Saturday, July 17, 2010

Marriage Counselling

What a perverse set of mixed messages one finds in The Blood Spattered Bride (1972, directed by Vicente Aranda), one of the more interesting adaptations of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla." On the one hand, it presents a set of arguments that feminists everywhere will recognize as our heroine, Susan, marries a lout and lives to regret it. On the other hand, it totally plays to patriarchal male fears about women who take control of their own sexuality. It wants it both ways. It's very clever about it, though it may not be clever enough.

The story follows two newlyweds on their honeymoon. Right after the wedding, they head to a kind of modernist hotel for their wedding night, where Susan, the bride, has a disturbing rape fantasy that wigs her out. She insists they leave, so they continue on to the groom's ancestral home. Susan's rape fantasies turn out to be a premonition of her married life, because her new husband is a total horndog who insists on sex at the drop of the hat, sometimes forcefully. Susan's future looks to be one of sexual abuse. Meanwhile, she begins to dream about a sinister woman with a dagger, who she comes to believe is her husband's ancestor, Mircalla Karnstein, who killed her husband on her wedding night for demanding "unspeakable acts." These dreams coincide with the appearance of a dagger, upon which she fixates as the weapon Mircalla used for the crime. Her behavior becomes erratic and her husband calls in a doctor who dopes her up and pronounces her "anxious" about her new marriage. Nothing more. Meanwhile, her husband finds a naked woman on the beach who has no memory of how she got there. The woman says her name is Carmilla, and she and Susan soon form a connection. Soon they're taking midnight strolls together, much to the consternation of Susan's husband and doctor. The doctor follows them one night and witnesses the pair indulging in unspeakable acts. Soon, the two are being hunted by the men, after they kill the doctor. Susan's husband eventually finds them curled up together in Mircalla's crypt and takes his revenge.

This movie has a bifurcated narrative. In the first part, Susan is the protagonist, in the second, it's her husband. This has a built-in flaw, because the first half of the movie prejudices the audience's view of the husband (he's never named, by the way). After the movie shows him basically forcing his wife to fellate him, after showing him pursue her through the grounds of the mansion with copulation on his mind, after showing him to be a thorough going cad, the switch in viewpoint is bound to fail. The first half of the movie is a list of grievances in support of a feminist point of view on marriage, and it's a LOT stronger than the second half's point of view. The second half of the movie adopts the point of view of a man threatened by his wife's sexual awakening and by her realization that she really doesn't want him. It constructs a revenge fantasy around masculinity under attack, and the countervailing list of grievances in this half of the movie--that women who throw off their men are man-hating, castrating lesbians comes off as shrill and absurd. Plus, the way the movie is structured suggests that the husband gets everything that's coming to him. Interestingly, he survives the film, while our lesbian vampires do a number on relatively innocent men.

The movie isn't subtle about its symbolism. This is probably the salient image from the first half of the movie:

While this is the image that sticks with you from the second half:

Juxtaposed with each other, these two images are the poles of the ideological spectrum, the first one radical, the second one reactionary. The first image of the caged bride is a familiar kind of image from more realistic films. It's the sort of image that the filmmakers of the French New Wave favored. The second is over the top, catering to irrational fantasies of male inadequacy. It's one thing to be cuckolded, it's quite another to be cuckolded by another woman. This kind of over-the-top exaggerated male anxiety is made explicit in the dialogue when Carmilla exhorts Susan to "Kill (your husband)! Kill him! Destroy his manhood!" and when the doctor suggests that Susan is under the influence of a "Dominating lesbian, a dangerous pervert." We later see Susan blow the testicles of a man off with a shotgun. It pretty much goes all in with its homophobia, misogyny, and castration anxiety.

The second half of the film is so broadly ridiculous that I wonder if there's not a double game at work here. I wonder if the second half of the film isn't actually a critique of patriarchy rather than an endorsement. This line of argument is supported by the grievances presented in the first half of the movie. I suppose one could argue that the extremity of the film's final five minutes, in which all of the women in the movie are wiped out, that we're watching the all-destroying patriarchy responding in character when threatened. I'd feel a lot more comfortable with that idea if it hadn't gone to such pains to justify it in a way that men find primal. It's not just that the women are threatening the patriarchy here, they're also going after the gonads. And that, to some men, is likely unforgivable.

My initial reaction to Despicable Me (2010, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud): Must we have treacle with our brimstone? Hmmm? Meh.

I can't say I'm impressed. If you're going to make a movie about an arch-villain, I think it behooves you to make him villainous. And don't turn him into a wuss by providing him with three adorable children. This is another of those movies where Hollywood demonstrates its daddy issues, methinks, and another in a long line of cartoon families with no mother and no procreative reasons for the dad to have the kids. Cartoons are weird about this sometimes.

Still, it's mostly harmless. Our "hero", Gru, seems like he walked out of a Charles Addams cartoon--he bears a close resemblance to Addams's Uncle Fester, and his pill-shaped minions provide the movie with its best laughs. Plus, it takes pot shots at Bill Gates, so it's not all bad. It's just kind of bland, though.

Also, I think I'm done with 3-D. This pains me, because it means I'm probably going to miss Toy Story 3 in the theater (there are no 2-D showings nearby), but I'd prefer to enjoy the movie without a vague sense of nausea. That's sure to color my opinion.

Anyway, all I can say about Despicable Me is that my nephews liked it. Take that as any kind of recommendation you like.

No comments: