strange oculist equipment-wearing medium, Madam Barbara, reminded us of Insidious (James Wan, 2010). Shots of Susan painfully and slowly crawling across the floor after being attacked in the kitchen were similar to Michelle Pfeiffer’s attempts to escape her husband in Robert Zemecki’s What Lies Beneath (2000)Richard’s sing-song taunting while addressing Susan by her name as she’s attempting to find proof of his attacks echoed that in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). The colour red also gains significance when Richard is about to repaint the no longer needed nursery in a blood red hue; when combined with The Devil’s Vice’s concern with children and the occult, this made us think of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

We also brought in our own knowledge of other gothic texts and films. Particular attention was paid to Susan’s moment of realisation that her husband is her attacker. This occurs in the office as she watches footage form the cameras she has placed in the kitchen. It was noted that this pivot is in some ways is akin to Bluebeard’s eight wife entering the secret room which contains the bodies of his previous wives.  Such a device was also used in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1947) when Celia (Joan Bennett) uncovers her husband’s secret.

The film’s self-aware drawing on of other gothic texts is probably most obvious in its use of Gaslighting.  The term comes from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight (notably filmed in the UK by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and the US by George Cukor in 1944) in which a husband attempts to make his wife think  she is going mad and thus gain control of her fortune. In The Devil’s Vice, Richard engages in such behaviour by placing the creepy photograph in their home. Susan later doubts herself when she remembers that the schoolteacher’s eyes in the photographs have always been closed while Richard insists the opposite is the case.  (He has presumably used digital alteration to support his position, since the audience agrees with Susan.)  Not all Richard’s manipulations are as clear-cut. His suggestion that Susan research the history of the house seems less than helpful, while his subtle undermining of Susan to her friend Helen and the hospital doctor includes him planting the idea that Susan harms herself.  We even wondered if the anti-depressants in Susan’s system were only present because Richard was drugging her in order to undermine her at this point.

Much of this is only seen in retrospect, once it is revealed that Richard is an abuser. This is also true of the way in which Madam Barbara’s ambiguous warning to Susan that ‘he’ will kill her, and that she should leave the house, becomes reframed as a clear denouncement of Richard. Similarly, Susan’s friend Helen asking Susan if she has received the messages she gave to Richard, and indeed her straight forward question of whether Richard is hurting Susan, are afforded extra significance. The oddness of the latter was made more apparent when we considered it later – Helen would hardly have asked this unless she was already concerned.  Some of us suspected Richard early on; he seemed too perfect and his ever-ready smile caused us to make connections with ‘Smiler’ in the photograph. In addition, we are familiar with Gothic tropes, and in the gothic the husband is often the perpetrator. Yet like Susan, who is clearly also aware of some of the horror tropes present (she researches the Occult, knows about poltergeists and considers calling in a catholic priest for an exorcism) others in the group, despite their awareness of the related matter of the gothic, only realised later.  It was knowledge of horror films which led to this. It occurred just after Richard claimed he had been attacked by the demon – while the woman often sees the demon in horror films, this is far less true of the man.

The delayed realisation reveals the success of the film’s attempt to align us with Susan. We spend most of our time with Susan, with Richard’s life away from the house little commented on – we just see him in his pinstripe shirt and suit, setting off for an undemanding day at work. Our alignment is not just in terms of sympathy, but in point of view. This is not strictly literal, but significantly we, like Susan do not physically see her attacker until the camera footage is screened. This means the revelation is indeed a plot twist for some of the audience.

We further pondered Susan and Richard’s relationship, speculating on how long they had been together and when the abuse started. Susan seems highly conditioned to her situation, accepting Richard’s control and her isolation without question. Oddly many of us also accepted Susan’s isolation until considering it more after the screening. In addition to the earlier mention that Richard has isolated Susan from Helen, we found it troubling that she had no friends or family to turn to – even by telephone. The house, in which Susan spends the majority of her time, is also physically isolated – with Richard using the couple’s one car to go to work every day. Some of us even credited Richard with more control than he possessed by wondering if he planted the card for Madam Barbara in the library book on the Occult. What happened during her visit discounted this theory, since Madam Barbara does not reinforce Richard’s ideas on the presence of demons. While Richard has not arranged the Madam Barbara’s appearance, she nonetheless seems frightened of him too since she leaves after giving only an ambiguous warning to Susan, and does not return to check on Susan.

Instead, Susan takes the matter into her own hands. She escalates the situation with Richard by goading the ‘demon’ until he attacks her – in full view of the cameras in the kitchen. Susan is prompted to take this action after ‘Smiler’ has apparently attacked Richard. The couple sits in the car, with Susan at the wheel, ready to drive them both away from the danger in the house. She is stopped by Richard, who asserts that Susan will never be able to escape from the demon, who he claims is feeding off the guilt she feels at losing her unborn children. This argument is illogical since Susan’s miscarriage occurred when she was attacked (seemingly by the demon). Susan does not question Richard’s logic.  It is only after Susan sees the visual evidence from the cameras that the two parts of her brain which have previously been dissociated, join together, and she sees Richard as her abuser.

The consequences of this realisation are grim for Susan. Richard hits her over the head with the laptop on which she has been viewing the camera footage. We wondered if perhaps a similar realisation had prompted the attack at the start of the film. It is also possible that Richard deliberately timed it so that causing the loss of her babies would further punish Susan, make her more vulnerable, and place her more fully in his control. Sadly it is the case that an abuser never needs a reason to abuse. The morning after Susan’s discovery, Richard seems a little wary of her. Susan is especially forceful in her squashing of sausages in the frying pan, perhaps causing him, like us, to wonder if he was about to be attacked with this most domestic of weapons. He is right to be concerned. Although Richard foolishly takes at face value Susan’s suggestion they consult a catholic priest, she finally finds proof of his abuse (courtesy of the camera she placed in the fruit bowl which she has previously overlooked)  and leaves him.

Symbolically Susan leaves behind her rather ostentatious engagement/wedding ring. Susan and Richard are obviously comfortably off; they rent or own a large house, have a four wheel drive car, neither is overworked, and Susan can spend several hundred pounds on her investigations without blinking. The ring is another sign of this wealth. It is also indicative of something else though. A member of the group was reminded of the Adrienne Rich poem ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’. This discusses the ‘massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band’ on Aunt Jennifer’s hand and references imperialism and the oppression of women by men. (You can find the full poem here: http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/rich-jennifer-tiger.html)  As with The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters, patriarchy is signalled to be damaging, and women are advised to avoid marriage.

Susan, with the help of technology, manages to extricate herself from her situation. Seeing film footage of Richard attacking her is what makes Susan see the truth, and also provides proof for the police. Susan was also able to access this technology via other technology – she orders the cameras over the internet she perhaps surprisingly has some access to. Technology is not wholly positive, however, since Richard uses it to physically attack Susan.

Such instances of technology clearly place the film in the modern day. The modern is also reflected in the decoration of the central aspect of the house. While it has Gothic elements (an almost church-like appearance, especially evident in its windows) the interior is stylish and modern. The fact it is largely functional also suggests emptiness. There seem to be few personal items, with the main photograph that of a group of children and their schoolteacher. While some Gothic films are set in contemporary times (notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Secret Beyond the Door, and Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975)), more often they take place in the past (Gaslight, The Spiral Staircase, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck (1946) and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961).

