X-Men Apocalypse *spoilers*

So, I’m NOT a huge comic book fan, I don’t know about a lot of the lore and the multi-universes and who’s who in the Marvel universe. The extent of my understanding of the X-Men universe comes from the episodes of the X-Men animated series from the 90s (1992 – 1997), that I watched as a child and the six X-men films that have come out since then.

So just to be clear, I’m speaking from a place of little to no knowledge about the X-Men narrative universe. I also don’t really care about fidelity to the comics. I just want a good story and I just want to be entertained at the movies.

That being said, I really didn’t like X-Men: Apocalypse.

There were some good moments mixed in there but there were also a number of WTF moments where I caught myself actually thinking I’d rather be at home doing readings for school right now instead of sitting here watching this mess.

Anyway, here’s my list of the things I found good and enjoyable and things I thought could have been better.

The Bad

1) Jennifer Lawrence in yet another reluctant heroine role. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that her acting lacked about as much conviction as her character in doing the things that needed to get done – i.e. creating a convincing character and leading her fellow mutants in the fight against Apocalypse.

Also, I don’t know if the scriptwriters were trying to sabotage her because they really didn’t give her any good lines. Neither her attempt to convince Magneto to stop destroying the world nor her training speech at the end of the film to the newly re-formed X-Men were particularly convincing.

Also, unlike Rebecca Romijn who played Mystique in the original X-Men trilogy, it always feels a bit like her acting seems to get lost underneath all that blue make-up and body paint.

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It’s like when you have a character that’s so much about body and looks, you need an actress that knows how to act with her whole body and JL just seems a little stiff compared to Romijn’s sinuous onscreen presence.

To qualify, it’s not that I don’t like Jennifer Lawrence, I think she was great in American Hustle (2013) (“The power of INTENTION!!”), but I just don’t think she’s right for Mystique or even superhero type roles… To me, she was even kinda mediocre in the Hunger Games franchise too.

2) The accidental death of Erik Lehnsherr’s family in Poland where both mother and daughter get pieced by a single stray arrow fired by a distracted policeman was more eye-roll inducing than pathos-building. I mean how much misfortune can one guy suffer before it starts to feel excessive and silly?

It was just too much (I mean, a single arrow?! There’s only so much melodrama you can inject into a scene before people start to smell the emotional manipulation). It was also just too convenient. Because now, Erik has the perfect reason to join forces with Apocalypse.

3) Talking about convenience, Jean Grey’s convenient power-up at the end was also way too convenient. Yes, I know they mentioned it earlier in the film that she is afraid of her own power and doesn’t have full control of it (Scott not being the biggest freak in the school, her nightmare sequence, using the exploration of the extent of one’s power through Scott as a foil for her, blah blah blah)…

But you never really got a sense of what she could do/ couldn’t do, and in fact the scenes when you DO see her use her powers, she seems to exhibit some pretty fine control over it! So that sudden glimpse of the phoenix at the end while cool looking as heck seemed to come out of nowhere for me… narratively speaking at least.

(and why the hell did it take her so long to respond to Xavier’s plea for help again?)

4) Xavier Vs Apocalypse in the mindscape… how the heck did Xavier lose this fight again? Wouldn’t the laws of this realm in particular be equivalent to the length and breadth of one’s imagination? Did he have less imagination or less willpower than Apocalypse? I find this hard to imagine.

I think it’s the lack of clarity of the rules of all these engagements between the mutants that really got to me. What are they fighting with? What are their powers? What are their strengths and limitations? The inconsistencies were mind-boggling.

(Why did Psylocke’s whips which could slice through concrete like a hot knife through butter not decapitate Beast like immediately?)

5) Having cool new additions to the ever-growing roll call of mutants is great and all but it felt kind of wasteful to introduce them and then not use them.

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I still have no idea who or what Psylocke is or does or can do.

This version of a younger Storm looked great and I was kinda stoked about seeing her play a bad guy except that she hardly did anything at all. As far as I’m concerned, Storm is still running on currency chalked up from the animated series because Halle Berry was a terrible Storm as well…

Angel looked great, but I can’t understand how and why he got METAL wings. I mean, I saw the transformation sequence and it looked cool but… how does one even fly with those? It defies the laws of physics…

And why Angel? Out of the millions of mutants on the planet, these are the best fighters they could come up with? Was there a particular criteria or disposition in these mutants they were looking for? So many questions… so confused…

Perhaps my biggest hang up is that although things looked great, slick and high-budget, that’s all there was to it, looking great. There was hardly any rhyme or reason to why things looked the way they did.

