Seeing Straight Through
by Mike Naafs
Have you ever seen a woman get out of the sea and then put on a bathing suit? In Lucie Borleteau’s feminist fairytale Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey (Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice), this is common practice – as is removing the bathing suit a minute later. The protagonist, Alice, is like an inflatable doll. In this film, set on a freight ship, there is no real difference between men and women, but everybody talks about relationships. Men watch porn, Asians entertain themselves with karaoke, and Alice does and fucks whatever she wants – namely, the ship’s captain. In between, she fixes pipes (wow, look at that oil on her face!), changes uniforms, and follows her instincts.
Masturbation onscreen! The female gaze! How liberating! We see that people who have relationships on land act differently when they are at sea. But one element stays the same: Alice is a social construction rather than a character. Shallow, hollow and superficial, she is a gender construction of the worst kind, a glossy magazine version of society’s ideals. Have Judith Butler’s words on gender identity and the construction of character been in vain? Alice resembles a poster girl for a late 70s lifestyle. The director wants to make her strong and independent, but fails on all counts. Why does Alice take a dead man’s journal, to use for her own purposes? Doesn’t she realize it’s a stupid thing to do, even if she regrets it later? She proves to have no depth, no background, nothing.
This seems to be the main problem with gender representation in the film: why concern yourself with the differences between men and women, when the sameness is so much greater? Genetically, we only differ one per cent from monkeys; the same goes for the genetic separation between men and women. Why focus on the differences?
Instead, I’d like to take a Röntgen approach. If you look at the X-rays of a man and a woman, stripped of genitals, what do you see? A body, a being. Nothing that resembles a social construction. Laura Bignoli’s Sworn Virgin (Vergine giurata) takes an X-ray approach to character. The protagonist, Hana Doda, grows up in the remote mountains of Albania with her orphan sister. The girls find a family to take care of them, believing they will never be separated. However, Hana realizes that the only way for her to protect her sister is to become a man – or, at least, a “sworn virgin”. She cuts off her hair, binds her breasts, and becomes known as Mark. This gives her the ability to act like a man, carry a weapon, and protect her loved ones.
When Hana’s sister meets a man on a beach and travels to Milan with him, the situation is complicated. This is how we meet Hana at the start of the film: cuddling a goat, jumping on a boat, and then getting on a bus to visit the dazzling metropolis where her sister lives. Through flashbacks, we learn the history of the two sisters.
During one of their first conversations in Milan, Hana asks her sister, “What is it like to have sex?” Her bandaged breasts are starting to itch. She goes to the swimming pool, where her sister’s daughter has her synchronized swimming classes. In this temple of body culture, Hana goes beyond her boundaries for the first time and jerks off a swimming teacher. When you watch this scene, knowing everything that Hana has been through and the contrasting worlds of the two sisters, you realize that this is what acting and directing can accomplish! Compared with Alice and her little adventures in Fidelio…, Sworn Virgin is like the Odyssey!
Film is emotion. The direction of emotions. That’s why I feel for Hana, and I do not give a fuck about Alice.
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2015