Setting films in the past provides the audience with distance from the narrative, to allow them to deny the relevance of the gothic (and its disturbing overtones) to the present day. By contrast, The Devil’s Vice is set in contemporary times since social documentary and feature film maker Peter Watkins-Hughes’ main remit was to raise awareness of domestic abuse and to encourage people to seek help.  It was released at the time Clare’s Law –the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme was rolled out across the UK. The law allows people with concerns to make enquiries about a partner. You can find out more on the film’s website: http://www.thedevilsvice.org.uk/

We thought that the film was very effective in using its small cast of fewer than ten, limited running time and few locations. These all added to the sense of constraint. However, the tone was occasionally uneven (especially in Helen’s visit to the house seemingly being played for a little comedy), and we found Susan’s desire to return to home a bit unbelievable. Regardless of how much Susan is being controlled, she has suffered not just terrible physical trauma but the emotional effect of losing her unborn babies. This is dealt with quickly. While the focus on extreme physical violence is understandable in terms of seeing what is already in plain sight, it underplays the significance of the more subtle ways people abuse others. Since the film’s release, the matter of coercive control has also been more discussed, and indeed in March 2015  was included in the Serious Crime Act https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/482528/Controlling_or_coercive_behaviour_-_statutory_guidance.pdf)

But the film did raise our awareness in making the connection between Gothic heroines and domestic abuse – whether physical, emotional, or both. This crystallised for us the continuing relevance of the Gothic, especially in a world that continues to be unequal.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters

We first listened to a copy of the radio version of The Yellow Wallpaper. This included the original advertisements before, within, and after the show. We discussed this especially in relation to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story.

The unnamed heroine suggested connections to the second Mrs de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca. Because the radio dramatized action more than the short story – we ‘objectively’ heard conversations – the fact the narrator is not addressed by name by those around her is more evident. We especially noticed the terms used, like ‘pet’, ‘goose’ and ‘dope’.

The issue of the audience the narrator was addressing was also raised. While in the radio version we hear the scratching of her writing, her thoughts are of course conveyed by her speech. Significantly this is not a simple rendering on the short story – a kind of journal. The aural medium almost precludes the need for writing, and makes the narrator seem both less and more cut off: we feel more connected to than since we appear to be more directly addressed, but this reveals that we are all she has.

Indeed the speaker also seems more confined in terms of her activities (in the short story she goes riding) while the radio version foregrounds the house and the attic room. This is evident at the very beginning which opens with description of arriving at the house, which once more reminded us of both the novel and film versions of Rebecca. Significantly the narrator in the radio version of The Yellow Wallpaper describes the atmosphere as pertaining to  ‘ghostliness’ and asks her husband if the house is ‘haunted’.

This nod to the gothic appeared far less subtle and ambiguous than the short story. It does, however, fit with the radio show Suspense’s focus on thrills and spills. (Well indicated by long-term Allred Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s theme tune to the series.)  This also connects to the way in which the characters are portrayed. In the short story all is framed by being from the narrator’s point of view. The very fact we hear all characters in the radio version – and get seemingly ‘objective’ takes as to their attitude to the narrator – creates complexity. The husband and sister seem more reasonable in their tone. (Even though we found the husband’s declaration that ‘I’m a doctor and I know’ less than convincing, this could be attributed to concern and despair for his wife.)  This is especially highlighted by the narrator’s speaking over such comments as they happen to assert her family’s bad treatment of her. A potential disconnect is therefore evident.

This is furthermore connected to the decision to emphasise the narrator’s madness from earlier on than in the short story. It can be debated in both the short story and the radio version whether the narrator is already suffering from madness, is sent mad from being perfectly sane by her situation, or if a precondition is exacerbated by her family’s treatment of her. The short story is more open to interpretation, but the radio version has its own audience to consider.  Since it would be a departure from the short story to reveal that the narrator is not mad, but in fact in danger from her husband, the nature of the radio series perhaps demanded a more straightforward, and less ambiguous approach. This was largely conveyed by Agnes Moorehead’s powerful acting of the narrator’s  hysteria which fairly swiftly signals that she is unhinged. We found the scratching of writing on paper to the action of tearing the wallpaper, with her teeth, especially effective.

The narrator’s confinement in the attic and its possible effect on her mental state was a point of discussion. We spoke a lot about the significance of it being a former nursery, and later a gymnasium for children – this infantilised her. The mention of bars and rings, to which she might be chained, in both the short story and radio versions made her confinement more concrete.

We found the ending of both versions especially powerful. The narrator is creeping or crawling, possibly on all fours, like a small child or indeed an animal. The latter is further suggested as we are told of a line at a certain height which is present around the whole room. In some ways, this suggests the tethering of an animal which is then only permitted to exercise in a reduced area. It was also mentioned that it was possible that she was kept in effectively, or indeed actually, in a padded cell.

There were some jarring elements in the radio version, in addition to the heightened emotion. The tension is at times very heavily scored in a way which distances the listener from the intimate story. While they more closely mirrored the original listening experience of 1948, we found the appearance of advertisements throughout the drama disrespectful, disruptive and unsettling. While the break allowed for time to be moved on by 2 weeks (as mentioned by the narrator), we felt we had been taken too far away from the story by the insertion of dramatized advertisements;  two men met the advertising spokesman and not only commented on their products- Autolite Spark Plugs – but also the drama and performances. We pondered whether a few references to cars were not only used to create a more contemporary setting than the 1892 short story, but to provide a connection with the advertiser’s product. We found it especially disturbing, and ironic, that the spark plugs evoked thoughts of Electro Convulsive Therapy. ECT was an intense, and now deeply controversial, treatment which is likely to have been used at the time for similar cases as the narrator.

We also discussed The Yellow Wallpaper’s status as feminist tract. It was noted that the narrator’s exasperation that she was told to both exercise and rest (‘I can’t do both!’) reflected the double bind or the push/pull in many women’s lives.  Furthermore we debated whether the heightened hysteria in the radio adaptation furthered, or diminished, its feminist clout. Some thought that the focus on madness made it harder to argue for it as feminist. Others argued that the drama was not preaching to the converted; it was heard by a wide US audience who perhaps would not have experience of Perkins Gilman’s short story. They might well, however, have been familiar with the presence of psychoanalysis in 1940s cinema and other popular culture. We can also consider that the show was staged again nearly ten years later, again with Moorehead, on the 30th of June 1957. This potentially reached more people at a later date.

We also commented on Elaine R. Hedges Afterword in the 1981 Virago Modern Classics edition. This mentioned that, according to Perkins Gilman, her father had abandoned the family when she was very young, as it was thought having more children would put Perkins Gilman’s mother in danger. (p. 42, this is quoted from her 1935 autobiography, published after her self-inflicted death in the face of terminal cancer).  We spoke about the latitude it is likely that her father, but not her single parent mother, might have enjoyed; he could move away, and perhaps remarry bigamously and start another family. Such an option was not open to Perkins Gilman’s mother.

This led to discussion on the ways in which women are institutionalised when they do not conform to ‘norms’ while this is less true for men. A Spanish film in which a mother is sent to a lunatic asylum after the death of her child was mentioned. It was noted that now the woman was no longer fulfilling the mother role society had expected her to fill, she was classed insane. This was also related to Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel The Little Stranger. We extended this to consideration of single unmarried mothers and those in non-hetero normative relationships.

Finally associations of the colour yellow were spoken about. It was noted that in addition to having connections with sickness and disease, it was more closely linked to mental illness through the work of Vincent Van Gogh, who suffered from severe depression and eventually took his own life because of it.

Next we listened to and discussed The Diary of Sophronia Winters. This threw some of the issues from The Yellow Wallpaper into further relief and commented more directly on matters relating to the gothic.

The episode was written as original Suspense story by Lucille Fletcher – also of Sorry Wrong Number fame. The version we listened to had the advertisements cut, allowing us to engage more with it than with The Yellow Wallpaper.   It is set in 1932, as revealed by Sophronia mentioning that she is 40 and was born in 1892. Coincidentally, perhaps, this is the first publishing date of The Yellow Wallpaper.

Again we spoke about the heroine. We wondered about the unusual name Sophronia. It means sensible and prudent, but such connotations are undercut almost immediately. Sophronia’s introductory narration (in which she is speaking to her diary) prattles about her ‘gorgeous new permanent wave’ and she is conveyed as giddy and frivolous. (We especially commented on Moorehead’s versatility both throughout his episode, as her fear grows into madness, and in comparison to her performance in The Yellow Wallpaper.)

Sophronia views her life as beginning at 40 since she has spent the last ten years caring for her father before he died. This connects to the second Mrs de Winter’s situation in Rebecca – as indeed does her surname. Like the second Mrs de Winter, Sophronia is inexperienced – however she desperately wants to be experienced. This does not go as far as speaking to a gentleman first though. This shows 1930s Emily Post style decorum.

