Summary of Discussion on Miss Christina

Our discussion of Alexandru Maftei’s Miss Christina (2013) ranged across various matters such as how the film related to both the gothic and horror genres. This included our recognition of some staples of the gothic (the old dark house, a portrait, keys and locks) but also interesting innovations in terms of the gothic heroine. We commented on the fact these genres sat uneasily with one another and ways in which the film was marketed. Other areas of interest were the adaptability of the author whose novella the film was based on, and gothic films certain aspects reminded us of.

The opening of the film establishes the large, deserted, gothic house, in the depth of a harsh winter and creates mystery around the dishevelled man looking at and chalking portraits of a faceless woman. Portraits become more important to the film later, as we see this man when he first becomes enraptured by the beautiful woman (the eponymous Miss Christina) he is attempting to capture in her original portrait. Indeed, she seems to step forward from this as she enters the man’s dreams. We particularly noted the significance of the portrait, and the haunting presence of a woman, to Rebecca (1940).

After the long opening scene, the action shifts to a young couple, sat next to one another, as they journey on a train. Despite the very different colour schemes of these scenes (from bright whites to red and yellow tones) it soon becomes clear that the well-dressed and happy young man, Egor (Tudor Aaron Istodor), is a slightly younger version of the man in the dilapidated house. It is mentioned that Egor is a painter. More significantly, further elements of the gothic are introduced, as the young woman, Sanda (Ioana Anastasia Anton), tells Egor that in her family home ‘guests can lose their way’.

Soon after their arrival at the isolated house, with its few inhabitants, odd happenings occur at dinner. Sanda’s mother, Mrs Moscu (Maia Morgenstern), and Sanda’s young precocious and sinister sister Simina (Ioana Sandu) look at a figure unseen to some of the other characters and to the audience. Furthermore, Sanda’s mother eats bloody meat with an undisguised appetite. Mention is made of a relative, Miss Christina (Anastasia Dumitrescu), who is Sanda and Simina’s aunt – their mother’s sister. Other characters provide information on the fact Christina is long dead and comment on her unsavoury character. The presence of a professor of archaeology (Nazarie, played by Ovidiu Ghinita), coincidentally excavating a nearby necropolis, further adds to the sense of the macabre.

We discussed Sanda’s character, and her problematic gothic heroine status. Sanda is seen weakened by anaemia, unable to get out of bed, while her mother seemingly summons mosquitoes. She might therefore be identified as a gothic woman in peril, at the mercy of blood-sucking insects. Egor manfully undertakes to protect her, asking for her hand in marriage so that he has justification in separating her from her family. The fact he then locks himself and Sanda in her bedroom, still causes eyebrows to be raised. While Sanda is in some ways a victim, her seeming willingness to collude with what we presume to be Christina’s vampiric tendencies, complicates the matter. Worried that Sanda is losing her fight for life, Egor briefly leaves his post and, on his return, sees that Sanda’s family has gathered around to ‘help’ her. The family portrait of the three women suggests Sanda’s complicity in whatever process has revived her.

We thought it was especially interesting that the film inverts some gender expectations as in addition to playing the male defender, Egor takes on the active investigator role of a gothic heroine. He prowls around the house at night, lantern in hand, trying to find the answer to the odd goings on. Like Sanda, Egor is also threatened by, and compelled towards, Christina. We realise in retrospect that Egor has in fact been broken by her as she foretold

A significant departure from the gothic narrative is that it is not just one character, and the woman, who feels something is wrong. The archaeology professor, who is already resident when Sanda and Egor arrive, wants reassurance from Egor that he too can hear the light footsteps which pass by their bedrooms. They are later joined by another man – a medical doctor with a penchant for hunting – who also needs to be ensured the other men are experiencing these strange occurrences. It is important to note that we are therefore offered three men’s points of view, two of whom are scientists, rather than the more usual potentially hysterical female protagonist.

The four women share an interesting connection beyond their shared genes and gender. When Egor finally realises that Christina is a vampire and attempts to drive a stake through her grave and into her heart, Sanda and Simina also die. While their mother does not suffer the same fate, she chooses to run into the now-blazing house, ensuring her own death

We found the blazing house itself recalled earlier gothic films. In Rebecca the fire is set by a vengeful Mrs Danvers who hates the current Mrs deWinter (Joan Fontaine). Thornfield in Jane Eyre (1943) burns to the ground due to the lack of care of the nurse responsible for Jane’s (again played by Fontaine) fiancé’s mad first wife. The fire in Miss Christina is notably different. It is started deliberately by Egor (either as, or in protection of, the film’s gothic heroine) as he first attempts to rid himself of Christina.

