Death is a Woman

in 64th Cannes Film Festival

by Malwina Grochowska

The phrase “women’s cinema” shouldn’t still evoke connotations of something subtle and poetic, but it has. This year’s Cannes Film Festival has provided a few more reasons for the redefinition to be made. If we searched for a generalised description of diverse films made by female directors shown at the Riviera, maybe it’d be this one: trying to be as uncomforting and as far from stereotypical women’s cinema as possible.

What else would distinguish those movies? Maybe the typical features of feminist cinema then? Female character-driven action, female activity, liberation, female points of view? Sleeping Beauty by Julia Leigh undermines all of those presumptions. Yes, its main character is a woman, but even more passive than one in a classical melodrama or romantic comedy would be. Lucy (Emily Browning) undertakes actually only one action: she looks for a job. Then she just lets her body be used by every man who desires it (and pays for it). While she lies unconscious in bed in a strange, luxurious quasi-bordello, old men pay her visits. A perfect object of men’s desire: from one side alive and beautiful, but totally defenceless from the other. Lucy doesn’t go through a change either, so Sleeping Beauty doesn’t have too much to do with a coming-of-age story. Its relations to the fairy-tale, suggested by the title, are also rather remote (both with the traditional version and the deconstructed one, Catherine Breillat’s La belle endormie). Despite her fresh, naive look Lucy is experienced, even perverse, as the story begins. Till the ending she takes everything without slightest emotional reaction as if she were beyond her body.

Her passivity is so extreme, the viewer cannot feel at ease. That’s why at some point the film becomes an interesting and innovative, while most questionable, commentary on the male gaze in cinema. In its slow moves — travellings and panoramas — sometimes it recalls Laura Mulvey’s Riddles of the Sphinx, showing in 360 degrees the monotonous life of a housewife. But the content and the position of the camera are here just the opposite. We are forced to observe a beautiful young woman, usually naked or half-naked. There are also gaps in the movie’s narration just as in typical drama, showing us a few first kisses and then letting us wake up with the couple in the morning. The decisive change here is that the narrative gaps are experienced by the girl, not a viewer. We can observe everything, what’s happening in the bedroom, very clearly while she sleeps. A voyeur accomplished.

As a result, the gaze stays a gaze of lust. The camera doesn’t allow us to go beyond the surface of the physical. Sleeping Beauty flows slowly, without a clear aim and in that sense remains subversive to classical narration, but in the same time it’s affirming it by putting a beautiful, passive object in the centre. Trying then to go into an obscure, oniric direction with tiny Beauty of the Day (Belle de jour)-touches, it stays a male fantasy.

Among the competition movies there were three more made by female directors: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lynne Ramsay, Poliss (Polisse) by Maïwenn and Hanezu (Hanezu no tsuki) by Naomi Kawase. “I’ve heard already a few times: ‘That’s wonderful, we have four women-directors in the competition.’ I’m asking: What’s so wonderful about it? It’s just four women-directors, while it should be at least a half of all!”, says Urszula Antoniak, author of Code Blue, a piece shown in Directors’ Fortnight.

Her movie is a reverse of Sleeping Beauty, as harsh as one can imagine. It’s not teasing a viewer by beautiful images of a body and interiors. It’s minimalistic, not baroque. But just like the Australian entry, it raises the subjects of death and ageing by connecting those strongly with sexuality.

The main character is a nurse in her forties taking care of palliative patients. Some tenderness and pathology mingles. She deals with dying people with a lot of care and attention, developing almost an intimate relationship with them, at least for a brief moment. But her purpose is one and only: to bring death. Can she bring life? She mentions that she has daughter, but we don’t really believe her, as we’ve already seen something strange in her behaviour. She doesn’t seem credible talking about the daughter and showing just an old photograph of some girl. She doesn’t bring life as women should, due to society’s rules.

In Polish, Antoniak’s native language, and other Slavic languages, death has a female form, unlike in English-speaking countries. Here the nurse becomes a very modern personification of death, raising also questions of euthanasia. But death by Antoniak is not cruel, rather emphatic, sharing the last moments with people with pleasure. Every scene of death is shown rather subtly, without any shocking details. Just the opposite to the sex scene, which is explicit and disturbing for a viewer. The attempts at intercourse make the character just more alienated, distanced.

What struck me at the screening was, that the viewers (who were leaving the cinema massively), weren’t doing it during the tough, sadomasochistic sex scene, but the self-harming scene coming just afterwards. We’re surely used to images of violence against women, although this one is really hard to bear. Why is blood together with hurting oneself even harder? If something here is really shocking, revealing the Real, it is rather the dangerous proximity of Eros and Thanatos anyway.

Although I find both cinematic approaches highly intriguing, I stay a little bit skeptical about such violent representations. Both seem somehow exaggerated, as if a reaction against mainstream women’s cinema. They made their manifestoes from uneasiness. They’re more against (idealistic images of woman, man’s domination) than for. What do these directors stand for? I’d love to discover it in their next movies.