The evocation of St Petersburg, Florida, a playground with its beaches, bingo, alligator farms and sun and fun seekers, was deemed effective. One of the group commented on the accuracy as it was similar to her grandmother’s experience from around the time.

After the initial brisk opening, and the very hasty marriage of Sophronia to Hiram Johnson, the man she meets and who strikes up a relationship with her, events soon turn darker. This is especially seen as the newly married couple arrive at Hiram’s family home: a deserted 125 room gothic-style hotel a taxi driver has refused to take them to.  Sophronia’s initial recoiling from this Old Dark House is substantiated when Hiram angrily rejects her suggestion they stay in town and physically harms her.

It was noted that the US does not have old family piles (like Manderley in Rebecca) and that a large building is more likely to be a hotel than a mansion. The use of a hotel also signals the merging of the private and the public.  If Sophronia has initially had concerns about Hiram, at least the couple will be in the presence of others. This turns out not to be the case and it is after Sophronia is made aware of this that she suggests they find another hotel. We also spoke about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) in terms of a hotel’s potentially malevolent effect on someone staying there– in this case Hiram or Sophronia, or them both.

Hiram emphasises the locking of the gate behind them: after all, no one will be visiting – or leaving. The reference to locked rooms later – and the fact Hiram has a pass key to all the rooms- also draws on the gothic. We were especially reminded of women who are in fact in charge of the house keys (chatelaines) in such films as Rebecca (1940), Notorious (1946) and Crimson Peak (2015). In all of these the keys are controlled not by the heroine, but by her enemy: the housekeeper Danvers, her mother-in-law, and her sister-in-law. Sophronia does not have access to the keys, and therefore is not in charge of the space – Hiram is. This is especially well conveyed by Sophronia’s later pitiful reaction when she realises that on one occasion Hiram has left her room unlocked. He emphasises that there is still no way for her to escape since the front and back doors, all the fire escapes and most of the windows are locked. The very fact there are so many potential ways of escape, but that all of these are cut off to Sophronia, heightens the awfulness of her plight.

After they enter the house, Sophronia hears more about the namesake Hiram has earlier referred to – his sister-in-law, Sophronia Johnson. (We even wondered whether the assertion they share the same first name was an invention on his part.) Hiram reveals that Sophronia Johnson murdered his brother with a fire axe. Hiram’s earlier way of inveigling a relationship with Sophronia was to mention while they were collecting 9 pointed starfish that his sister-in-law too enjoyed that hobby too. Now he points to a further connection: he shows Sophronia a portrait of his sister-in-law and insists on a physical similarity. Since we cannot see this portrait, it is ambiguous whether there is a likeness, but Sophronia’s response suggests recognition of little more than a passing resemblance. The use of the gothic trope of the portrait, and Hiram’s increasingly demented behaviour, further bodes ill for our heroine.

Before long, Hiram is offering to show Sophronia his sister-in-law’s grave in the grounds in the middle of the suitably stormy night. Even more disturbingly, he tells of the graves of the other ‘Sophronias’ he has hunted down. Hiram replies to Sophronia’s question of whether Sophronia Johnson haunts the grounds, that the ‘she-devil’ is a ‘restless sleeper’ often found in ‘disguise’ in ‘warmer climes’ – like St Petersburg. The terror escalates as Hiram states he always has an open grave ready – for the next time he finds Sophronia…

Sophronia Winters is heard to be especially in peril as after her night time excursion her coughing is focused on. While the episode was unfolding, some wondered if this signalled to Hiram’s poisoning of his wife. He appears superficially solicitous, however, suggesting she stay warm and perhaps fetch Sophronia Johnson’s dressing gown from her wardrobe. These scenes in Sophronia’s bedroom (which used to belong to Sophronia Johnson) are especially unsettling. Hiram comments that Sophronia seems to be familiar with the room. She denies this, and puts her odd behaviour down to the fact that it just seems odd since the room has a sense of being lived in. Later, Hiram notes that Sophronia has the embroidery his sister-in-law enjoyed working on in her hand. This surprises Sophronia, and perhaps suggests to the audiences that the Sophronias are merging – or perhaps they have always been the one person. This is an especially interesting take on the concept of the double used in the Gothic.

Such merging of the Sophronias becomes more pronounced as Hiram asks Sophronia to sing a hymn for him while he plays the harmonium. This mirrors the situation when Sophronia Johnson killed Hiram’s brother, and indeed Hiram appears to almost be setting the stage for another such occurrence. Despite his seeming manipulation, Hiram still seems surprised when confronted by Sophronia and the fire axe.

We spoke further about Hiram’s character. We thought that he represented a Bluebeard character- but unusually one with a motive, at least in his own mind. We also commented on Hiram’s age – we thought he sounded about 50, which is similar to the stated age of his family hotel in Maine. This ties Hiram to the hotel space more closely, perhaps even making it complicit in his campaign of terror.

The epilogue of the episode elicited much discussion about whether Sophronia had been driven insane. Sophronia asks a nurse if her ‘dear brother-in-law Hiram’ is dead. This is confirmed, and Sophronia hysterically claims responsibility. While this may signal a medical professional simply indulging her patient, it also suggests that interpretations other than Hiram having sent Sophronia mad are possible. After all, she is Hiram’s widow, not his sister-in-law. Or is she in fact Sophronia Johnson, who Hiram claims he keeps finding? Or is the entire Diary a reflection of Sophronia Johnson’s fevered imagination (perhaps she killed both her husband and Hiram at the time) in which she invents a new role for herself as Sophronia Winters and creates the whole narrative we hear?

Taking the story at face value, and assuming that the women were separate people (or indeed that Sophronia Johnson perhaps never existed), we were pleased to hear that Sophronia was able to protect herself physically from Hiram. As with The Yellow Wallpaper, we also mentioned the way in which women were contained. While the deranged Hiram was allowed to roam the country, Sophronia is at the end institutionalised. We would have preferred to hear of her successfully running the hotel, or indeed for a twist to reveal that she was now searching for Hirams in Florida…

We also spoke of the effectiveness of some of the sound effects in establishing space and atmosphere. The hotel’s creaking doors and ticking clock spoke of age and the uncontrollable passage of time. The fog horn convincingly evoked dreary outside space and the harmonium was a suitably creepy musical instrument to employ. We compared it to the use of the Theremin in The Spiral Staircase (1945).

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the episode was restaged on the 17th of August 1944 – once more with Moorehead and Ray Collins. On the 10th of August 1958 the roles were taken by Mercedes McCambridge and Jerry Hausner.

We concluded with comments drawing together our experiences of the twoi narratives. Both The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters are tales told by women (played by Moorehead on the radio) who express themselves in writing. They are advised not to by male doctors. The narrator’s husband in The Yellow Wallpaper suggests she should not write, while at the end of The Diary of Sophronia Winters the nurse tells Sophronia the doctor does not approve of her doing so.

Both women are in peril – from their own madness. Whether this is deliberately or unthinkingly brought on, or made worse, by their husbands is a moot point. Fletcher’s episode takes the matter of Gothic further, as she provides a checklist of tropes: the hasty marriage, the tormenting husband, the creepy house, the locked rooms, the portrait and the notion of the Double.

Neither of these stories suggests that marriage is a good idea and the Gothic as a whole questions the rights and consequences of patriarchy. We thought it was especially significant that this wariness of marriage was present most strikingly in The Diary of Sophronia Winters, first broadcast in 1943. This was a time when hasty marriages were being entered into as men were called away to war. By the time of The Yellow Wallpaper radio version (in 1948) this was less pressing and suggest perhaps another reason, other than the format and the original story, for the heightened hysteria of the narrator from earlier in the narrative.