6) Scripting. Some of the lines were really atrocious. When Magneto went back to the iron smelting factory to seek revenge on his coworkers for reporting his mutant ass to the police… that spiel he gives about their curiosity over the extent of his powers was completely out of place. I realized later on that that was a set up for the CGI fest at the end of the film only when I got to the end of the film but those lines there and then, were like they were written completely out of order with the unfolding of narrative events.

Dude, they reported you because you’re on the news as a dangerous criminal at large who’s killed a bunch of people. Nobody said anything about being curious about your powers. They just want you locked away for their general peace of mind.

7) And I was watching the film I had multiple flashes of deja vu from X-Men: Days of Future Past! What, did they run out of material?

Here are two instances of repetition that were just so glaringly similar they were honestly a little irritating to watch:

  1. The all-powerful, shape-changing, more mutant than regular mutants enemy like the sentinels in Days and Apocalypse in this film
  2. The fight in the minds cape while real enemies are having a physical fight just outside your door as seen in Kitty Pride working on Wolverine’s mind while the Sentinels attack them in Days; and Jean Grey helping Xavier fend off a mental attack from Apocalypse even as the other X-men are trying to fend him off in a physical fight in Apocalypse

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Just swap them around… Xavier instead of Wolverine and Jean Grey instead of Kitty Pride

The Good

Two things I did appreciate though. Firstly, Charles Xavier meeting up with Moira MacTaggert whose memory he tragically had to wipe at the end of X-Men: First Class (2011). This part was well-written, and more than that the lines were well-delivered. Good comic timing, a health dose of embarrassment and a dash of awkwardness that just makes you want to sweep James McAvoy up in your arms and cuddle him or pet him on the head.

Secondly, Quicksilver’s minimal plot and characterisation. I have to say, I really love what they’ve done with this character. He doesn’t need a lot of screen time nor a lot of lines but they’ve created a really full character that’s full of pathos and this is a positive example of what the writing could be.

Having a character who’s all about speed both in terms of his power and the visual representation of his power using CGI, but having him always arriving too late narratively is the real stroke of brilliance. And it seems like Evan Peters is really making the best of it with his deliberately off-beat and distracted delivery of his lines that makes him seem like a kid with ADHD.

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I honestly don’t know what’s wrong with me but the more movies I watch these days, the harder it’s becoming to find something that satisfies me, so much so that I just feel like rewatching things I KNOW I like…

On a completely unrelated side note, here are some titles of films I thoroughly enjoyed that I recently caught:

  • We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
  • Zootopia (2016)
  • Deadpool (2016)
  • Civil War (2016)
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Tale of Tales (2015) *Spoilers*

This is a glorified summary with some analysis… loads of spoilers… Turn back now if this is not your thing!

Tale of Tales is a 2015 film by Matteo Garrone whose previous claim to fame is the gritty crime drama Gomorrah (2008) that won the Grand Prix at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. The film is a dark tale of three tangentially connected narratives full of fairytale logic of impossible tasks and dark magic, princesses to be married off and obsessive queens.

Told in the same style as the bloody and pornographic rewrites of classic fairytales in Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber, this film is brutal and unforgiving in its treatment of female characters. It punishes them in bloody and extreme ways for failing to break out of the roles created for them by the patriarchy: Maiden/ Virgin Bride/ Princess/ Daughter/ Mother/ Queen.

Tale 1: Queen Mother

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Obsessed with motherhood, the Queen of Longtrellis will do anything to have a child. In typical fairytale fashion that elides the need for dick-measuring to prove virility, the king is sent to slay a sea monster. The overall maleness of the hunt – that is full of phallic imagery from the harpoon used by the King, who is himself representative of the patriarchy, to the long, white water dragon that eviscerates the king with its tail in the ensuing struggle – is concentrated in the heart of the beast that must now be cooked by a virgin and eaten by the Queen.

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But so potent is the symbolism concentrated in the heart that not one but two children are begotten from this impossible task – twin albino boys from two different mothers, one by the scullery maid who inhales the fumes from cooking the sea monster’s heart, and the other by the queen who eats the heart.

 Once she has her son, she guards him jealously, so much so that instead of reaching out to the other woman who has been affected by her quest for a child, the Queen threatens to kick her out of the kingdom when she sees the servant’s boy as a rival for her son’s affection. In the end, she is so defined by her role as mother to her son that she pays for it with her life in her final attempt to separate the boys.

Tale 2: Ancient Sister Dora and Imma

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In this tale, a pair of elderly sisters, Dora and Imma, attract the attention of a lustful but ruthless king who overhears Imma singing. Her dulcet tone belies her wizened flesh and fearful of being accused of deceiving the king  who expects to see a beautiful broad attached to that voice, allows her sister Dora to set up the familiar body swap premise seen in other tales such as Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Dora agrees to come to the king’s bed chambers under the cover of darkness and under the condition that there be no lighted candles in the room. But she oversleeps and when the king discovers her aged body next to his in the morning light he has her defenestrated. Fortunately, instead of falling to her death, she meets a witch who breast feeds her and turns her into a young woman again with the reminder that ‘this too shall pass.’

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Dora discovered by the King in this state when he is out on a hunt

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Imma, upon seeing Dora at her royal wedding to the king, desirous of her young flesh asks her how she came to be young again. Petty Dora, unwilling to share the secret of her sudden youth with her sister, replies cuttingly that she had herself flayed and her skin grew back younger. Imma, taking her sister’s word at face value, pays to have herself flayed. The film pulls no punches in this as we see her return to the castle with her blood soaking through her clothes, and her face a bloody mess.

The interesting treatment of flesh and skin this tale with the display of old flesh, the stretching and pulling of it to make it look younger, the breastfeeding of an old body cradled as one would a newborn brings to the fore the simple – and what should be obvious – understanding that young flesh gives way to old flesh and that when you marry the maiden you have also married the crone. These are not separate entities and because the sisters forget this and are consumed by their desire to recapture their youth, because they’re not comfortable in their own skin, they are punished for it – Imma voluntarily allows herself to be flayed and Dora begins to rapidly revert to her original age by the end of the film.

Tale 3: Princess Violet

Daughter to a king who has about as much interest in her as he would a flea, Violet allows herself to be married off to the first suitor who is able to solve her father’s impossible riddle. So arrogant and self-assured is the patriarch in the impossibility of his own riddle that he believes his daughter will either never be married off or only married off to the most intelligent of gentleman callers. Alas! When an ogre that sells furs for a living identifies the mysterious pelt correctly, both king and princess are forced to honor his proclamation (because the word of the patriarch is law).

This tale was the most compelling for me because the ogre doesn’t speak and vacillates between brutish behaviour and seeming kindness. He offers to carry the princess, who is emotionally and physically exhausted from her ordeal, on his back on their journey back to his cave. His awkward attempts to win her favor by clearing a space in his dwelling for her and offering her an uncooked leg of mystery animal is also oddly endearing but ultimately undercut when he forces her into their marital bed and rapes her.

The pacing in a later sequence in this tale also expertly plays with convention and viewer expectations. In this sequence, Violet manages to escape with the help of some carnival folk. She first attracts the attention of a woman on a neighbouring cliff who then promises to come back the next day, stating explicitly that she will get her sons to help rescue Violet. When a handsome, dark-haired youth shows up the next day to carry Violet across a tightrope strung up and connecting the two cliffs, we’re encouraged to think that Violet will finally be saved. Of course the ogre discovers she has gone missing and rushes out to see the youth halfway across the tightrope with his bride. He follows them in typical fairytale fashion by throwing himself onto the tightrope as well. As soon as the youth reaches the other side the father is ready with a knife to cut the rope and the ogre falls into the chasm between the two cliffs.

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The thing about this sequence is that it is satisfying in the way it seems to fulfill a kind of internal checklist that puts audiences at ease. The damsel in distress is saved, and the monster is slain, the ogre’s fall to his death even recalls other fairytales like Jack and the Beanstalk. The requisite struggle also adds to the scene by helping the hero to appear brave, skilled and therefore worthy of the princess’ future affections. A ‘Happily Ever After’ seems imminent and the tension in the audience starts to unwind.

So the audience is caught completely unprepared when the ogre bursts back onto the scene later on killing the entire family of carnival folk in record time – snapping necks and beating the sons into a bloody pulp. Violet runs, but when she realizes she can’t outrun her husband, she crouches down to cry. When the ogre finds her, they share long stares and what seems to be a tender moment before he offers her his back again so he can carry her back to their cave. But instead of bringing her hand up to anchor herself around his neck, she slices his neck open.

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I thought the sudden return of the monster was really effective because of how it upended narrative conventions and audience expectations. And to do it twice in such a short span of time was even more impressive because, perhaps it’s just me but because so much of the exchange between Violet and her husband was done without words, I had to make sense of the stares they were sharing and the meaning of the tender moment they had right before she kills him. And for a moment I actually caught myself thinking that, maybe he thought she had been kidnapped instead of having chosen to run away? Maybe that’s why he killed that whole family of carnival folk?

But when she sliced open his neck I was reminded that this is also the man who raped her and that I’d just been trying to rationalize his actions the way a woman caught in an abusive relationship suffering from Stockholm Syndrome might try to rationalize or romanticize her captor’s actions. Creepy. Creepy but effective.

It just made me realize how strong the pull and desire for a happy ending is that we’d take any man, even a monster, in order to reach that end.

I’m not entirely sure if this is the doing of the film or just my own, highly solipsistic reaction to what was happening on screen, but one thing was definitely clear about the character and about the film’s message – Violet wasn’t getting out of this abusive relationship by relying on anyone else other than herself. And the way to do that was not to fight the monster head on, or to live by someone else’s rules, but to use those rules to her advantage like when she plays the submissive wife to get the monster to turn his back so she could slit his throat.

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Her understanding of the need to straddle the roles given to women and to make these roles her own is probably why of the three tales, hers is the one that ends the best with her returning to her father’s kingdom and being crowned the next monarch. The balancing act she’ll have to do for the rest of her life is also probably why the film closes with the image of the tightrope walker.

Final Comments:

I was initially a little uncomfortable at the end of the film and I had to sit a while and wonder what I had just watched. Clearly, gender was a big part of it but what was the message in the film? Was it a feminist text? Why were so many women hurt, bloodied and bleeding throughout the course of the film? What was I supporting by watching this film and enjoying the beautiful effects, costumes, set designs, and cinematography? But slowly I came to the understanding that the unpleasure and the discomfort I felt watching the film is a good thing and that the flayed, bloodied and dying female bodies onscreen were a reminder of what not to be.

I suppose it’s good timing that I caught this film just after finishing my Film Theory Final Paper which is also on a similar topic so Angela Carter is still fresh in my mind and that really helped me to come to a sound reading of the film. (If you’re interested to find out more about the Film Theory Final Paper click the link ;))

And I’m glad that along with Martyrs (2008), I now have another example of a flayed woman in film! I’m glad it’s not taboo anymore to take our skin off in film whenever we need to to remind ourselves that beauty and value for a woman is more than skin deep.

Alternative Theory: The Essay Not Written

The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood

– Robert Frost

As anyone who spoke to me while I was struggling with this final paper will know, I struggled greatly with keeping my essay within the page count. So for this Alternative Theory assignment, I thought of all the possible incarnations this essay could have taken on, all the side streets and avenues it could have gone down, but didn’t, and decided to put this monster of a hyperlinked mess on my blog as a tribute to The Essay Not Written…

Because my mind is an associative map of fragmented thoughts and images, you will find also in the hyperlinks not just paragraphs foregone and similar theories not mentioned but sometimes videos to other films not mentioned in my essay and images, screenshots, videos, gifs (moving images!) I wished I could include in the print version of my paper to illustrate the points I tried to make in my essay.

The Negotiation of Female Sexuality in Were-Creature Feature Films

One of the main arguments in Teresa de Lauretis’ “Desire in Narrative” is how women are constantly “seduced into femininity” so they can be “remade again and again as woman” (588). By looking at the Oedipal myth, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Laura Mulvey’s theory of “the gaze” from her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and the filmic works of Alfred Hitchcock, de Lauretis offers a comprehensive cross-section across various discourses to suggest how women have been circumscribed in an all-encompassing Oedipal narrative that aims to shape them into fitting the mold of male desire. By taking a closer look at Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), and John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000), this essay hopes to illustrate how a novel way out of this circumscribing Oedipal narrative can be achieved through a cinesthetic experience of the female body as it is portrayed in these particular were-creature films, particularly in terms of how visceral contact with flesh, skin and body parts becomes a way of bringing these female characters back into contact with a kind of lived reality.

In order to flesh out this idea of a cinesthetic experience, this essay will draw on the Vivian Sobchack paper on phenomenology and film that coined this neologism – “What My Fingers Knew.” In this paper, Sobchack privileges the lived body of the spectator as the primary site where we first make “literal sense” of films through our powers of perception, before we can make “[figurative] sense” or meaning of them through more cognitive frameworks (58-9). In order to make this argument Sobchack draws on the medical definition of synesthesia – “an involuntary experience in which the stimulation of one sense cause[s] a perception in another” (Richard Cytowic qtd. in Sobchack 67) – so as to establish how film, which is a primarily audio-visual medium, can stimulate the other senses available to us.

Furthermore, the value behind reading cinema as a synesthetic experience is that these bodily reactions happen “involuntarily” and therefore bypass the gatekeeping function of cultural and cognitive frameworks embedded in our conscious minds – while still being of it (Barthes qtd. in Sobchack 60) – thereby turning our bodily reactions “potentially subversive” (67). This element of subversiveness is most useful when deploying a lived body experience to combat the circumscribing Oedipal narrative that attempts to define the female experience.

However, instead of focusing solely on the lived bodies of the spectators, this essay would also examine onscreen bodies and the screen as body. The precedence for this is already heralded in the portmanteau term coined by Sobchack because inherent in the term ‘cinesthetic’ is the blurring of boundaries between offscreen spectatorial bodies, onscreen bodies of the characters, and the screen as body (67). Furthermore, when Sobchack tries to explain her lived body experience of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), she describes her skin as “both mine and not mine,” “’here’ and ‘there,’” and in both the subject and object position (66). This coincides with her later explanation of the “irreducible and dynamic relational structure of reversibility and reciprocity” that exists between one’s literal and lived body and the “figural objects of bodily provocation on the screen” (79). As a further shortening of the distance between onscreen bodies of characters and offscreen bodies of spectators, Sobchack borrows from Elena del Rio to suggest that “body and image no longer function as discrete units, but as surfaces in contact” (65), thereby providing a sense of the immediate exchange that occurs between onscreen and offscreen bodies such that together with their continuous influence on each other, they also seem to share the same metaphysical space of the screen.

Further reasons for downplaying the emphasis on the lived bodies of spectators and expanding this definition to include screen bodies and screen as body, include most importantly the desire to avoid presenting an overly solipsistic argument by overemphasizing the spectatorial experience. This is seconded by how Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener in their book chapter, “Cinema as Skin – Body and Touch,” acknowledge “all positions concentrating on skin, contact, and touch… [focus] more strongly on the receiving subject than on the filmic material: the aesthetic experience becomes more important than the aesthetic object” (130-1). And this kind of emphasis on the aesthetic experience of the spectator at the expense of the aesthetic object will grossly undermine the efforts the three films mentioned above took to incorporate a phenomenological approach to the suffering of onscreen bodies.

Having argued for this essay’s particular use of Sobchack’s theory of phenomenology, one further caveat needs to be made about the nature of the monstrous women to be discussed in this essay. Unlike in Barbara Creed’s essay, “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,” that deals mainly with the uncontrollable “generative mother seen only as the abyss, the monstrous vagina, the origin of all life threatening to re-absorb what it once birthed” (62), the female characters in the three films to be examined are all on the cusp of womanhood, and are therefore dealing with a different phase of a woman’s life cycle, separate from motherhood.

Instead these films are about female protagonists experiencing periods of great physical and emotional change hence the appropriateness in the use of the were-creature narrative, which is also about great and violent transformative moments. This is seen in how both Rosaleen in Company, and the eponymous Ginger are menarcheal women, and Irena is forced to grapple with her awakening female sexuality due to her romantic relations with and marriage to the male lead, Oliver, in Cat People. Thus what is at stake here is the refiguring of the innocence of a budding female sexuality into the body of a monstrous other used to terrorise women into fearing their own bodies. However, this essay will also suggest that these monstrous bodies on screen function as a kind of clarion call for the need for a change in the patriarchal narrative that aims to suppress and control female sexuality.

Teresa de Lauretis explains this patriarchal narrative by referencing the Oedipal myth and explaining how male-centred the myth is with Medusa and the Sphinx continuing to survive the test of time only as guests in the Oedipal narrative (579). By quoting Algirdas Julien Greimas, de Lauretis establishes that “the semantic structure of all narrative is the movement of an actant-subject toward an actant-object” (581), wherein the role of actant-object is invariably filled by woman who represents the “plot-space” of narrative completion (584). The problem arises when women become an obstacle to narrative closure by being “structurally insoluble” (589). De Lauretis explains this structural insolubility by referring to Freud’s writing on the “dark continent” of femininity, in which he describes femininity as a “riddle” and an “enigma” (580). Drawing a parallel between the “riddle of femininity” and the “riddle of the sphinx” (580-1), de Lauretis seems to suggest that if women remain an enigma they become narratively inassimilable in the Oedipal narrative and an obstacle to narrative closure. As such, the only way to circumvent this conundrum was to remove women from the equation altogether and refashion her through narrative strategies into an attainable object of desire, just as how “[Freud] first formulates – defines – the question and then answers it” (581).

The constructedness of woman is consistently represented across all three films. Oblique references to the societal machinery that aid in the narrativising of what it means to be woman are seen in the brief mention of Irena Dubrovna’s involvement in the fashion industry the first time we see her on screen watching and sketching the caged panther at the zoo looking for inspiration for her next collection in Cat People. Similar echoes of the insidiousness of this patriarchal machinery is seen in the mise en scene of Rosaleen’s room in Company which is full of the accoutrements of femininity like mirrors, make-up, dresses, magazines, dolls and doll houses. The manner in which these pieces of information are introduced – briefly and casually – and positioned such that they fade into the background of the films, allow them to form a kind of subconscious in the film text that resonates with the spectator in a way where it is both noticed and forgotten, lingering on the edge of consciousness such that this subtle foregrounding of the narrative machinery of the patriarchy turns the screen itself into a kind of cinesthetic body that does not just represent this aspect of lived reality but presents it in a kind of “ongoing present tense of sensory perception that, through technology, constitutes and enables the film for us and for itself” to be a lived reality (Sobchack, 74). The subversiveness in reproducing this lived reality comes from the knowing representation of it so it may be better deconstructed[1].

Ginger Snaps, on the other hand, offers more explicit critique of the way the patriarchal narrative molds women to fit male desire. For instance when Ginger delivers the line about how “girls can only be a slut, bitch, tease or the virgin next door,” it is directed not just at Brigitte but to the audience too. Furthermore, when the Fitzgerald sisters try and distract their mother from Ginger’s lycanthropy and the dead girl in the freezer by playing up feminine stereotypes like Ginger demanding not to be looked at because she feels “fat” and Brigitte asking their mother “what do guys want?” just as she opens the freezer to store some freshly purchased meat, degrees of interpellation amongst women start to emerge. The menarcheal maiden whose relevance to the patriarchy is only beginning to emerge is seen as not yet fully interpellated, and therefore in a position to buck against the descending constraints of the Oedipal narrative, versus the mother who has been fully inducted.

This is seen in the manner in which Pamela (Ginger’s and Brigitte’s mother) accepts these performances of femininity so unquestioningly. In Pamela, we see a woman who has become completely subsumed in the patriarchal narrative such that she appears out of touch with reality. There is a similar disconnect in the character of Rosaleen’s mother in Company who seems to have given up her power to tell stories and control her own narrative – and thereby control the image on screen – unlike Rosaleen, a menarcheal maiden, and her grandmother, the crone who has outlived her usefulness to the patriarchy, whose stories fill the runtime of Company with vividly interwoven narratives full of dramatic storytelling and visceral transformation sequences in an attempt to reclaim narratives for women.

Instead it is the direct confrontation with the lived body that brings these mother-figures back in touch with their lived reality. This is seen most clearly in Ginger Snaps, especially when Pamela’s lack of appropriate reaction to her daughters’ peculiar behaviours is juxtaposed against her husband’s, Henry’s, suspicion and horror. For instance, immediately after the sequence mentioned above where the girls seek Pamela’s advice on how to appeal to boys as a way of distracting her from finding Trina’s body that they have temporarily stored in the freezer, Pamela and Henry have the following exchange:

  • Henry: “I think they’re up to something.”
  • Pamela: “They’re just being normal teenage girls.”
  • Henry: “Then why are they suddenly so interested in what you have to say?”
  • Pamela: “Stay in your own little world, Henry. This one just confuses you.”

There are multiple shades of ‘normal’ that emerge from the above exchange. On one hand, what is considered ‘normal’ for Ginger and Brigitte is the staging of multiple, gorily made-up suicides[2] around their suburban house for a school project. On the other hand, for Pamela, “normal teenage girl” behavior is asking for advice on how to deal with boys. What is really abnormal is Pamela’s easy confusion between the two that demonstrates the high degree of anticipation Pamela feels towards fielding such questions – as if her daughters’ lives are unfolding according to a pre-existing schema. Most importantly, however, is the irony and mild-mannered tragedy of just how completely out of synch with reality Pamela is. The fact is, while a woman’s world would confuse Henry, Pamela is living a completely fictional existence written for her by the patriarchy that creates a barrier between her and her lived reality.

It is not until a later scene when Pamela and Henry discover Trina’s severed fingers in the garden that Pamela realizes what is going on. In this scene, again it is Henry who reacts immediately with a horrified exclamation when he sees the severed fingers while Pamela’s initial reaction is to wave the fingers off as props from “the girls’ death project” and chide him for being a “big baby.” However, the moment she picks up the fingers, the reaction shot of her face shows a dawning realisation that these fingers are indeed real, severed fingers. To link these two scenes back to de Lauretis’ theory about a circumscribing Oedipal narrative that aims to narrate a female experience, and Sobchack’s theory of a cinesthetic body as potentially subversive, it would seem that Pamela has been so enfolded in this Oedipal narrative that she has completely lost touch with her lived reality in comparison to Henry who has no problem interpreting the events around him because they live in a reality of patriarchal design; and it eventually comes down to visceral contact with these severed fingers to trigger a phenomenological response and realization that puts Pamela back in touch with reality, thereby snapping her out of this suffocating Oedipal narrative of suburbia and domesticity[3].

