Essay: Poulomi Das
Call Me By My Body
“One of the most challenging misconceptions that thwarts filmmakers from being able to portray female desire in a way that is seeped in authenticity, is that female bodies are still supposed to be objects,” says Erika Lust, a Swedish erotic film director, screenwriter, and producer, who has been instrumental in furthering the feminist pornography movement in the last decade. Lust’s criticism stems from the omnipresence of the female body in the cinema consumed on the big screen: the female body is a routine, indispensable – and at times altogether, passive – fixture. But an intriguing question perennially stems from witnessing the myriad movements of these bodies: What purpose are they really designated to serve?
In Chinese auteur Wang Quan’an’s ÖNDÖG (Mongolia) – playing in Berlinale Competition – the discovery of a naked female body in a Mongolian steppe opens the film. Even though her nakedness implies assault, the film never gets around to confirming whether she was indeed brutalised. All that is conveyed to the audience is that a spurned lover is responsible for killing her, minutes before her death is relegated to the periphery of the film’s proceedings. The director’s indifferent gaze that treats her as a corpse that does not need a thorough justification echoes Lust’s critique of the accepted passivity of the female body.
Far removed from the ambition and visual imagery of ÖNDÖG, indie director Dan Sallitt’s FOURTEEN (USA) – which premiered in Berlinale Forum – shares a similar gaze. In a fleeting scene, Jo (Norma Kuhling), the film’s attractive and dysfunctional lead, sleeps on her bed wearing a worn out t-shirt and underwear – her behind arched in a sexually suggestive way as the camera observes her. The inclusion of these two scenes is not just a coincidence; it has long been a pattern that is embedded in our visual culture. In the words of scholar and filmmaker Laura Mulvey, who posited the concept of “masculine voyeurism” in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, these two women are invariably characterised – by the filmmakers and the audience – due to their “to-be-looked-at-ness”. What is worth noting is the proliferation of this gaze – not only limited to an American film or one genre of filmmaking – that relegates a female body to a “spectacle”.
Countering these two images is BEFORE WE GROW OLD (HEUTE ODER MORGEN, Germany) – playing in Perspektive Deutsches Kino, a sidebar dedicated to emerging German filmmakers at the Berlinale – in which debut director Thomas Moritz Helm distils a degree of fluidity and agency in the female body. The film revolves around Maria (Paula Knüpling) and Neils (Maximilian Hildebrandt), a sexually adventurous young German couple who embark on a love affair with Chloe (Tala Gouvei), a British exchange student. In the beginning, Chloe starts off a physically charged relationship only with Maria – before getting assimilated in Maria’s relationship – who in turn, hides the fact that she is sleeping around with Chloe from her boyfriend.
With Chloe, Maria – otherwise assertive of her needs in bed – rediscovers a part of her desire that is not predetermined: Maria persistently courts Chloe and refuses to keep her hands off her even in the proximity of her boyfriend. Later, when her boyfriend discovers Maria passionately kissing Chloe on the boardwalk outside their home and confronts her, Maria chooses to not display guilt for “wanting to have Chloe only for her”. By envisioning her character as someone who is suddenly unable to rationalise the consequences of her desire before acting on it, Helm depicts female desire as both a choice and a need in BEFORE WE GROW OLD. Maria’s body then, serves her sexual coming-of-age.
“My body is mine. It is my decision to do what I want with it, whether it is abortion or sex work,” Lust believes, expanding on the incessant policing with which a woman’s body must regularly contend. The lack of a woman’s ownership of her own body is further evidenced by the fact that approximately 25% of the world’s population – especially in Latin America – live in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws. In some cases, this lack of control is not even just a governmental preoccupation. When Chloe gets unintentionally pregnant in BEFORE WE GROW OLD, Helm uses her pregnancy to highlight how men casually tend to override a woman’s agency because their womb possesses one half of their genes.
In the film, Neils puts himself in charge for zeroing on the best way for Chloe to abort the child – he decides on an invasive surgery, even though Chloe just wants to take abortion pills. Moreover, he does not even entertain the idea that Chloe might want to keep the child – a desire that Maria surmises. With these images, the director does not just use Chloe and Maria’s bodies to detect the cracks in a three-way-love affair that is still too evolved for our insecurities, but also mines it to distil the fundamental symbolism of emancipation.
On the other hand, Ritesh Batra’s PHOTOGRAPH (India) – that had its European premiere in the Berlinale Special Gala section – offers a contrasting perspective of an Indian woman’s lack of control over her own body. Through Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a meek girl raised in a secluded cocoon of upper-class privilege in a Gujarati household, Batra exploits the female body to critique the country’s societal ills.
In their affluent home, Miloni’s parents wear chappals to distinguish their superiority over their full-time maid, who runs around the house barefoot. But Miloni chooses not to. Even then, there exists a social distance between both of them. Around Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the lower-class photographer with whom she strikes a friendship, Miloni is at her most alive, and yet she is handicapped to express herself physically because she has never had to cross that bridge. The one time she touches Rafi’s hand, it is laced with awkwardness and hesitation – emotions that are a product of the social stratification that is a reality of a country like India. At the 69th Berlin International Film Festival, female bodies, then, got to go about their ways to slyly tease the templates of its existence.