As ever, do log into comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Old Time Radio Links:

The Yellow Wallpaper:

29th of July 1948: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/yellow-wallpaper-1948-07-29

30th of June 1957: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/the-yellow-wallpaper-1957-06-30

The Diary of Sophronia Winters

27th of April 1943: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/the-diary-of-sophronia-winters-1943-04-27

17th of August 1944: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/the-diary-of-sophronia-winters-1944-08-17

10th of August 1958: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/diary-of-sophronia-winters-1958-08-10

Summary of discussion on The Witness for The Prosecution

Our discussion about The Witness for the Prosecution in its various forms focused on: differences between the mediums (radio, short story, TV, 1957 film) including of the plot’s key revelation; whether and how various characters received their comeuppance; the characters of Leonard, Romaine, Mayherne (Mayhew in the BBC TV version) and Emily French; matters of gender, class and World War I; general comments on Sarah Phelps’ TV adaptation, especially its pacing and cinematography.

witness-agatha

Starting the session by listening to the BBC’s half hour 2004 radio version meant that we were able to compare and contrast the ways in which Agatha Christie’s 1933 short story was adapted to different mediums. Unlike the short story which reported the meeting between Leonard and Emily French and the latter’s murder in retrospect, the radio version utilised flashbacks which directly reported Leonard and Emily’s interaction; this meant that we were not relying on Leonard’s rather doubtful word (also true of the BBC TV version).

witness-georgeThe quick pace of the radio version, with the fairly rapid switching between its micro scenes, often marked by bursts of Django Reinhardt, was especially commented on. We also noted how the main expansion of the radio version from the short story was its preface. This featured Leonard’s garrulous club-owning friend George (whom we compared to George Sanders’ character in Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Rebecca (1940) which provided Leonard with some colour by association.  References to the club also helped to establish the metropolitan London setting. Shifts within this were well evoked by sound effects: Romaine asked to speak to Mayherne outside in private and the subsequent scene was punctuated by birdsong. The time setting was established by both references to the date of the crime (in the year 1947) and by the wail of sirens.

witness-margolyesDiscussion also focused on the ways in which the radio medium in its lack of the visual differed to the TV adaptation. This mostly involved our recognition that one of the radio actors played 2 key roles: Miriam Margolyes was recognisably Romaine as well as the part she plays to deceive Mayherne (Mrs Mogdon). While different accents and markers of class were used (we especially noted the newly named maid ‘Flora’ McKenzie’s Scottish brogue) we witness-bennettalso recognised some of the actors by their voices: this meant that our knowledge of the age and appearance of some of the actors gave us particular views of the characters played. We thought Hywel Bennett as Leonard sounded older and more confident than in the TV version – as indeed did Romaine. This meant that the TV version’s revelation of Leonard and Romaine’s crimes, and the level of manipulation employed, were perhaps more surprising.

We also noted how the revelation of Romaine’s performance as Mrs Mogdon occurred in different ways: in the short story Mayherne realises it due to Romaine and the part she plays sharing the same ‘foreign gesture’. Since radio has the audio advantage, it chooses to damn Romaine by her own words: ‘a tree is a tree is a tree’. She utters this both while playing Mrs Mogdon and in court giving evidence. Since the TV version affords Mayhew a larger place in the narrative, and also significantly differs in its characterisation of Romaine, it is framed as something Mayhew finds out only after his success in the defence of Leonard leads to him taking a holiday in Le Touquet. Seeing Leonard and his new bride outside a hotel, Mayhew pays them a visit: Romaine calmly tells him what they had done. This underlined the less calculating Romaine in the radiowitness-dietrich adaptation as the warmth of her voice and her talk of love contrasts to the TV Romaine’s coldness and the impression she is more intent on survival. In Wilder’s 1957 film Marlene Dietrich as ‘Christine’ re-enacts her earlier performance as the scarred woman for the barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, played by Charles Laughton. While Christine seems to revel in her talent, Andrea Riseborough in the TV adaptation is more subdued and matter-of-fact.

Another significant difference between the original and its several adaptations are whether characters get their comeuppance. While the short story and radio version end with the revelation of the deception, and the impression no justice will be served, the film and TV versions tackle the matter in alternative ways. In the film, Leonard and Christine do not ‘get away with it’ since the existence of Leonard’s girlfriend is revealed in the court room and Christine takes her revenge by stabbing him. It was mentioned that the filming of this is especially instructive as the light from Sir Wilfrid’s monocle, which he spins on the desk, highlights the presence of the knife. In effect, this means that Sir Wilfrid, by now fully cognizant of Leonard’s crime and Christine’s lies, somehow directs Christine towards committing her crime.

In the TV version Leonard and Romaine do appear to have escaped justice – instead Janet McKenzie is wrongly convicted and hanged for their crime. Furthermore, Mayhew was instrumental in Janet’s arrest, causing him much distress when the truth is revealed by Leonard and Romaine. Mayhew is unable to bear the guilt and walks into the sea at the end. Some in the group did not like the fact that Mayhew is the only one to fully accept his guilt for his actions, this seeming to let Leonard and Romaine off the hook. However a note of caution is also sounded for the ‘happy’ couple: Leonard asks whether Romaine will need him much longer, to which she replies that she will – as long as he’s not boring. In addition to suggesting Leonard may yet be punished for him crime, this gives further insight into Leonard and Romaine’s relationship as it shows her very much in control.

witness-showgirlWe spoke further on the matter of gender and especially Romaine. We commented on her emotionless rendering of her signature tune ‘Let me Call You Sweetheart’ at the theatre throughout the TV adaptation. Although her skimpy costume and centre stage placement suggest objectification, she is in fact very closed. This was also true of her seeming breakdown in court: she is confronted by the letters to her non-existent lover she has in fact planted in order to keep her husband out of prison. Although she performs anger at having been discovered, allowing those who accuse her to feel especially smug in the face of her abjectness, she is in fact more opaque than ever – and a willing victim, sacrificing herself for a higher purpose. She is one of the few women who actually get to speak in court and have their words believed – even though ironically they are not the truth. Janet’s evidence is (accurately) put down to havingwitness-mrs-mahyew been coached by the prosecution team.  We compared Romaine’s largely subdued character to a similar quality in Mayhew’s wife (a newly invented character for the TV adaption). The very presence of Mrs Mayhew increased the number of women playing an important part in the narrative, and showed one side of sexual politics as she endured her husband’s attentions.

witness-catrallUnsurprisingly, the TV version was also more modern in its approach to sexual politics. Emily’s maid Janet appears to have a passion for her employer, the cougar-ish Emily, played by Kim Catrall. Emily was not just stunningly attractive, but open about her desire for Leonard. Despite the more modern production context, this made the force used in killing her seem more like a punishment; this was especially evident when we re-watched the scenes in which Emily and Leonard first met and she invited him back to her house. Rather than Leonard helping a little old lady who’d dropped her parcels in the street, it is Leonard who is clumsy as the tray of drinks he is carrying at his place of work crashes to the ground. The fact that this happens just after Emily has passed him on the stairs seems to afford her a certain power of the gaze (heightened later as she watches him in the bath, objectifying his body and feeding him scraps of food from a plate as though he were a pet). Leonard is shown to be her prey, unable to escape her attentions.

witness-maidThat Leonard was unable to escape Emily is also seen in the dynamic between him, Janet and Emily. At the beginning, Leonard is clearly marked as having less agency than Janet. Janet directly tells him to leave within seconds of first meeting him. Emily’s desire, however, trumps her employee’s reservations, with Leonard becoming increasingly forthright (even vindictive) with Janet, and taking advantage of his opportunity. In the end this means that it is Emily and Janet who are punished – both for their desires. Leonard takes Emily’s life in a particularly savage and bloody way, and the fact Janet is wrongly executed for murdering her beloved mistress makes her punishment especially cruel.

witness-wilfridWhile in the cases of Janet and Emily the punishment meted out in linked to gender, the matter of Class comes in to play in different versions. In the film, Sir Wilfrid is higher class and, as noted above, can be seen to have directed justice for his own ends. By contrast, Mayhew in the TV version is clearly shown to be middle class- he has awitness-mayhew comfortable home; but occupies a dank and leaky office and has to bribe police officers for access to potential cases. His punishment comes due to his own error, made partly due to his grief over the loss of his son, killed when Mayhew lied about his son’s age so that they could go to war together. Leonard is clearly a surrogate son he is determined to save.