There are similar results for an array of characters across all three films where confronting monstrous bodies forces characters to engage and grapple with a lived reality that they seem to have forgotten about or been oblivious to. In Cat People, Irena is from a small Balkan village where the women turn into aggressive panther women when they experience heightened emotions or sexual arousal. Knowing this about herself, she avoids consummating her marriage to Oliver despite her love for him. However, instead of being met with patience and understanding, she is cheated on and forced to seek psychiatric help from a quack doctor whose best course of treatment for her supposed neurosis is to force himself on her in the final moments of the film, forcing her to kill him and flee to the zoo where she dies from a fatal wound she received from the doctor, and reverts to her panther form. It is only when Oliver and the other woman, Alice, see her carcass do they realize that her fear was real all along. Thus in Cat People we get a slight inflection on the idea of the Oedipal narrative because it is not just women who are circumscribed in this narrative about what it means to be woman, but men too have been fooled by this patriarchal narrative. Similarly in Company, when Rosaleen’s mother sees the silver crucifix hanging around the neck of the wolf near the end of the film, she is finally forced to acknowledge that the tales of werewolves grandmother and Rosaleen tell are not just old wives’ tales, and that that wolf before her was once her daughter.

The conflation of woman and beast in these three narratives also point towards the limited options the Oedipal narrative affords women. By having Ginger, Rosaleen and Irena be both the protagonists and antagonists of their respective narratives, these three women are forced to confront their dual and contradictory nature as “object of desire” and the “obstacle to be overcome” (de Lauretis). As such, we begin to see the Oedipal narrative start to collapse. Just as Ginger points out, women’s limited options boil down to playing the virgin or the vamp, resulting in the signs of female excesses that fail to fit into these roles being written on the body. As women who manifest masculine traits such as being sexually aggressive or having an active libido, they are given hirsute bodies, and in the case of Ginger, protuberances along her back and a false phallus in the form of a tail. As women with female excesses that defy the civilizing limits of the Oedipal narrative, they are made bestial and turned into panthers, wolves and in the case of Ginger, a pale sickly werewolf replete with extra teats along her torso.

Thus, the monstrous forms these characters take on can be considered a kind of catachresis – a “false and improper metaphor” that “forces us to confront and name a gap in language” (Sobchack 81), except that in this case it is a gap in cinematic representation. And just like de Lauretis points out, the true power of “monsters” lie in their nature as “beings awesome to behold, whose power to capture vision, to lure the gaze, is conveyed in the very etymon of the word ’monster’” (579). As such, the monstrous form of these female characters shifts the power of the gaze away from the beholder to that which is beheld. Audiences cannot help but stare, their vision “captured” against their will, thus forcing them to confront the catachresis represented by these monstrous forms. Furthermore, when we look at the etymology of the word “monster,” it goes back to the Latin forms monere and monstrum, both of which carry within them the meaning of “warning” and “portent.” Thus, the monstrous female form can be said to be subversive because it serves both to point out a gap in our representational structure when it comes to women and as a warning of the dangers of such a gap if it remains unaddressed.

The limits of the Oedipal narrative are further tested in the ends that these characters meet. When there is no other recourse but to kill off Irena and Ginger in order to achieve narrative closure, thereby turning them into tragic figures that failed to overcome their own natures, a disruption of the pleasure derived from what de Lauretis calls the “double identification” of “gaze” and “image” is created. De Lauretis debunks the false binary between “identification-with-the-look as masculine and identification-with-the-image as feminine” by pointing out “no image can be identified, or identified with, apart from the look that inscribes it as image, and vice versa” (586). As such, the female spectator must identify with both the “gaze” and the “image” – male protagonist and patriarchal conception of woman – in a “double identification” in order to derive pleasure at the movies (587), while at the same time imbibing the Oedipal narrative, assimilating it and being assimilated by it.

By reasserting women’s original status as obstacle to be overcome, which the Oedipal narrative tries to elide by turning women into objects of desire, a dissonance is created. The monstrous form that exceeds the roles set aside for women as object of desire in the patriarchal narrative, then produces a coenesthetic effect. Coenesthesia is defined as “the potential and perception of one’s whole sensorial being” and likened to the “general and open sensual condition of the child at birth” due to a “prelogical and nonhierarchical arrangement of the senses” (Sobchack 68-9). This would suggest that when audiences are confronted with a scene so drastically different from what they are accustomed to, a coenesthetic effect can be achieved because in seeing something they have never seen before, the scene would have a horizontalising effect on all the senses as the audience tries to make sense of what they are looking at.

For example, in Ginger’s final moments, her monstrous form is shrouded in chiaroscuro. The same thick strip of white light across her full breast and the site of penetration with a long carving knife also highlights the unusual choice of having a pale, mostly hairless and clearly gendered look for the beast. The coenesthetic effect of this serves to defamiliarise audience’s popular preconceptions of werewolves as physically imposing, dark-furred and male, hence forcing them to read the image and the werewolf narrative anew, as an extended metaphor for the biological transformations women have to face during puberty. Biological changes that are horrific enough in their own right but further exacerbated by an Oedipal narrative that puts women out of synch with their own bodies as seen in how Ginger’s growing monstrosity is closely marked by her refashioning of her public image to match the mold of male desire.

