Alexia L. Bowler
Lucy Bolton, Film and Female Consciousness: Irigaray, Cinema and Thinking Women, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 248 pp. (1129 words)
Often troubled by accusations of essentialism from various feminist critics, the philosophies of French feminist and psychoanalyst, Luce Irigaray, are currently seeing something of a renaissance in the academic arena. In part, this resurgent interest comes as a result of the transition from the women’s studies and feminist academic disciplines to gender, queer and cultural studies in many universities, all of which frame her work as part and parcel of a post-modern smörgåsbord of available theories from which to draw.
What is perhaps more interesting, however, is the post-millennial turn to Irigaray as a theorist who enables us to re-think (the language of) cinematic representations of women, the issue of female spectatorship and the film making praxis (specifically that of women film-makers). This ‘turn to Irigaray’ is evidenced by not one but two recent book-length studies on the connections between Irigaray’s philosophies and contemporary cinema.
Bolton’s Film and Female Consciousness: Irigaray, Cinema and Thinking Women (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) follows in the footsteps of the highly readable and engaging volume, A Feminine Cinematics: Luce Irigaray, Women and Cinema by Caroline Bainbridge (also published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2008). Bainbridge’s book, as the first full-length interrogation of the application of Irigaray’s ideas to film (shortlisted for the FWSA book prize in 2009) opened up a new discussion about women and film, issues surrounding representation and the issue of sexual difference, here added to by Lucy Bolton’s timely foray into the critical debates on feminist film.
Bolton’s own volume identifies her subject as the ‘thinking woman’ in cinema, and the possibility of representing female interiority, or consciousness, along with its consequent impact on the relationship between the spectator and film and/or female character(s). Bolton’s interest lies in the potential Irigaray offers for reworking cinematic language, and the language with which we speak of cinema which has inscribed itself in our lexis and in our appraisal and apprehension of the cinematic female. In order to do this, Bolton takes three contemporary films made by women: Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003), Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003) and Morvern Callar by Lynne Ramsay (2002), and situates them alongside three classic Hollywood movies made by notable male directors: Marnie by Alfred Hitchcock (1964), The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955) and Alan Pakula’s Klute (1971). Bolton sensitively, and with great insight (particularly in the case of Campion’s film), analyses the handling of representations of female consciousness, subjectivity and identity in both sets of movies, assessing the usefulness of Irigaray’s work in comprehending these films, understanding the women in them and discerning the processes involved in cinematic praxis at each stage.
The ‘nuts and bolts’ of the book are what you would expect from a volume outlining a new perspective or direction in feminist film studies, and in the first sections of the book, before Bolton situates her understanding of Irigaray’s potential for feminist film criticism and film praxis, she dutifully outlines the trajectory of feminist film theory from Mulvey, through Mary Ann Doane, Kaplan, Modleski, Kuhn, De Lauretis and Silverman, doffing her cap to Joan Riviere along the way.
The book frames its survey of cinematic portrayals and representations of female consciousness, interiority and subjectivity, using the ideas of Irigaray that relate particularly to the idea of the camera as an Irigarayan ‘speculum’ (or curved reflective device that requires a sense of interiority, rather than the flat, Lacanian, mirror that offers only the surface (mis)identification and (mis)representation of the subject based on a shallow visuality). She also posits the notion of ‘women’s’ cinema as a haptic cinema – one that uses colours, sounds, music and silence, as well as speech (and speaking differently). Women’s cinema, Bolton suggests is one that is built in such a way that dispenses with the phallogocentric premise of the director as ‘auteur’ and the notion of la caméra-stylo (camera as pen): terms coined by the Cahiers du Cinéma group in the 1950s and 1960s as a way of promoting the importance and ‘artistry’ of what was seen as a populist and low-cultural medium at the time, and instead ‘offers an alternative conception of the cinematic apparatus: one of horizontal relations between director, film subject, and spectator’ (p.194) Bolton states that in this relationship, which differs to the vertical one seen in the very concepts of la caméra-stylo and ‘auteur’, ‘each subject is irreducible to the other: through listening and viewing, and bodily experience different relations are built into the feminine and to the symbolic’ (p.194). In this way Bolton suggests that cinema could be permitted to be ‘seen as an art between women’. Bolton sees Campion, Ramsey and Coppola as practising such strategies, and as female directors whose authorship participates in a ‘filmic writing’ that is a ‘cinematic development of écriture féminine’, as proposed by Cixous, which has the potential to be a ‘model of filmmaking readable as a ‘cinécriture féminine’, and more aligned with Irigaray’s notion of parler femme‘ (p.195).
Particularly enjoyable and refreshing is Bolton’s use of contemporary mainstream cinematic texts alongside high theory (or at least films which skirt the margins of both the indie circuit and the mainstream). Often, too many academic texts, and I am thinking of Frampton’s Filmosophy here, utilise theoretical frameworks on elitist or classic cinema which, while unarguably and inherently worthy, says nothing about what, how and why the rest of us are watching today.
Bolton’s sense of Irigaray’s usefulness as a new way of looking at women in cinema (both as filmmakers and subjects of film) has produced what can only be described as a sensitive, intelligent and even encouraging study. In an discipline that sometimes feels as if it has all but stalled in favour of the now ubiquitous ‘male gaze’ and the ‘objectification’ of women as the crowning discovery of feminist film studies, much scholarship of this type struggles to find space in amongst a plethora of jostling frameworks and -isms.
Film and Female Consciousness is a fresh and engaging approach to what is often considered a well-trodden and even passé subject in film studies. Bolton’s book suggests a potential methodology for the future of feminist film criticism in a way that opens up new directions in a discipline that had contented itself with circuitous discussions surrounding the dearth of interesting and new representations of female subjectivity, identity and interiority in mainstream female characters. Bolton’s volume convincingly argues for a more fruitful and boundlessly discursive path for feminist film studies. As such, Bolton enthuses her reader, making them aware of cinema’s potential for exploring, engaging with and narrating female subjectivity in our contemporary world. In this way, Bolton’s book, alongside Bainbridge’s work, throws down the gauntlet to contemporary feminist film theorists, and indeed feminist filmmakers, encouraging them to forge ahead in new directions, allowing the ‘object to speak’.
Dr Alexia L. Bowler teaches across the College of Arts and Humanities at Swansea University. She is a member of RIAH / GENCAS at Swansea, as well as the FWSA. Her research focuses on the politics of cultural representation in twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature and film, with particular emphasis on feminism and popular culture, technology, the ‘real’ and the spectacle, as well as adaptation. She published the chapter, ‘Towards a New Sexual Conservatism in Postfeminist Romantic Comedy’ in Palgrave Macmillan’s Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (2013), co-edited by Nadine Muller and Joel Gwynne, and has articles and reviews in New Cinemas, Science Fiction Film and Television, the FWSA blog, and thirdspace: a journal of feminist theory and culture. In 2010, she also co-edited a special edition of the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies on adaptation with Jessica Cox (Brunel).