The TV version’s post World War I setting was especially important. This tied Leonard and Romaine closer together in their desperation – including their first meeting at the very start of the adaptation. We noted that this scene could be interpreted in several ways: as a fairly direct telling of a soldier and a young woman (possibly a prisoner, kept near the front to service the soldiers) meeting, a dream of either Leonard or Romaine, or a metaphorical representation of their relationship to each other and the world.

witness-crimson-fieldWe further pondered the decision to set the adaptation just post World War I. While Christie’s short story was published in 1933, there was little mention of the conflict of twenty years earlier. The radio adaptation, by contrast, chose to place the action post-World War II. We commented on the fact that adapter Sarah Phelps had also created and written the 6 part BBC drama series The Crimson Field. Taking place during World War I, this focused on strong women working as nurses near the front. The post-World War I setting also seems especially timely given the continuing centenary commemorations today. We thought it gave more cause (if not justification) to the characters of Leonard and Romaine. They attempt to excuse themselves to Mayhew by arguing that the murder of Emily is just one more death – what is to be expected when we put the young through the horrifying experience of fighting a war. In relation to Romaine, we additionally considered that a post-World War II setting might unnecessarily complicate her Austrian heritage, and hammer home too forcefully any suggestion of Nazism in Phelps’ expanded narrative.

The legacy of World War I is also seen in the relationship of the Mayhews. Indeed it underpins Mayhew’s relationship with Leonard and Romaine. The former is the surrogate for the son lost at war, and his sympathy for the latter initially comes from a sentimentalised romantic desire which is not reciprocated at home: his wife blames him for their son’s death.  Significantly while experiences during the War have desensitised Leonard and Romaine, Mayhew is still capable of wanting love, and of feeling guilt. It was also mentioned that in the introduction to the BBC’s new tie-in version of the short story, Phelps highlighted the matter of characters performing – which we specially connected to the female characters. This adds another level when considering the performative nature of the mediums of TV, film and radio.

witness-and-thenIn more general terms we also commented on the pacing of the TV production and its  cinematography. Extending to two hours, even allowing for the extra twist Phelps had added of Mayhew ‘discovering’ Janet’s guilt as the Mayhews holidayed in Le Touquet, was a stretch. This is hardly surprising when we note that Phelps’ 2015 3 part TV adaptation of Christie’s novel And Then There Were None had far more characters, and murders, to dramatize. While the revelation that Romaine was going to be a witness for the prosecution rather than the defence acted as a useful pivot between episodes 1 and 2, some of the scenes and shots seemed overlong. We wondered if sometimes the shots lasted so long to allow us to try and discern what was happening in the murkier scenes.  (There was a pervading yellowy green atmosphere to some of the scenes of Mayhew in London – perhaps an ongoing reminder of the mustard gas poisoning he is suffering from.)  Extended shots and scenes on occasion hammered home aspects a little too forcefully, with the images of Emily’s hitherto gleamingly white cat padding in her recently murdered mistress’s blood especially gratuitous.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on Dead of Night

Dead of Night proved to be suitably spooky pre-Christmas fare, and prompted much discussion on its unusual structure, its gothic and uncanny elements, as well as its lasting influence.

craig-and-foleyIt is first worth noting that the version of the film we watched was that which was originally released in the UK (102 mins, October 1945), and not the edited US edition (77 mins, released June 1946). Both included at least some of the wraparound narrative of the architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) visit to Eliot Foley’s (Ronald Culver) house, its consequences, and the restarting of the tale. There were significant cuts in the US however. According to contemporaneous sources, the US version excluded the second (The Christmas Party) and the fourth (The Golfing Story) sequences, keeping the first (The Hearse), the third (The Haunted Mirror) and the fifth (The Ventriloquist’s Dummy) (New Movies: the National Board of Review Magazine, August –September 1946, pp. 6-7).

We particularly commented on the Englishness of the two tales cut from the US release. In the Christmas Party sequence the large house was occupied by upper class characters, with cut-glass accents, enjoying games of sardines and blind man’s bluff. This was reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ narrative of Scrooge’s previously happy the-lady-vanishesChristmases in A Christmas Carol (1843). Meanwhile, the golfing buddies are played by Basil Radford (George) and Naunton Wayne (Larry). The comic duo were especially familiar to UK audiences, not just as Charters and Caldicott in The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock) but other films whose release was more limited to the UK – including Crook’s Tour (1941, John Baxter) and Millions Like Us (1943, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder).

As well as the specific Englishness of these sequences perhaps making them unsuitable for US audiences, the decision may have also be related to the time of year of the releases: the Christmas Party sequence seems more appropriate to Autumn than Summer. We found the horror anthology nature of the film reminiscent of M.R. James whose tales of ghosts have become a Christmas staple. Notably it was not just the Christmas ghost tale removed from the US release, but also the only other tale with ghosts.

We turned to more detailed discussion of the sections, noting that each of these contained an uncanny element. In the first, The Hearse sequence,  it was commented on that the immobility of the doctor’s (Robert Wyndham) left arm, while well disguised, became a point of focus for some.

The Cavalcanti-directed Christmas Party sequence was especially gothic. The shadowy shots of the large space, especially the stairs, are effective. This combined with the appearance to Sally (Sally Ann Howes) of a suitably creepy ghost child summoned up gothic associations. This child names himself as Francis Kent. Other characters assertsally-and-francis that his older sister Constance was his killer. This refers to the real-life case of 1860 in which a sixteen year old had murdered her four year old brother.  It gained much publicity five years later, and again in 2008 with the publication of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. The bringing in of such a notorious case serves to blur the boundary between fiction and reality, adding to the sense of unease.

haunted-mirrorThe woman-in-peril aspect of the gothic was especially seen in the third narrative – the Haunted Mirror. In this, the teller of the tale, Joan (Googie Withers) is in great danger from her new husband Peter (Ralph Michael). He has seemingly been possessed by the spirit of a bed-bound, violent and jealous husband of a century before. This is caused by Joan’s present of an antique mirror in which the husband sees a different background reflected. Joan is only saved when she literally breaks the mirror whilst being strangled by her husband with a scarf.

While the previous Christmas Party sequence seems firmly anchored in the past by its referencing of the Kent case and its Dickensian overtones, the Haunted Mirror had a more modern feel to it. While it too looked back at the past, we found it more striking in terms of the comment it makes on post-war masculinity.  Peter seems passive – especially in his lack of interest in getting married, and searching for a house, while Joan drives things forward. She sets off the entire narrative by purchasing the mirror. Joan’s active nature is also seen as she is pictured sitting on Peter’s double bed, in his presence, before they are married.  The last action of the sequence – Joan’s mirror-breaking during her husband’s only attempt to take charge –  comments further on this.strangling Another odd aspect we commented on was the other main character of the sequence- the antiques shop owner (Esme Percy). His strange manner, especially his lengthy clutching of Joan’s hands when she returns to the store, seems to make the possibility of a supernatural, rather than a psychological, cause even more likely.

triangleOur main thoughts about the golfing sequence involved its comic value – perhaps providing a breather for the audience. One of the key moments, when Larry walks into the water and drowns after having lost the round of golf, and therefore the girl, Mary (Peggy Bruce), who figures as the ‘prize’ – is not very funny though. Nor did we find it scary – life in the narrative simply goes on without him. The ambivalence is furthered when it is implied that after the disappearance of the newly married George and the presence, though invisible, of Larry, the latter will simply take the former’s place (maybe a further reason for the fact this section is not seen in the US release).

dummy-switchWe found the final sequence (the Ventriloquist’s Dummy) the most disturbing of the individual narratives. There are unsettling moments throughout, including the dummy Hugo seeming to move from one place to another without help. The switching of the ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) and Hugo’s voices at the end of the sequence was particularly striking – visually and aurally.

The ways in which the sequences can be compared, as well as the wraparound narrative, were also discussed. The relation of the tellers to their narratives is interesting. The first 3 play significant parts in the flashback sequences – though notably only the wife and not her passive husband is present at the house to tell of the tale of the Haunted Mirror. Given the proximity of the tellers to these spooky tales, they remain surprisingly unruffled by these earlier experiences – all only proffering their narratives once prompted by Craig.