Similar coenesthetic effects are achieved in the transformation sequences in Company and while these transformation sequences happen to male werewolves in the film, they come to bear on the final image we have of Rosaleen as a fully transformed wolf if we read the image of the wolf with the silver crucifix as a narrative image. A “narrative image” is defined as a “the join[ing] of image and story, the interlocking of visual and narrative registers effected by the cinematic apparatus of the look” (de Lauretis 584). Thus, even though we are not shown the rending of flesh and the tearing of skin in Rosaleen’s transformation, we are conscious and aware of it because of the earlier scenes in the film. Perhaps the decision to omit an image of a skinless woman comes down to how “culturally taboo [it is] because, historically and artistically, the female is represented by her skin” (Esaesser and Hagener 137), so perhaps the filmmakers thought a skinless female character might be too anti-Oedipal, resulting in a narrative of unpleasure which would run counter to de Lauretis’ sensible call for a “women’s cinema [that] must embody the working through of desire: such an objective demands the use of the entertainment film” (577), if one aims to get one’s message about the need for change in the Oedipal narrative out into the world.

As a way of closing this essay while taking a long view of the future as to what these films can mean for women’s cinema, this essay would like to invoke Béla Balázs’ theory of physiognomy in his essay, “The Face of Man” while doing a close reading of the transformation sequences in Company. From “The Face of Man,” Balázs argues that when looking at a face we recognize “not a figure of flesh and bone, but an expression… emotions, moods, intentions and thoughts,” all of which are elements that exist outside of physical space (131), thereby turning the physiognomy of the human face into an abstract understood in a different “dimension” (131).

This understanding of the innate readability of the human face is problematized in Company when a major transformation sequence contains a transforming character tearing off his face piece by piece. Due to the clear graphic matches between shots of the transforming werewolf’s face and the intercutting with close-ups of the female face in the reaction shots, the spectator experiences the presence and absence of the human face simultaneously. However, by the end of the sequence, what is left in the absence of a human face on the denuded face of the werewolf, is the abstract dimension that Balázs talks about. Moreover, without a face as a focal point, there is a horizontalizing of the significance of face and body of the monster. Thus, instead of containing “expression” this dimension is suddenly emptied of meaning and becomes a space outside lived reality for the negotiation of possible new readings of the human face and body.

It is possible to extend this a little bit further by considering that this “other dimension” that Balázs talks about however, is not a free-floating dimension. Instead it bears a great resemblance to Sobchack’s lived body of the spectator because as mentioned at the start of this essay, the lived body of the spectator is both the site where “literal sense” of films is made through our powers of perception, and “[figurative] sense” or meaning of them is made too (58-9). As such, even as the screen on which these fantastic and horrific bodies are projected seems to provide the patriarchy with a kind of barrier behind which all the excesses of femaleness can take place without ever touching them, the lived body which is caught in a “chiasmatic relationship of perception and expression” with the screen (Sobchack 60), turns the screen into a permeable membrane, and carries within it the continuous negotiation of female sexuality posed by these monstrous onscreen bodies.

Works Cited

Balázs, Béla. “The Face of Man.” Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory & Criticism. 7th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 275-281.

Cat People. By Val Lewton and DeWitt Bodeen. Dir. Jacques Tourneur. Perf. Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph. 1942.

Creed, Barbara. “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” Screen: Oxford Journals (1986): 44-70.

de Lauretis, Teresa. “Desire in Narrative.” Corrigan, Timothy, Meta Mazaj and White Patricia. Critical Visions in Film Theory. Boston; New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2011. 575-593.

Elsaesser, Thomas and Malte Hagener. Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses. New York; London: Routledge, 2015.

Ginger Snaps. By Karen Walton and John Fawcett. Dir. John Fawcett. Perf. Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle. 2000.

Sobchack, Vivian. “What My Fingers Knew.” Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2004. 53-84.

The Company of Wolves. By Angela Carter. Dir. Neil Jordan. Perf. Angela Lansbury, Sarah Patterson and Stephen Rea. 1984.

[1] This much can be said for Company at least given that the script was written by Angela Carter, author of The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, and a known feminist who wrote extensively about the need to reclaim narratives for women.

[2] Death by Suburbia: death by white picket fence, death by lawnmower, death by garage door, etc.

[3] There’s even this wonderful image of Pamela putting the severed fingers inside a Tupperware so she might bring them to school to confront her daughters with that becomes a succinct visual argument about the encircling narrative of domesticity that contains the horror of the body.