Despite the film’s many gothic elements (the house, the portrait, keys and locks, the innovative gothic hero/heroine) it unconvincingly lurches towards horror in its final half hour. What was previously heavily implied – Miss Christina’s vampire status – is confirmed as Egor goes on a melodramatic rampage. The pacing of the film seems odd. From a slow build up in the more gothic two thirds of the film, the ‘revelation’ of Christina’s vampirism is rapid. In addition, it is not really a revelation at all for an audience immersed in film and folk lore. The rather heavy hints of bloody meat and anaemia, are joined by embodied items which suggest Egor is not dreaming when he sees Christina – she leaves behind one of her pink gloves as well as her scent of violets.

Maria gave us information about the film’s production, marketing and exhibition (see also the previous post) which shed light on the way it drew on the gothic and horror genres. Despite the film’s high production values (seen in the lavish costumes, settings, and CGI) and its obvious nod to the Hollywood blockbuster in its turn to horror towards the end, the film was released on the festival circuit. This satisfied neither the horror junkie, since the film has no jump cuts or gore, nor those, perhaps more discerning smaller audiences, hoping for a more psychological film with developed characters where we are unsure as to what is real and what is not. Maria also mentioned that Mircea Eliade’s novella apparently gave Christina a more nuanced character, acknowledging that many of the tales of her promiscuity and insistence on having peasants whipped were not true. The film represents these more straightforwardly, with Eliade’s social commentary on the crumbling of the Romanian nobility also missing. It was noted that another adaptation of the author’s work – Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (2007) – was similarly problematic.

In addition to Rebecca and Jane Eyre, we also commented on other films we were reminded of. The scene in which Sanda is at her window waiting for Christina brought Nosferatu (1922) to mind. The claustrophobic and enclosing atmosphere of the film (we are mostly confined to the house and its grounds) caused us to discuss The Others (2001) since its characters are also bound to the main house and its environs. Crimson Peak (2015) was also compared to Miss Christina. Both films mixed gothic and horror elements with varying degrees of success, with the later film more strongly appealing to horror.

Many thanks to Maria for introducing us to such an interesting film which allowed for useful examination of both the gothic and horror genres, and the background information on  the film’s production, marketing and exhibition.

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

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 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 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.

Gothic Feminism Conference Closing Remarks

Frances Kamm has very kindly provided the following Final Remarks relating to the fabulous recent Gothic Feminism Conference:

 

crimson peak

A huge thank you to everyone who presented and participated at the Gothic Feminism conference on the 26th-27th May 2016. We have had a great two days discussing and debating the diversity of topics raised by considering the Gothic heroine on film. We are particularly pleased with the way the papers related to each other within their respective panels, and are grateful to our speakers and audience members for engaging in lively conversations in every session.

There are several points arising out of the conference which should be noted as a record of the event and as a way of inspiring future projects. First, the conference emphasised again the importance of the heroine protagonist to the Gothic mode and how this form of storytelling intersects with wider historical and social discourses, particularly in relation to feminism. This theme was illuminated by the fascinating keynote delivered by Catherine Spooner, which reflected upon the representation and significance of the white dress; a central emblem present in several Gothic texts, including the recent Crimson Peak (2015). Catherine’s talk skilfully encapsulated the underlying tone and themes of the other papers: taken together, the papers acknowledged the long and diverse traditions of the Gothic and the Gothic heroine, and reflected upon the renewed possibilities of furthering such traditions on the cinema screen. The papers all, in one form or another, raised the central questions of: why does the Gothic heroine continue to be such an important and distinctive component to these stories? And how has cinema translated these Gothic traits for the filmic medium?

Opening the conference, Catherine’s paper reflected upon how the Gothic heroine’s white dress does not stay white over the course of the tale and instead becomes marked and stained, with this tainting becoming a trace for the heroine’s narrative exploits. Such physical markings can also be, Catherine argued, read metaphorically within a narrative’s historical contexts. Now the conference has closed we can see how these opening remarks can, in a way, be read as a metatextual commentary on the subsequent papers. The white dress becomes an allegory for the Gothic itself which also does not remain the same: just like the progressive soiling of the white garment, the Gothic has changed or been transformed by external factors, such as differing narrative arcs, political or historical contexts, alternative exhibition practices and the adaptation of unusual genres. The centrality of the Gothic heroine, however, remains the constant. Catherine remarked how the white dress becomes the metaphoric page upon which the heroine’s story is ‘written’. There is an analogy here with the definition of the Gothic widely supported by all the papers at the conference: the Gothic becomes the means through which the heroine’s story is told and the implications of this trend were highlighted in a variety of ways across the presentations.