Noticeably the Golfing story sequence is more tangential to its teller Foley, the owner of the house and gatherer of the guests. It is understandable that neither of the golfing buddies can tell the tale- one has managed to disappear while the other in invisible. In addition to the teller being somewhat disconnected from the story, since he is a bystander, the ambivalence towards death referred to earlier, blurs the boundary between life and death.

drThe final sequence also involves its teller – the psychiatrist Dr Van Straaten (Frederick Valk)– to a lesser degree. The reason for the lack of Maxwell Frere at the house is more sinister than previous one – he has gone insane. It is also significant that by telling the tale, the doctor is afforded, and indeed lends, an authority to it – and indeed to his assertions throughout that there is an explicable, psychological reason for Craig’s sense of déjà vu. It is presumably that it is just this which inspires Craig to strangle him.

All the narratives satisfyingly come together at the end. The characters are still presentending in Foley’s house, but there is splicing of various spaces we know cannot be geographically related – for example the separate spaces of the Christmas Party house and the prison. This adds to the sense of terror. We agreed that the most terrifying moment was when the dummy ‘walks’. The circularity of the narrative was also deemed especially effective as there was not just a wraparound story, but the restarting of the film’s beginning with Walter Craig again visiting Foley’s house, once more with a feeling of déjà vu.

We concluded with comments about the influence of the film. While the production of horror films had been banned in the UK during the war the genre exploded following the film’s release. More specific influence has also been attributed to the scene in which Frere switches his voice to that of his dummy. It is echoed at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).  Jez Conolly and David O. Bates comment on this, as well as the reading of the tussle between the two ventriloquists over the male dummy as a love triangle (Dead of Night, Columbia University Press, 2015). More recently, the presence of the character the Ventriloquist in Batman films is perhaps a nod to this horror classic.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

I hope you all have a peaceful Christmas and New Year.

Summary of Discussion on Affinity

Tamar has very kindly provided the following notes on our discussion of Sarah Waters’ novel Affinity.

 

Warning: spoilers!

The group had a lively discussion about Sarah Waters’ 1999 novel, Affinity. Paradoxically, we began by discussing the ending, and our reactions to it. While some of us declared we had never believed in the possibility of magic, that it might actually exist within the world of the novel, others had, and were more likely to empathise with the heroine, Margaret. The sceptics found that they were somewhat detached from her, prevented from fully engaging with the character because of her gullibility over this point.

It was noted that the particular world Waters evoked Margaret inhabiting – brilliantly, we agreed – was stifling in its privilege. It was a closed world, and she was unwittingly yet inevitably forced into her position of ignorance and naivety because of this. The narrowness of her horizons accounted for her belief in, her desire for, the possibility of magic being real. We felt that though the “magic” was achieved through cynical manipulation, perhaps having a working class character who managed to be in charge of events, her own and others’ destinies, would seem like sorcery within the novel’s world. Throughout, Ruth played her class-based invisibility to her own advantage, using it to manipulate the people who literally could not see her possessing subjectivity.

We then pondered whether the novel was Gothic? There was more agreement on this, with group members unanimous in seeing Affinity fitting within the Gothic genre. It possessed many of the usual tropes, characters and narrative patterns. It was easy to read Millbank, the prison as a very Gothic building, fitting with the customary locus of the Old Dark House of books and films. As Joanna Russ lays out in her template of the 70s paperback Gothics, the cast and setting of these are permanent, fixed:

            To a large, lonely, usually brooding House (always named) comes a

             Heroine who is young, orphaned, unloved and lonely. She is shy

and inexperienced…. (Russ, 1973:667)

We also noted that the prison as described seemed alive, organic – wet, cold, animate – which reminded us of the infested space ships in Alien and Aliens, two further films we would claim as inspired by the Gothic.

Affinity also placed the Gothic’s usual significance on keys – though put to an ingenious use, multiplying the usual locked door via all the cells in the prison – and a dead parent, here the father, rather than the original Gothic’s more usual mourned mother. The novel also perpetuated the Gothic’s habitual play with doubles, as Margaret in the house was paired with Selina in prison, and, eventually, with Ruth, as the latter emerged as Selina’s true beloved, her real “affinity”.

We did wonder if the novel could be described as participating fully in the Gothic genre when its seemed that the phallic observation tower at the centre of Millbank was the only overt symbol of a powerful patriarchy operating in Affinity. Indeed, while as usual in the genre all women were victims in its world, yet there was no dominant husband or father figure; although Margaret’s brother did control her money, this seemed to be his only power over her or other women in the family. Unusually for the genre, the men characters were peripheral, non-powerful, non-threatening. Here the heroine’s unkind and stifling mother replaced the evil husband of the 18th Gothics. We wondered if we could see the novel’s world still being subject to patriarchal rule if there were no dominant men in it, but concluded that, within Affinity, masculine power was so taken for granted that it did not need actual men to impose it: the women characters had internalised its dominion.

We concluded our enjoyable debate by returning to the significance of the novel’s treatment of magic. It was wondered whether the reader herself were betrayed, along with Margaret, if she wanted a happy ending for the heroine and the woman she loved, if she wanted the magic to be real. We did not reach a conclusion about this or whether this might be a flaw in the novel, or a device to makes the reader feel the novel’s actions – perhaps, its tragedy – very acutely. Although we ended without tying down an answer, we all enjoyed reading and discussing Affinity, whatever our final conclusions.

Thanks for the great summary, Tamar!

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on The Book Collector

Many thanks to Kat for very kindly providing the following summary of our recent discussion in the Melodrama Research Group.

 

The Book Collector

Where is the architecture?!

Discussion – Monday 17th October

Continuing with the focus on the gothic, but diverging from the cinematic tradition, The Melodrama group decided to read and discuss a modern take on the Gothic tale by reading Alice Thompson’s The Book Collector.

An overview of our discussion clearly pointed towards mixed feelings towards the novel; as much as the group endeavoured to be positive, there was an overall feeling of disappointment, bordering on frustration and annoyance with The Book Collector. The positives that were initially discussed were the chapters when Violet was in the asylum and the transition between the last chapters. It was considered by some of us that the strength of the book could be found in the chapters based in the asylum as this was where the quality of the writing peaked. It was interesting to have been written from Violet’s point of view and the account of being committed to an asylum a vivid portrait. It was commented on that it was refreshing to realise there was no Prince Charming coming to rescue Violet and in so doing, the narrative resisted a more traditional gothic trajectory.

However, it was also noted that the pacing of the narrative was uneven; that the book longed for more ‘twists in the tale’ towards the closing chapters, and there was little for the reader to emotionally engage with. Many in the group found it challenging, if not impossible to emotionally connect, and care for, Violet, which was a troubling aspect for the group. Another point of contention was the lack of focus and description of the house, which is a significant trope of the Gothic. As much as there were extensive descriptions of meal times, which provided an insight into the size and routine of the home, it never substantially compensated for a more gothic rendering of the home. Following on from the lack of focus on the house, the group found it was difficult to place the period the novel was supposedly set in, other than the write up found on the back cover of the book. The time period was not explicit enough, with oddities occurring such as references to ‘calling from the office’. What couldn’t be decided upon at this point in the discussion was whether this was a strategy of the novel, or rather inexperienced and ‘bad writing’.

With the mention of a supposed writing style, the discussion then turned to whether the book was a piece of fan fiction. It was noted that Thompson appeared to take great joy in utilising motifs of the Gothic and that the novel as a whole drew upon, or was reminiscent of, many other sources – the tale of BlueBeard; films such as Gaslight, Rebecca, The Secret Beyond the Door; and literature, Jane Eyre, Northanger Abbey, Yellow Wallpaper, and Frankenstein; as well as the tradition of fairy-tales. The group 1 Welcome Gaslightnoted how the book was to an extent, reminiscent of Angela Carter’s work. However, Thompson’s writing style was problematic on several levels. Firstly, the writing appears to be dispassionate and detached, but the group felt there wasn’t enough evidence to deduce whether or not this was a deliberate act of the writing. Some elements and plot devices were ill-timed and seemingly dispensable, such as Clara’s father, and there were missed opportunities to develop the more interesting ideas, such as the fetish for books, and the tension between the book as physical object and ideas contained within the covers.

Secondly, the novel lacked the intangible “spirit” of a Gothic novel. It was observed by the group that although The Book Collector adhered to all the co-ordinates of a gothic novel by including all the necessary tropes and concerns, it lacked a Gothic tone. In comparison to novels, such as The Woman in Black, this novel did not feel monstrous enough. Structure wise, some chapters were too short leading to an uneven pace. At best it was felt that the novel was heavy handed in places, and drew upon too many other forms and sources. In so doing, the book fell between working as a fairy-tale andwoman-in-black working as a gothic novel. In essence, Thompson fundamentally misunderstood how to create a Gothic atmosphere. Whereas Angela Carter created adult focused re-workings of fairy-tales, Thompson appears unsure in what direction she would like her novel to follow. The group thought the novel worked as a first draft, but would have benefitted from further re-workings and a more robust editing process. As it stands the novel does too little to direct the reader to any authorial intent and thus adds to questioning what was the purpose behind writing the novel.

 

 

Many thanks Kat for suggesting the novel, leading the discussion and providing this excellent summary.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on Barbe Bleue and Bluebeard

Watching these two very different films gave us much food for thought. In addition to tracing elements of the Gothic and Bluebeard fable across two texts, it afforded the opportunity to compare silent and sound films, as well as French and Hollywood productions.

Barbe Bleue’s treatment of the Bluebeard fable was fairly in keeping with Charles Perrault’s 1697 version of the traditional folktale. At only 9 minutes long, we were surprised that some of the scenes were so lengthy. In particular, the long wedding banquet scene added little to the tension of the woman in peril. Neither did it match some of the comedy scenes in the film – notably the proposed wife’s clear disdain for Bluebeard in the opening scene, or the ‘below stairs’ hijinks of the servants.

The scenes where the latest wife was encouraged by the devil to enter the forbidden room and submitted to this temptation were more successfully realised. Both gave Melies an opportunity to show off his special effects. The discovery of the previous wives’ hanging bodies was suitably striking.

bluebeard-wives

We were surprised by the fact this was undercut in the next few scenes as, after a short period of panic and struggle with her husband, the rescue occurred quickly and all Bluebeard’s wives were brought back to life.  While this last action fitted Melies’ reputation for screening the fantastical, it affects the film’s impact, especially as all the women are given a final scene happy ending in which they marry noblemen.

bluebeard-poster

Despite this non-traditional ending to the story, Ulmer’s film was even less true the traditional Bluebeard tale than Melies’. The film focuses on puppet-maker and painter Gaston Morrell – a serial killer of women in Paris. In a warning poster the killer is referred to as a ‘Bluebeard’.  But Morrell is not married to these women, which made us ponder the use of the term – especially as the film’s title.  It certainly draws on the horror so important to the Bluebeard tale, however, potentially signalling that this was important to audiences of the time.

Ulmer’s film contained more horror than Melies’ – as befits the director of spine-chilling The Black Cat (1934) starring horror stalwarts Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. There wasbluebeard-warning-poster little suspense in terms of the killer though.  After initial scenes of melodramatic moral panic, and the lengthy puppet opera, the confirmation of the identity of ‘Bluebeard’ was fairly swift.  This was first implied by Gaston Morrell’s (John Carradine) emergence from the fog to make acquaintance with the heroine of the story – Lucille (Jean Parker). As well as echoing similar scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927), the detail of the framing was significant: the meeting occurred in front of the warning poster. Not long after, Morrell’s murder of his lover, Renee (Sonia Sorel), takes place on screen.

Ulmer was especially known for his talent for mise en scene – indeed American film critic Andrew Sarris assessed that this was the one notable aspect of his work (Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, New York, Dutton, 1968, p. 143).  We were struck by bluebeard-dangling-puppetssome of the backgrounds of Morrell’s paintings. We were also impressed by Ulmer’s use of chiaroscuro to emphasise the gothic spaces of Morrell’s apartment as well as the scenes in the sewers below. Despite the latter being somewhat derivative of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1909), elsewhere another echo – this time of Melies’ film when the most recent wife discovered the previous ones– proved especially effective as dangling shadowy puppets eerily appear on the walls of Morrell’s apartment.  It is also notable that the film uses Killer point-of-view as bluebeard-killer-povshots of Morrell’s eyes spying through a hole prior to the puppet show as he searches for Lucille. We’ve previously discussed Killer POV in relation to The Spiral Staircase (1945, Robert Siodmak: see https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2015/12/02/summary-of-discussion-on-the-spiral-staircase/), and it is interesting that Ulmer’s use occurred first and that he had previously worked with Siodmak.

Our definition of the Gothic involving the Woman in Peril had obviously played an important part in Melies’ film though, as mentioned earlier, this was relatively short-lived in the silent. Here the tension is ratcheted up, as Lucille continually places herself in danger. Firstly, she declares herself not to be scared of Bluebeard, then she visits Morrell alone in his apartment, later confronting him here, again alone, even once she suspects the truth.

There is another Woman in Peril – Lucille’s sister Francine (Teala Loring) – who appears part-way through the film. It is suggested that she is an undercover agent, bluebeard-francine-and-lucilleworking with the police, though this is not made clear. She too places herself in danger (presumably often a part of her job), by luring Morrell into a trap – both are women who actively investigate. When Francine appeared it almost seemed she had usurped Lucille, but with former’s death at hands of Morrell, Lucille was once more the heroine.  While both women investigate, only Francine – who is actually employed as a detective (especially surprising in the 19th century) is punished by death though.

We noted that the film was rather odd tonally. This includes its shaky grasp of its historical and geographic setting – not all that unusual in Hollywood productions. While the costumes (women’s dresses with bustles) broadly suggest the 19th century, the amount of ankle on show was deemed inaccurate.  Although set in Paris, the only European accent was contributed by Swedish actor Nils Asther as Police Inspector Lefevre.

The uneven tone is especially notable in the film’s mix of comedy and horror. When in court trying to ascertain the painter of a particular picture, the questioning of artists’ models – one of whom replies in a thick Brooklyn accent – leads to responses of hilarity carry-on-screamingby those attending. Much of this revolved around suggestions of prostitution – references also found elsewhere in the film, including as Morrell’s justification of his crimes. In addition, the killing scenes, whether an eye-bulging arms-raised action or a protracted and ineffective fight, were a bit comical. We noted these comedy elements in a horror film contrasted to Carry on Screaming’s (1966, Gerald Thomas) mostly comic, but occasionally, frightening tone.

The pacing of the film was also patchy. We especially wondered why so much time was spent on the enacting of the puppet opera near the film’s beginning. This does, however, give the film audience time to ponder the significance of the fact that Morrell is playing (and singing) the part of Faust in the production, while an older man plays the film’s hero.  This disjuncture further helps suggest the fact Morrell is the serial killer at large. Non-diegetic music was also effectively used to punctuate melodramatic moments.

The extended musical scenes also caused us to further compare Ulmer’s sound and Melies’ silent films. In both, the killer got his comeuppance, with Morrell in the later film throwing himself into the Seine. Happy endings are also suggested in both.  This occurs more forcefully in the earlier production when all the previously dead wives come back to life and are married off. In Ulmer’s film the relationship between Lucille and the Police Inspector appears to grow.

You can find an English translation of Perrault’s tale here:  http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/perrault03.html

Both films are viewable on archive.org:

https://archive.org/details/Barbe-bleue

https://archive.org/details/Bluebeard

 

Do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on The Duke of Burgundy

Many thanks to Frances for providing the below summary of the discussion following our most recent screening:

The post-screening discussion of The Duke of Burgundy focused primarily on the experience of watching this film, which is quite difficult to describe. The film itself is quite unconventional – with no firm narrative as such – and at times this makes for a challenging viewing experience, particularly at the beginning when Cynthia’s treatment of Evelyn appears abusive. Narrative comprehension aside, watching the film is a distinctive experience, with words such as compelling, hypnotic and intense being used to describe our feelings throughout. These affects are emphasised by the intense focus on nature within the film’s imagery and the repetition within the plot (as seen through Evelyn’s and Cynthia’s re-playing of scenarios), with some of these features compared to the work of Stan Brakhage.