If Crimson Peak was heralded in several papers as an important contemporary example of the cinematic Gothic, then Rebecca (1940) was widely cited as its starting point. As our first panel ‘Return to Manderley’ aptly demonstrated, discussions of the Gothic heroine in cinema return constantly to Hitchcock’s film and the new Mrs de Winter (or, as Johanna Wagner referred to her, Nameless). There were two major significances arising from the continued reference to the Daphne du Maurier adaptation. First, the film functions as a historical marker which indicates how the Gothic became an important mode of storytelling for cinema but – importantly – to relate such discussion back to this point is not to ignore the wider traditions influencing this form. Indeed, several papers cited how this particular strand of the Gothic originates from the Bluebeard tale and thus this tradition of the Gothic focuses upon the heroine’s relationship to her mysterious and dangerous husband, a reading which can be extended to reflect upon wider societal patriarchal structures. It is interesting that this conference, much like the previous scholarship on the Gothic in film has argued, also observed how such a narrative was adapted and repeated by Hollywood in the period leading up to the USA’s involvement in the Second World War. Maxim’s stately house therefore becomes the metaphoric home for Bluebeard’s translation onto the big screen and into film history.

Second, it is poignant that Rebecca denies its central heroine a name as this conference demonstrated the shifting parameters of identity afforded to the Gothic’s female protagonist. Many factors may impact the representation and reception of the heroine’s identity. For example, as the panel on ‘Mothers’ highlighted, transforming the Gothic heroine from the childlike naivety of Nameless in the 1940s into the role of mother central to the films later in the century (and into the 21st Century) radically reforms the power dynamics between the heroine and the structures of oppression highlighted by the Bluebeard tale. In this instance, the heroine may not fear her husband but, instead, her motherhood becomes a potential tool of oppression, with the child (or children) embodying the physical danger present in these films.

The heroine’s identity may also be effected by the story’s context and relationship to space. This was a consistent theme which ran through the remaining panels. The interpretation of the Gothic heroine is inextricably linked to the context of the narrative’s setting and time of production, and these factors may vary quite considerably. In fact, the conference demonstrated how the Gothic may be adopted by a broad range of genres, from the western to science-fiction to 21st Century urban dramas. The Gothic may continue to be relevant to US context but is also present in film texts emerging from Britain, Germany and Australia. The physical dimensions of the archetypal old dark house may alter in these instances but its function remains the same: the Gothic heroine explores these physical spaces and the course of her investigation will expose how such locations can be both repressive and liberating. Interestingly, the conference also highlighted how it is not just the space on-screen which is important: the implicit off-screen space – in the form of alternative sites of exhibition – are also relevant. The conference revealed how the more recent articulations of the Gothic heroine have been adapted for the television drama, comedy series and film festival circuits. The mutability of the Gothic form in film was underlined again by the videographic works which showed how the Gothic narrative may be subsumed into the short film format, or extrapolated for the purposes of a film essay.

The Passages of Gothic work is, in a sense, emblematic of the research which inspired the organisation of this event. As I mentioned in my opening address, Gothic Feminism is the culmination of years of work researching, teaching and studying the trends and tropes of the representation of the Gothic heroine in cinema by Tamar and myself, as well as other researchers in the Film department at the University of Kent. This conference is our first major event to communicate this research with an external audience, and begin a wider conservation about this topic. As Tamar noted at the end of the conference, these thoughts do not constitute concluding remarks so much as indicate the beginnings of new avenues of research and the inspiration for future events. Gothic Feminism is not a one-off event but rather an ongoing project we will continue to explore here on the blog and in the future conferences we are now planning. We hope the delegates who were present last week, and other Gothic scholars, will be able to join us again for events which explore the representation of the Gothic heroine in cinema.

Watch this (Gothic) space…

 

Text by: Frances Kamm

Image: based on Crimson Peak (2015); logo by Frances Kamm

https://gothicfeminism.com/2016/06/03/conference-closing-remarks/

Those attending this stimulating and fun conference would also like to send huge thanks to Frances and Tamar. Thank you!