Duke DOB_8

Many of these observations were linked to the fact that Burgundy is a sensory experience: it evokes a haptic visuality. This is evident even within the film’s credits, which provide reference for costume, lingerie and perfume. It was noted that the latter is not unprecedented (Audrey Hepburn may have credited her perfumer) but here it seems the emphasis is less on brand potentiality and more on the importance of the film as a sensory engagement with the viewer. This appeal to the senses is evident throughout the film. For example, when the initial ambiguity regarding Evelyn’s and Cynthia’s relationship is resolved, the film focuses on the intimacy and sensual encounters between the couple, as when Evelyn caresses Cynthia’s skin and her silk chemise, passionately whispering (in a voice-over) her devotion and sexual attraction to her lover. Similarly, the texture of clothing is given particular attention. Cynthia’s preparation for the women’s roleplaying is revealed in detail, as she is seen transforming her appearance through tight clothing, make-up and wigs. The camera cuts to close-up and medium shots to portray the details of Cynthia pulling on her stocking over her thigh and putting on her high-heeled shoes. The voyeurism of such images is echoed by Evelyn’s actions, as she watches her lover change through the bedroom keyhole; the detailing of clothes touching skin is revealed to be an integral part of Evelyn’s sexual gratification. As such, Cynthia’s body – and how she dresses it – is fetishized on both narrative and visual levels.

Duke DOB_6The emphasis the film places upon images of nature – as well as the titular insect – enhances this sensory experience further. This is established in the film’s opening shots which show Evelyn seated – with her back towards us – within a woodland area. The trickling of the water from the stream and the (unseen) birds in the trees dominant the soundtrack. Interestingly, the film does not resolve the mystery of the identity of this seated figure initially, as the film first cuts to a series of close-ups detailing the running water as it ripples around rocks in the stream. An edit back to the medium to long shot of Evelyn sees her turn her head upwards to the right, which then instigates a cut to a close-up of the sun shining through the trees, with the leaves gently rustling in the breeze. Such imagery helps to conjure up the experience of being in such a place: the sounds of wildlife and the smell of the damp soil in the air. This attention to detail is once again mirrored by the importance Evelyn places upon environments, textures, sights and sounds in the creation of her fantasies.

The use of this imagery also illuminates several tensions at work within the film’s narrative and its viewing experience. This is embodied by the film’s opening: specific features are depicted in some detail (like the running water) and yet Evelyn’s identity remains obscure and is not initially resolved by her first interactions with Cynthia (we only learn later that these events are orchestrated). More broadly, the film has no real sense of place or time – despite the detailing of the environment – and yet the narrative is still anchored by a specificity in locations, with the action occurring between the house, the grounds, the lecture room and the library. The nature scenes evoke connotations of a larger ecology – of life going on elsewhere – as is implied by Evelyn’s question during the Lepidoptera lecture about ‘other regions’. And yet these references to the outside world are contained by the film’s concentration on Evelyn’s and Cynthia’s relationship: the women’s world may be in an unknown location and time, but it is one which is consistent and insular. The intense focus through which we observe Evelyn’s and Cynthia’s lives evokes a feeling of claustrophobia, which is enhanced again through repetition: the lovers re-play their sadomasochistic scenarios again and again (with the same dialogue and actions), and images are also repeated, such as the close-ups of the pinned moths in Cynthia’s study, and the shots which depict Evelyn arriving at the house on her bicycle. This appeal to a sense of claustrophobia parallels Evelyn’s desire to feel smothered by her lover, which culminates in her introduction of the trunk into her sexual activities with Cynthia.

These aspects also point to the tensions which exist between Evelyn and Cynthia, and their relationship to broader ideas about the Gothic heroine. The film complicates our initial assessment of the connection between the women by revealing Cynthia’s apparent maltreatment of her maid to be the carefully choreographed and scripted rituals of Evelyn’s submissive desires. The power dynamics are further complicated by the fact that it is not Evelyn who is therefore the oppressed female protagonist but rather Cynthia, who becomes increasingly uncomfortable and overwhelmed by Evelyn’s insistence on playing these games and controlling Cynthia totally, including how she looks and what she says. Both women, therefore, embody different ideas we have discussed previously about how Gothic heroines are portrayed. Significantly, as with other Gothic films, the house plays an integral part in this: indeed, it is Evelyn’s anticipation from arriving at the front door and being kept waiting before being admitted to the house which a key part of her fantasy, signalling the beginning of her sexual interaction with Cynthia.

It is also interesting that whilst the intensity – and potential destruction – of the women’s relationship is emphasised throughout, Burgundy does not follow the peaks and troughs in emotion associated with melodrama and other Gothic films, such as Rebecca (1940). The intensity of the above tensions is maintained with only very subtle variations in mood: Cynthia’s emotional breakdown is indicated by several close-up shots of her looking dejected by Evelyn’s escalating requests, criticisms of her performance and feelings of betrayal when it is revealed Evelyn has polished another woman’s boots. Indeed, Cynthia’s apparent revenge for Evelyn’s behaviour is portrayed in an understated manner, as she deliberately wears the pyjamas Evelyn hates (rather than the revealing lingerie) and deviates from Evelyn’s script. The moment does not feature an outpouring of emotion or confrontation but is perhaps even more disturbing because of this: Cynthia covers Evelyn’s mouth with her foot when she attempts to say the lovers’ safe word pinastri. Evelyn silently weeps as Cynthia mocks her efforts to stop the roleplay in a scene which depicts the only time Cynthia appears to abuse Evelyn for real.

As argued in the introduction to the film, Burgundy’s relationship to the ‘queerness’ of the Gothic is revealed by these tensions, which act as reminders to the importance of the Gothic heroine within these discussions on the genre as a mode of storytelling. Burgundy takes these discussions further by challenging our assumptions and previous experience of who the Gothic heroine is and the relationship she has with the house. This point is underlined by the film’s ambiguous ending. Diane Waldman argues that, within the Hollywood Gothic films of the 1940s, the ending would reveal whether the heroine’s perspective had been validated or invalidated (a conclusion reflected by whether the film was pre or post-war) (Waldman, 1984). In Burgundy, it is difficult to ascertain whose perspective has been ‘validated’ and whether the film’s (and its characters’) investigation into the women’s relationship has actually revealed and resolved anything. In the final scenes, Cynthia finally breaks into tears and Evelyn begs her forgiveness and love saying she will do ‘anything’ to prove her devotion. The following montage shows the women sleeping in the bed together, the trunk being removed and Evelyn’s scripts and instructions being burnt. There seems to be a fresh understanding between the women and a renewed affection, as reflected by the shots which superimpose the women’s faces during their embrace. A voice-over narration hears Evelyn reassure Cynthia that ‘everything is fine’. Yet this montage ends with an edit to Evelyn seated back within the woodland area, with only the sounds of her environment audible on the soundtrack. The roleplaying game – and the film – repeats again, with Evelyn cycling towards the house and Cynthia putting on her tight skirt and wig. Significantly, we do not dwell on the moment Evelyn arrives and is kept waiting at the door – an action we know from previous occurrences is integral to Evelyn’s gratification. Rather, the final shot focuses on Cynthia as she gazes longingly into the mirror. It is an ambiguous moment which questions Evelyn’s assertion that ‘everything is fine’: is Evelyn controlling an unwilling Cynthia again? Will these actions inevitably follow the tensions previously experienced? Or have the women established a relationship based on equality and mutual respect and understanding? Burgundy once again subverts expectations and, in a truly Gothic manner, leaves such meanings up to personal interpretation.

Duke DOB_7

References

Waldman, D. (1984). “At last I can tell it to someone!” Feminine Point of View and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s.” Cinema Journal, 23 (2): 29-40.