You can find pictures Frances posted on the Gothic Feminism blog here: https://gothicfeminism.com/2016/06/09/conference-pictures/

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.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 4th of April, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

After a brief break for the Festival of Projections Passages of Gothic installation, we return to the previously advertised screening schedule. All  are very welcome to join us for the last of this term’s Screening and Discussion sessions, which will take place on Monday the 4th of April, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

We will be showing Frances’ choice The Duke of Burgundy (2014, Peter Strickland, 105 mins). Frances has very kindly provided the following introduction:

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Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2014) is a film not easily classified. Upon its release, critics contextualised the work within European art cinema traditions, with comparisons to Luis Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman, as well as noting the influences of 1960s and 70s sexploitation films (Collin, 2015; Foundas, 2014). Strickland, himself, concurs with this broad range of inspiration, noting how, amongst others, he was inspired by films such as A Virgin among the Living Dead (1973) and Belle de Jour (1967) (Strickland, 2015). I propose that another way to interpret this challenging and compelling film is to think about it within the traditions of the Gothic. If we reflect upon the Gothic tropes and motifs discussed over the course of the term, it becomes clear how Burgundy may be analysed in this fashion. The film is set in an undisclosed place at an unknown time and – as indicated by the film’s opening scene – the narrative focuses upon the action taking place in and around the house. The film begins with Evelyn sitting alone in a woodland and the title sequence takes place as we follow Evelyn as she journeys from this peaceful area towards the large, dominating house. Upon arrival the non-diegetic whimsical music abruptly stops and the sounds of Spring audible elsewhere on the soundtrack – such as birds singing – suddenly convey a different, more menacing tone. Evelyn rings the doorbell and waits anxiously as the footsteps within take some time to finally arrive. When they do Evelyn is faced with a stern-looking Cynthia at the door who coarsely reprimands her: ‘You’re late’. Silently Evelyn walks through the door towards the dark gloom of the house within.

The emphasis upon the house and the interactions of the heroine within it, is only one way Burgundy draws upon the traditions of the Gothic. There are other motifs which we have seen in the Gothic films screened previously appearing here: the importance of a key; the idea of secrets to be uncovered and hidden places; the imperilled woman who, in this case, appears to be oppressed and abused; and the heroine’s exploration of the domestic space within darkness. Indeed, Burgundy features a memorable moment when Evelyn gets out of bed in the middle of the night– whilst significantly dressed in a white nightie – and ventures into the dark cellar, lighting her way with a candelabra. This iconic image of the investigative heroine is one we have seen numerous times in the other Gothic films watched, as reflected by the several examples we included in our Passages of Gothic installation two weeks ago. In this way, Burgundy appears to be another return to the Gothic which is evident elsewhere within contemporary cinema: the year after Burgundy sees the release of Ex Machina and Crimson Peak (both 2015). These films echo the Gothic in comparable ways as Ex Machina evokes the BluebeardDOB_2 tale in its translation of the Gothic heroine into an android in a science-fiction story, whilst Crimson Peak mirrors the familiar tale of a woman marrying a man she hardly knows in manner evocative of Rebecca (1940), albeit with events now taking place in a period setting.

Ex Machina and Crimson Peak are reminders of the Gothic’s roots, particularly in respect to the centrality of relationships between men and women within the narrative’s trajectory. It is here that Burgundy differs. Evelyn and Cynthia are a lesbian couple and the story focuses on the dynamics of their sadomasochistic roleplaying in which Evelyn is the willing submissive. More broadly, Burgundy explores the relationships between various women within the film, with these interactions being alternately sexual, romantic, friendships, business transactions or scientific discussions. In Burgundy’s world, there are no men at all; indeed, even the mannequins which are part of the audience for the Lepidoptera lectures are female. The absence of a male figure may signal an alternative interpretation of the Gothic mode but this should not be read as a DOB_1new, radical opposition to the Gothic ‘norm’ (if such a concept exists). In fact, it can be said that Burgundy harkens back to past themes and representations which can be analysed through the theories of queer Gothic.

Queer theory and the Gothic have shared tendencies insofar as both emphasise contrary readings and the importance of subtext. George Haggerty pushes this idea further, arguing that the Gothic ‘offers a historical model of queer theory and politics: transgressive, sexually coded and resistant to dominant ideology’ (Haggerty, 2006, 2). Brian Robinson traces a similar historical connection, noting that ‘[t]he queer is inscribed in the DNA of Gothic fiction’ (Robinson, 2013, 143). This genealogy is one which the cinema inherits and capitalises upon because, as Robinson continues, it ‘was on film that the tropes of the Queer Gothic would find their full flowering’ (143). The queer readings possible – or, arguably, inevitable – of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and the numerous adaptations of Dracula (1897), along with cinema’s continued fascination with vampires, strongly supports this assertion. The female Gothic can also be contextualised within this lineage: the importance of the Gothic heroine’s relationship with the archetypal ‘other woman’ begins to illuminate how such films can be interpreted through queer readings. A key example of this is the new Mrs de Winter’s discovery of the obsessive behaviour of Mrs Danvers towards her previous mistress in Rebecca (1940).

Burgundy brings to the fore the implied interpretations and queer subversions which have a historical precedent within cinema’s Gothic. In this way, the film becomes an embodiment of the uncanny: the return of the repressed which is, as Freud writes, unheimliche because this element ‘is actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed’ (Freud, 1919, 148). Mair Rigby explores how the Gothic is queer – and how queer theory is Gothic – through the dialectics of the uncanny. Rigby argues:

When I say that queer scholarship’s encounter with the Gothic is ‘uncanny’, I mean that it appears to be based on a sense of a ‘secret encounter’ in which the texts bring to light something that ought to be repressed, something that feels particularly pertinent to people whose identities, bodies, and desires have been culturally designated ‘queer’. (Rigby, 2009, 48)

Burgundy presents this ‘bringing to light’ quite overtly through the portrayal of a world without men and in the detailing of alternative sexual practices which form an integral part of pivotal scenes between Evelyn and Cynthia. The fact that the most explicit forms of these acts remain off-screen only emphasises further their unheimliche nature: they are both familiar and normalised – we meet The Carpenter who specialises in building sadomasochist contraptions – and strange and marginal, as reflected by the way these practices are pushed to the periphery of the frame. Most importantly for Burgundy, however, is how the uncanniness of the story draws attention to the dynamics of the relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia, which is fraught with difficulties. By presenting us with two Gothic heroines, the film returns us to the central questions which orbit the archetypal female protagonist within this mode of storytelling: is the house a safe space or a danger? Within the romantic relationship, who holds the knowledge and the power? Whose secret is to be uncovered? What forms of oppression must the female protagonist(s) struggle against? Burgundy therefore revisits the ‘queerness’ of the Gothic and the significance of the Gothic heroine, although the film offers some surprising answers to the questions above: just like the ‘repressed’ returning to the light through the processes of the uncanny, so too does Burgundy remind us how what we initially think of as familiar or unusual, may quickly become conversely strange and homely.

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References

Collin, R. (2015). The Duke of Burgundy: ‘Sexy and Strange’. [Online]. The Telegraph. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/duke-of-burgundy/review/ [Accessed 30 March 2016].

Foundas, S. (2014). Film Review: The Duke of Burgundy. [Online]. Variety. Available from: http://variety.com/2014/film/festivals/film-review-the-duke-of-burgundy-1201331373/ [Accessed 30 March 2016].

Freud, S. (1919). The Uncanny. In: Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Haggerty, G. (2006) Queer Gothic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Rigby, M. (2009). Uncanny Recognition: Queer Theory’s Debt to the Gothic. Gothic Studies, Volume. 11 Issue 1.

Robinson, B. (2013). Queer Gothic. In: Bell, J (Ed). Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film. Witham: Colt Press.

Strickland, P. (2015). Peter Strickland: Six Films that Fed into The Duke of Burgundy [Online]. BFI. Available from: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/peter-strickland-six-films-fed-duke-burgundy [Accessed 30 March 2016].

Thanks very much for the introduction Frances! Do join us, if you can, for what sounds like a fascinating Gothic film many of us will have been intrigued by whilst watching the Passages of Gothic installation.

Passages of Gothic Project Notes

Following the intense and enjoyable screening of the Melodrama Research Group’s contribution to the International Festival of Projections,  here is a version of Frances’ wonderful Project Notes for Passages of Gothic.

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) is often cited as the first in a cycle of films emerging in Hollywood in the 1940s labelled as ‘Gothic’. These films – which have also been called ‘melodramas’, ‘women’s films’ and ‘female film noirs’ – feature similar narratives focusing on the central female protagonist: the Gothic heroine. In all these films, the Gothic heroine encounters the old dark house which harbours a sinister secret which the heroine must investigate, often in fear for her life. This threat usually emanates from a male love interest, or is sometimes presented as the oppression of a larger patriarchal society. These films – which also include Gaslight (1944), Secret Beyond the Door (1947) and Sleep, My Love (1948) – feature remarkably consistent motifs, including keys, staircases, images of the heroine alone in the dark and the threat of the domestic space. Significantly, the study of film history reveals that these tropes are not isolated to the Hollywood Gothics of the 1940s but, in fact, continue to inform and appear within the Gothic cinema of today. This installation shall highlight and explore these similarities.

This project focuses on the female performance in these films in order to show the narrative and visual agency given to characters who are often seen as passive subjects and victims. Whilst the Gothic heroine may indeed be threatened by her male counterpart or dangerous environment, these stories encourage us to identify with the female lead, admiring her bravery. We engage with these films’ narratives by aligning with the Gothic heroine and her experiences. In particular, our exploration of space is mediated by the Gothic heroine’s actions. This project will illuminate how such investigation consistently takes place within the domestic space: the safety of a home is transformed into the mysterious and dangerous space of the old dark house. Comparing these films demonstrates how the Gothic heroine is often framed within the in-between places of a house: the stairwell, the hallway or the doorway. These thresholds are spaces which blur the boundaries between the public and private spheres of a home, in much the same way these Gothic narratives present a slippage between the real and the imagined; the everyday and the supernatural.

It is for these reasons that Passages of Gothic is presented within Eliot Dining Hall. Eliot College is a building which is also both a public and private space, containing professional forums for study (lecture halls, seminar rooms and offices) and private rooms (student bedrooms and kitchens). The Hall is at the heart of the college and provides passageways between these distinct locations. The Hall’s distinctive appearance has also historically made it the site for public and private events, and its scale is evocative of the intimating houses the Gothic heroine explores in these films. As the name of this event suggests, Passages of Gothic therefore invites you to immerse yourself into the Gothic heroine’s world.

The film shall play on three separate screens and is divided into six ‘chapters’. Together, these chapters create a narrative which is reflective of the fictional journey taken by the Gothic heroine: the heroine enters the house; she is forced the investigate strange occurrences; she is threatened by someone or something; and she may or may not survive her ordeal. In Passages of Gothic these six chapters are:

  1. “I dreamt I went to Manderley again”: Gothic introductions
  2. Inside the house
  3. “I should go mad if I stay!”
  4. Lights in the darkness
  5. Women in peril
  6. “Why?”

Passages of Gothic is the culmination of the research conducted by the Melodrama Research Group into female performance, stardom, genre conventions, Gothic tropes and the representations of the heroine on-screen. This installation showcases the re-emergence of Gothic tropes – in a remarkably consistent fashion – across film history, highlighting the importance of the Gothic heroine within this. Our celebration of the Gothic’s strong, brave, and active heroines contributes to an important, broader research question: why, after 75 years, do these representations of the Gothic heroine persist in the 21st Century?

crimson peak

Top image: Lies Lanckman and Ann-Marie Fleming (image from The Innocents (1961); Main text: Frances Kamm; Bottom image: Crimson Peak (2015)

Credits:

Passages of Gothic

Project organiser: Sarah Polley

Project’s writer and content provider: Frances Kamm

Project’s editor: Alaina Piro Schempp

Lead technician: Lies Lanckman

Promotions: Ann-Marie Fleming

IT Support: Oana Maria Mazilu

Contributor: Tamar Jeffers McDonald

Contributor: Katerina Flint-Nicol

 

The Gothic Heroines

Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940)

Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944)

Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (1945)

Joan Bennett in Secret Beyond the Door (1947)

Claudette Colbert in Sleep, My Love (1948)

Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961)

Katharine Ross in The Stepford Wives (1975)

Shelley Duvall in The Shining (1980)

JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist (1982)

Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986)

Michelle Pfeiffer in What Lies Beneath (2000)

Nicole Kidman in The Others (2001)

Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)

Belén Rueda in The Orphanage (El Orfanato) (2007)

Rebecca Hall in The Awakening (2011)

Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen in The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak (2015)

 

The Melodrama Research Group

The Melodrama Research Group is sponsored by the Centre for Film and Media Research within the School of Arts, University of Kent. The MRG is a cross-faculty group of academics who are interested in exploring the ideas surrounding melodrama as a hotly-contested topic. The group meets for regular screenings and debates, maintains a dynamic blog and has hosted research events. The group brings together scholars from various disciplines in order to foster collaborative networks for studying this pervasive but challenging genre.

https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/

International Festival of Projections

This is a new, free arts festival taking place at the University of Kent from 18-20 March 2016. Spread across both the Canterbury and Medway campus, and with satellite events within the Canterbury City Centre, the festival celebrates the exciting and varied theme of projections.

http://www.kent.ac.uk/projections/